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Gestalt theory is perhaps one of the least understood aspects of art theory. It may seem complex or over-academic, but look beneath the surface and you’ll find some good ideas that help you with composition.
Gestalt evolved in the 1920’s as a way of explaining how we visually perceive the world around us. With relation to photography, it looks at ways the human mind simplifies a chaotic scene into recognizable patterns and shapes.
I won’t go deep into the theory here, but I can show you some of the ways that gestalt theory helps improve your photographic composition.
This gestalt theory principle states that we are more likely to perceive a pair or group of objects that are physically close to each other as belonging together, than we would if they were further apart.
How can you use this in photography? The answer is that if you want to show a close relationship between people, then group them together in the frame.
In the photo below, made in a remote Bolivian village, the two children stood together and looked into the camera as I made their portrait. The closeness implies that they know each other, that they are comfortable in the other’s presence.
When you look at this portrait it’s hard not to see them as one person, or one subject. They belong together, because they are close together.
But in this photo the children are standing apart. Now we see them as individuals, as two separate people with their own characters and identities.
Gestalt theory also says that we perceive subjects with a similar size, color or shape as belonging together.
Here are a couple of examples. In the photos below the playing cards and the typewriter keys are both clearly part of a group.
Proximity is also at work here, especially in the photo of the playing cards. The two ideas are working together and reinforcing each other.
In a similar way, you can look for groups of two or more items in your compositions. You can apply this idea to people as well as objects, as I did in the first photo of the two Bolivian girls.
This part of gestalt theory explains the way that our minds complete shapes that are incomplete or broken.
This ties in neatly with the compositional skill of learning to recognize shape and building it into the design of the photo.
For example, in the photo below, the pole interrupts the line of the wall and the shadow behind it, yet we still see it as a continuous straight line. Our mind automatically fills in the gap created by the pole.
Shapes are powerful building blocks for your compositions, especially in black and white photography.
This principle of gestalt theory states that our minds assume that lines extend beyond the edges of the photo.
In the photo below this helps create a sense of depth and scale. Our minds naturally believe that the road and buildings continue beyond their vanishing points. I emphasized this by using a wide-angle lens to exaggerate the sense of space.
Gestalt theory says that for people to be recognizable in a photo they must stand out from the background. That helps us see them when they’re small in the frame.
You can use this idea by including human figures in photos like landscapes to help show scale. This works as long as they’re easy to see and don’t merge into the background.
I got lucky in the photo below. I had the camera on a tripod and had framed the scene exactly the way you see it when two girls walked past me, climbed up on one of the rocks and started playing a game. They’re blurred (thanks to the 30 second shutter speed) but still recognizable as people. That’s largely because their silhouettes are easy to see against the brighter sky.
Their inclusion helps you see how big the rocks are (scale) and adds a point of interest.
The emergence principle is that we may not notice something in a photo when we first look at it, but it becomes apparent after we study it.
For example, look at the photo below.
How long did it take you to notice the cow’s head above the singer?
This gestalt theory idea helps explain why including some sort of visual surprise in a photo adds interest and depth. You’re giving the viewer a reward for engaging with the photo. It adds an extra layer of interest and gives the photo staying power.
Gestalt theory and composition
Mastering composition is about going beyond basic principles like the rule of thirds to understand the deeper principles at play. The six ideas in this article are based on gestalt theory, but they all help you improve the composition of your photos.
You can practice these ideas by setting yourself some composition assignments. For example, make a photo of two people or objects that are so close together they merge into one subject. Or make a landscape photo that uses converging lines receding into the distance to create a feeling of distance and space. Setting yourself a task like this then analyzing the results is a great way to improve your photography.
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