The 12 Formal Tools of Photography

The formal tools of photography are defined as means of expression inherent to the constraints of the medium. In other words, they are ways to get your point across that are unique to photography.

 

They are called "formal" because they affect the form of the final image -- the pixels themselves. The composition and content are conveyed purely through the form of the photograph, so you can see how important it is to get the form right.

The formal tools are so tied up with what makes photography photography that you must use them. A choice for each of the formal tools is required in order to make a photograph at all, whether the photographer makes the choice or a machine does it.

The only question is whether you, the photographer, make choices that support your intent. If so, you'll communicate more effectively with your viewers. Photographs with clear intent get more attention, elicit emotion, sell prints.

As it happens, the formal tools of photography are also helpful metaphors for training your intuitive mind. The idea is to practice manipulating each of the formal tools until they become second nature. Then you'll photograph more intuitively, which allows your rational mind to finalize the details.

This is extremely fortunate for aspiring photographers, because it speeds up the process. The formal tools interact in complex ways that are highly suited to processing by the intuitive mind. Many classic accomplished photographers spent decades training their intuitive minds by trial and error. Diligent practice with the formal tools should shorten the process dramatically.

 

I derived the formal tools from the constraints of the medium, which in turn come from the materials and methods of the medium:

Fundamental Materials and Methods of Photography

  • Light

  • Lens

  • Sensor or film

  • Making an exposure

  • Processing

Which logically give rise to...

Constraints of the Medium of Photography

  • Must have light

  • Must focus at some distance

  • Must choose an angle of view

  • Must choose a time of exposure and an exposure duration

  • Must choose a camera position

  • Must select what to show in the frame

  • Must choose a frame shape (horizontal, vertical, square or whatever)

  • Must place the subject somewhere in the frame

  • Must decide how to process the image

From each of these I derive one or more formal tools of photography:

:: 1. Light Quality & Direction

Directional light creates shadows that help viewers see the shapes of your subjects. By choosing whether the light is hard or soft, and where it comes from in relation to the subjects, you tell the viewer what to look at, how you felt about the subject, and much more. Directionless light gives the viewer a chance to see only the colors and shapes of the objects presented.

:: 2. Focus & Bokeh

Viewers understand that the most-sharply-focused part of a photograph is the most important. Soft, smooth bokeh has been used for portrait backgrounds forever, because it prevents distractions.

:: 3. Angle of View

Human vision has an angle of view about the same as a 50mm lens on a full-frame camera. Wider or longer focal lengths create effects in the image simply because we are not used to seeing that way. Wide angles of view exaggerate the relative sizes of near and far objects. Narrower angles of view do the opposite: reduce the relative sizes of what's closer and further from the lens.

:: 4. Moment

The precise moment you choose to record in a still photograph carries a great deal of expressive potential. Review the work of the classic street photographers to see what I mean.

:: 5. Shutter Speed

While we often simply want a fast enough shutter speed to avoid blurring due to camera motion, there are plenty of expressive ways to make photographs with longer exposures, particularly for indicating subject motion. A flash in a dark room lets us shorten exposure duration to 1/30,000th of a second.

:: 6. Frame Shape

The typical options for frame shape are horizontal and vertical. But with high resolution cameras we can feel free to crop to square or panoramic. The longer the rectangle, the greater emphasis you place on lines parallel to the long side.

:: 7. Selection

Selection is what you frame in. It's what you choose to show, out of the infinitude of possibilities. It may seem obvious that photographers must make a selection. But do you always take great care over what's in the frame?

:: 8. Framing

Framing is the subject's relation to the frame edges, or where the background elements end up in relation to the frame edges and corners. Look carefully around your frame borders to make sure no distracting elements acquire emphasis simply because they sit very near an edge or a corner. Or, place important elements in corners or at edges if that suits your intent.

:: 9. Vantage Point

Because you always have to put the camera somewhere, it's easy to forget the importance of the vantage point. Your chosen vantage point determines exactly what picture elements overlap, combine, interfere or obscure what you intended to show as the three dimensions in front of the lens get translated into two dimensions on the sensor.

:: 10. Color

We have incredible control over the color in processing. Your choices include monochrome, monochrome with a tint, duotone, or full color with each area separately refined precisely as you desire.

:: 11. Contrast

The default contrast provided by your RAW processing software never suits your (okay, my) purposes. A great deal of expressive potential lies in the fine control of your contrast overall, at fine scales, in selected areas of the image, within tonal ranges, within color ranges, and finally to the pixel level as sharpening.

:: 12. Tonality

You need not be Ansel Adams to place your tones precisely where you want them. All photographs, including those in color, benefit greatly from setting the whites and blacks, manipulating bright areas and shadows, and perhaps adjusting brightness or shadow detail on selected areas.

Conclusion

Consciously deciding how to express your intent with the formal tools of photography, one at a time, will train your rational mind and in turn your intuitive mind, to make better photographs.

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