Gestalt theory in photography is where photography meets psychology, but it’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds. Also, it doesn’t apply to just photography, but to all aspects of art and design.
The theory was devised by a group of German psychologists in the 1920s to explore how we perceive the world around us.
Why use Gestalt theory in photography?
As photographers, if we can understand how our minds work, we can create compelling images that draw in and hold the viewer.
Gestalt theory in photography explains why certain rules of composition work.
When we understand why something works, it’s so much easier to put it into practice.
You’ll find this cheatsheet of Gestalt principles handy…
How does Gestalt theory in photography work?
Gestalt theory in photography is based on the idea that our brains automatically try to find structure and patterns to simplify and organize a complex image made of many elements.
It groups together parts of an image instead of treating at it as a series of unconnected elements. According to Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, this is summarised as “the whole is other than the sum of the parts”.
As a photographer, when you compose a well organized image, you help your viewers to see the image as a whole, which makes your message easier to understand. We do this using Gestalt principles.
Which Gestalt principles are being used in this image? Read on to find out.
What are the Gestalt principles in photography?
Gestalt principles, also called Gestalt laws, make up Gestalt theory. Principles of Gestalt theory in photography include:
1. Figure to ground
7. Common fate
As we go through these principles, remember that when we view an image we’re not at all lazy. Humans are actually more interested in an image if they have to work a little. Not too much, mind, because that’s what this is all about – making it easy for the viewer to figure out the image.
But if the viewer has to work a little to fill in the gaps of what they see, they’re more engaged in the image.
I’ll remind you of this along the way.
A man and his granddaughter are the clear subjects of this image, because they stand out against a busy background full of people.
1. Figure to Ground relationship
In a nutshell: differentiate the subject from the background
Before applying any other Gestalt principles you must first understand the figure ground relationship.
If you’ve ever wondered why a blurry background is the goal of so many portrait photographers, it’s because of the figure to ground relationship.
This is not as complicated as it sounds. An image has two parts – the figure and the ground. The figure is the subject and the ground is the background and or foreground of the image, i.e. the rest of the image.
So the figure to ground relationship is simply about how those two parts, the figure and the ground, form an image.
The figure (aka focal point or subject) must stand out from the rest of the image.
The reason this relationship is important is because our eyes automatically try to work out which is the figure and which is the ground. We’re trying to understand the image. Our eyes should go to the figure (subject) first and then the background and or foreground (ground).
Further reading: Secrets of great focal point composition
When we can easily determine the subject and the background, the figure-ground relationship is stable. When the difference is unclear, the figure-ground relationship is unstable.
A perfect example of an unstable figure-ground relationship is Rubin’s vase. Some people will see two faces, others will see the vase. However, nobody can see both at the same time.
Rubin’s vase shows two faces in white with the black background forming a vase shape. It can also be viewed as a black vase against a white background, which happens to form to faces.
How to create a stable figure to ground relationship
You’re about to go aah. This is where Gestalt theory in photography becomes more familiar.
Photographers have a few tools to help separate the subject from the background and guide the viewer’s eye. They include:
- Depth of field
The subject is in sharp focus and the background is out of focus, because I used a shallow depth of field to establish the figure ground relationship.
Depth of field
Our eyes are drawn to the in-focus part of an image first. So using a shallow depth of field to make the background and foreground blurry, helps the viewer go straight to the in-focus subject.
Further reading: Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition
Because we scan for differences to help us separate parts of an image, contrast is a powerful tool to use. There are many types of contrast that we use in photography composition. Here are two:
In an image of light and dark areas, our eyes will first go to the light areas. When our eyes roam around an image they will constantly be pulled back to the light areas from the dark areas.
So, if the background is darker than the subject, your viewer’s eyes will be irresistibly drawn to the subject.
That said, if you place a dark subject against a light part of the background, the subject will again stand out as the viewer is drawn to the light area where the subject is.
If we then add a shallow depth of field to the mix, the subject is unmistakable.
Further reading: How to use tonal contrast in photography
Colors are divided into warm colors and cool colors and our eyes are drawn to warm colors more strongly than to cool colors.
A figure dressed in red, for example, in a landscape of greens or blues will demand our attention.
Further reading: What is contrast photography and how to use it well
The subject is clear and stands out in this image, because she’s framed by the pillars and is wearing red against a blue background, so we can say the figure ground relationship is stable.
A subject that’s isolated from the rest of the image stands out as the figure, even if the image is filled with many other elements.
Aside from depth of field and contrast, you can also isolate a subject with:
- Framing – position your subject standing in a doorway.
- Filling the frame – getting in close to make the subject fill the entire image.
- Simplicity – in a minimalist composition the subject will stand out.
Further reading: 4 ways to use isolation in photography composition
2. Gestalt law of similarity
In a nutshell: our eyes group together similar elements
We see objects that are similar in shape, size, color and texture as belonging together, like a flock of sheep. According to Gestalt theory, this is our brain simplifying the parts of the image to make it easier to read.
This is why in family photography it works if your subjects are wearing similar colors. Not exactly the same, as that’s going too far, but a good rule of thumb is to use different shades of up to three colors that work well together.
In a busy scene, using the law of similarity will simplify the image, which is particularly useful in street photography.
For example, imagine using a slow shutter speed to photograph a crowd of people moving, with just one person standing still. The blurred moving people will be grouped as one while the still person in clear focus will stand out.
Immediately there’s more of a story.
It’s not just a photo of a person standing around. That person is different from everyone else in the shot and the viewer then asks why is that person standing still? Or why is everyone else rushing around? There’s a visual contrast that engages our minds.
Because, according to the Gestalt law of similarity, our brains group together similar objects, we create patterns of these objects. Breaking this pattern with a different object, the subject, immediately draws the eye.
Further reading: Pattern in photography composition makes photos interesting
The repeating pillars on the right and lights on the left form leading lines that converge into the distance behind the subject. This the Gestalt law of continuance, a version of the Gestalt law of similarity.
3. Gestalt law of continuance
In a nutshell: the viewer’s eyes are taken beyond the subject and continue through the image
Remember my point earlier about the viewer liking to have to work a little when viewing an image? The law of continuance is one such example.
When we see an image with lines that go to the image edges, like a road or row of streetlights, our minds assume that the lines extend beyond the edge of the frame. We know that the road doesn’t just end there.
We naturally fill in the gaps for the areas of the image that we can’t see.
Photographers use this logic to take the viewer on a journey around the image by using leading lines to lead to the subject and sometimes beyond.
If you know anything about leadings lines, you’ll know that they don’t have to be actual lines. They can be implied, like a row of streetlights, which forms a line.
If you thought, hang on, that’s the law of similarity, you’d be right. We’ve just seen with the law of similarity, that our brains group together similar objects as one.
However, when it comes to a line of streetlights, the law of continuance (also called the law of continuity) uses the law of similarity in a more focused way. It specifically creates lines of similar objects that we use to lead the eye around the image.
This is because, according to the Gestalt law of continuance, when we spot a series of similar elements that form a line or curve, our eyes flow from one element to the next trying to assess the relationship between them.
So, a series of streetlights becomes a line and can be used in photography composition as a leading line. Not an actual line, of course, but an implied line.
Further reading: How to use leading lines for awesome photography composition
We can only see the arms and legs of the grandfather, but we know that he’s in the grass and they’re playing with each other by the child’s expression. Our mind fills in the blanks using the clues in the image. Not that you’d know he was her grandfather unless I’d told you, but you get my point.
4. Gestalt law of closure
In a nutshell: our brains fill in the gaps
The Gestalt law of closure states that our brains will complete shapes that don’t actually exist. So we don’t need to have all the information to understand an image. In fact, our brains like to work a little to complete the image, because it’s more interesting that way.
We’ve already seen with the laws of similarity and continuance that our brains follow lines and curves, even when part of the object is not visible.
So, as a photographer, it helps to see your scene as shapes, rather than individual elements, to compose in a way that makes your image more engaging.
For example, in the image below, even though we can see her legs from the knee down only, we know that she has thighs too, so our mind fills in the gaps. Using the law of closure gives the viewer something to do and makes the image more engaging.
You can take the law of closure a step further by experimenting with tonal contrast, like in this image below. It’s a high contrast image with bright highlights and deep shadows that I took to the extreme in post production.
Even though there’s very little information to tell us that it’s a photo of a woman, we know it is. In addition, it’s an attention holding image, because the viewer becomes more engaged in the photo while their brain completes the image.
Our minds fill in the blanks by following the lines to decipher this portrait of a woman. We don’t need to see everything to know it’s there.
5. Gestalt law of proximity
In a nutshell: objects that are near each other are perceived as belonging together
Our brains want to reduce confusion and chaos. So they group objects that are close together as one unit rather than seeing them as individual objects.
The objects don’t need to be similar to each other to be seen as one when they are close together. In fact, the law of proximity is so powerful that it overrides the law of similarity.
In portrait photography, if you use the Gestalt law of proximity to breakdown a large group photo into smaller units, you’ll make the image easier for the viewer to understand and appreciate.
Even though the youngest daughter is separate from the family group, she’s linked because of the connected gaze between her and her mother.
If you intentionally position a subject separate from the group, you’ll not only draw attention to them, but also add to the message of the photo.
That doesn’t mean that everybody in a family photo must always be together to show the family unit. As long as they’re connected to each other in some way, for example by looking at each other, they’ll be part of the same group. Plus, it deepens the story.
Further reading: Why the rule of odds dramatically improves photography composition
Using a shallow depth of field further highlights the proximity of the subjects to each other, especially if there are others in the background, as in the photo towards the top of this article.
The subject (figure) is separated from the background (ground) with a shallow depth of field, causing a blurry background.
6. Gestalt law of segregation
In a nutshell: your subject must stand out from the background
This takes us back to the first Gestalt principle I mentioned of figure to ground relationship. If the subject blends into the background, the viewer won’t easily be able to tell the subject (figure) from the rest of the image (ground).
This is particularly important if your subject is small in frame. While this is a great way to lend scale to a subject and make it seem small and vulnerable in the larger landscape, you must ensure that it is separated from the background in some way.
Refer back to the points on Figure Ground for how to do this using:
- Depth of field
The family is closely grouped together using the law of proximity and they’re also dressed in shades of blues and greys, so the law of similarity highlights their family unit. There’s one other Gestalt law in use. Can you spot it?
7. Gestalt law of emergence
In a nutshell: the whole image is identified before the parts of the image
The law of emergence is not something you can use often in photography. However, I think it’s important to know, especially if you like to be playful with your composition to make a photo a little more interesting.
When you use the principle of emergence, you ensure that an element of the photo is not immediately obvious. It only becomes visible after studying the image for a while.
For example, in the above image, did you notice the dog in the grass?
Not only are the children grouped as one, because of the laws of similarity and proximity, the law of common fate is also used as they’re moving in the same direction. The cyclist however is going in the other direction and is separate from the group of three.
8. Gestalt law of common fate
In a nutshell: objects going in the same direction are grouped together
It’s similar to the law of proximity, but with the law of common fate, the emphasis is on the objects moving in the same direction.
In the above image the three children are running in the same direction and the cyclist is going in a different direction. They’re clearly two different groups.
If one of the children was running towards me, instead of away from me like the other two children, the viewer would perceive three groups:
- Two children running away
- One child running towards me
- A cyclist
We see this at work in sport. Of course in most team sports their uniforms are very different, so our minds group them with the law of similarity.
However, let’s use cricket as an example, because the dominant color of all players’ uniforms is white. Yet when the camera pulls back as someone is about to be knocked out we can clearly see the fielding team moving in towards the batsmen.
Gestalt theory in photography conclusion
There are a few more Gestalt principles, but these are a great start for photographers of all skill levels.
Hopefully you now have a deeper understanding of the rules of photography composition and why they work, but also why they can still work when you knowingly break them. Knowingly – that’s the key word
Further reading: 19 photography composition rules you need to know to be awesome
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