Skip links

Formal Qualities of a Photograph A Comprehensive Guide to the Aesthetic Elements that Make a Photograph Stand Out


Photography is an art form that has captivated people from all walks of life, as it allows us to capture the essence of a moment and tell stories through visuals. Mastering the aesthetic elements of a photograph can significantly elevate the quality of your work, and in this blog post, we’ll delve into the key formal qualities of a photograph. By understanding and applying these principles, even a budding photographer can create stunning images that captivate viewers.

In looking at the critique of photography, I want to start out by looking at the formal qualities of a photograph. In this post I will attempt to list out all the formal qualities of a photograph. In the future, I will use this list, and whatever might be added to it, to tease out certain styles of photography which might eventually lead me to better understand how photographers might critique each other.


photograph of a red guitar and a small vox amplifier on a white background
Photo by John Wayne Hill

The list:


    • depth of field
    • perspective
    • light
    • focus
    • composition
    • rule of thirds
    • leading lines
    • shadow
    • contrast
    • detail
    • clarity
    • saturation
    • shapes
    • framing
    • looking into/out of the frame
    • abstract
    • approach
    • expression
    • theme
    • texture
    • value
    • angle
    • background
    • balance
    • contour
    • vantage point



Depth of Field & Perspective

Depth of Field

Depth of field refers to the area in a photograph that appears sharp and in focus. A shallow depth of field means only a small portion of the image is in focus, while a deep depth of field keeps more of the scene in focus. For example, a portrait with a blurry background highlights the subject, creating a shallow depth of field.


Perspective refers to the angle and position from which a photograph is taken. Changing your perspective can drastically alter the way a subject appears, creating new visual interest. For example, photographing a building from a low angle can make it appear more imposing and monumental.

orange sky and sunset over a dark beach
Photo by John Wayne Hill

Light & Shadow


Light is an essential element in photography, as it determines the mood, texture, and atmosphere of an image. Manipulating light, whether natural or artificial, can create depth and dimension. For example, golden hour light casts a warm, magical glow on subjects.


Shadows add depth and contrast to a photograph. They can also create a sense of mystery or drama. For example, using side lighting in a portrait can create bold shadows, emphasizing the subject’s facial features.

Composition Techniques

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a compositional guideline that divides an image into nine equal parts using two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines. Placing the subject or focal points along these lines or intersections creates a more balanced and visually appealing image.

Leading Lines

Leading lines are elements in a photograph that guide the viewer’s eye toward the main subject or a specific point of interest. These can be natural, such as a river, or man-made, such as a pathway.

Rain on a screen on a window in San Francisco looking out onto the street
Photo by John Wayne Hill

Additional Formal Qualities

Contrast, Detail, and Clarity

Contrast refers to the difference between the light and dark areas of a photograph, while detail and clarity refer to the sharpness and definition of an image. High contrast and sharp details can make an image more visually striking.

Saturation, Shapes, and Framing

Saturation refers to the intensity of colors in an image. Rich, vibrant colors can make a photograph more visually appealing. Shapes and framing involve arranging elements within the frame to create a cohesive and harmonious composition.

Theme, Texture, and Value

Theme refers to the overall message or story conveyed by a photograph, while texture and value deal with the tactile and tonal qualities of the image. These elements can add depth and emotion to a photograph.

Angle, Background, and Balance

The angle at which a photograph is taken can impact its overall composition, while the background can either complement or detract from the subject. Maintaining balance within a photograph can create a sense of harmony and stability.

Contour and Vantage Point

Contour refers to the outline or shape of objects within a photograph, while vantage point refers to the position from which the photograph is taken. These elements can contribute to the overall visual impact of an image.

Portrait of John Wayne Hill in San Francisco, CA
Portrait of John Wayne Hill in San Francisco, CA


By understanding and applying these formal qualities of a photograph, even an amateur photographer can create striking images that captivate viewers. Experimenting with different techniques and finding your own unique style will take your photography to new heights. Remember, photography is an art form, and practice is essential for growth and improvement. So, grab your camera, head out into the world, and explore the endless possibilities that these aesthetic elements offer.

Design Is Hard Mark - Light

Explore My Unsplash Page

If you’re looking for more inspiration and examples of these formal qualities in action, be sure to check out my Unsplash page. I’m constantly updating it with new images that showcase various techniques and styles. Join me on my photographic journey, and let’s learn and grow together in the fascinating world of photography.

View Unsplash

Leave a comment