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Post Series: Essentials of Composition

In part 1 of this series on Essentials of Composition, I covered the basics of defining what composition is and why it’s important to the success of your nature photography. In this post we continue to explore basic principles to establish a foundation for “strong images.”


Consider two pictures, one that clearly captures the elements in the photograph in crisp detail, and a second that elicits a feeling of tranquility or a forgotten memory of a past experience. What exactly is the difference and why? How do we get a viewer to look past the literal and consider the meaning of an image? And how does this relate to composition?

To understand what’s at work here, we need to better understand how our brains interpret what we see. Two fundamental concepts to composition are relationships and how they work within the principles of gestalt theory. Now you may be thinking this is going to be some kind of theoretical analysis of vision. But whether or not you’ve heard them described formally, I’m sure you’ve used them in your own photography instinctually. In fact they’re hard wired into our brains as part of our evolutionary survival skill set. But knowledge is power, and knowing how these visual principles work will help you leverage them to make better images.

Relationships

Everything, and I mean everything in photographic composition is about relationships. Whether you create those relationships yourself through framing, or they already exist in nature, the effect is the same. How you compose a picture, what you choose to leave in verses exclude from the frame, and how those elements relate has a direct impact on the strength of the composition.

Now this may seem obvious to you, but what many do not appreciate is the difference between how we perceive these relationships and how they are perceived by the viewer of your images. This can be dramatically affected by focal length, camera perspective, the image format, and even shutter speed. Learning how to use the camera as a compositional tool can be extremely powerful in shaping not only what the viewer sees, but what they experience emotionally as well. 

Gestalt Theory

One particular concept that is useful to understand is the gestalt theory of visual perception. The standard definition of gestalt is:

A configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts.

In other words, it describes how people group visual elements into unified groups and associations, or how relationships are created and understood. In landscape photography this idea is the key between photographing merely subjects, and capturing more than what is actually seen. It means your images rely less on literal interpretations, and become more about sharing whatever it is that inspired the capture.

There are several principles of Gestalt theory that we can use in our photography. The ones I find most useful are:

  • Placement and proximity – elements that are close to one another are perceived as a group, and that impacts how that group relates to the rest of the composition.

proximity-ex
Groups of rocks or groups of vegetation become larger elements that let the eye see the greater picture. 

  • Similarity – elements that share similarities are perceived as a group. These similarities can be texture, color, the amount or color of light, or the amount of highlights or shadows.

similarity-ex
Similar elements are grouped together, allowing something out of the group to stand out.

  • Closure and Enclosure – this occurs when an object is incomplete or an area is not completely enclosed. If the enclosure is implied strongly enough, people will fill in what’s missing. Enclosure is when a very specific area is enclosed creating very strong compositional weight.

closure-ex
While each of the elements are not complete, the eye perceives them as completed, especially when they have borders or are enclosed by another larger element.

  • Continuation – this is when the eye is lead from one area to another via a direct line, or implied line. This is one of the strongest ways to lead the viewer to what’s important in the image, and emphasize or de-emphasize parts of a composition.

continuation-ex
Our eyes will continue an implied line when the elements are clear in their meaning and simplicity. 

Using these principles effectively involves training your eye to recognize them when scanning a landscape or setting up your shot. I often look for these relationships when first setting up my camera before I’ve attached it to my tripod. This gives me the flexibility to “scan” the landscape and see if something jumps out at me. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s a great way to start to “pre-visualize” the eventual composition. Let’s look at a few examples of gestalt principles in practice.

Examples

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Placement and proximity play a large role in unifying the clumps of trees so that they form larger elements in the composition, creating visual weight, leading lines, diagonals, and a clear path for the eye to follow from the bottom to the top of the image. What was I trying to emphasize?  My reaction to the dramatic and varying changes in color, texture, and feel of this landscape from top to bottom. Also note the yellow line which indicates the basic diagonal I tried to create using continuation.

 

RRjr_matera_111017_

com-example-3

This is a much more complex image which is usually the case in deep forest scenes like this one. A combination of gestalt principles are combined to make a stronger composition. The goal is to make the image simpler and apparently less cluttered that the scene appears. This creates a “quieter” image to borrow a musical term. Notice the single tree inside the red square that stands out from the rest and creates a focal point. This is using the principle of similarity in reverse. The yellow lines indicate placement and proximity, enclosure, and also similarity. The leaves are grouped in four separate groups which all share similar color and light. Finally, the orange lines indicate where I tried to create a foundation for the image by using the similarity in texture and color of the foreground. This also helps set the single tree apart from the rest since the bottom is not shown, but is nonetheless perceived though continuation

 

Bubble-Rock,-Acadia-NP

comp-example-1

The fundamental diagonal to this image, which helps create strong contrasting elements between light and dark, texture and smoothness, is created using continuation (indicated by the red line.) The orange circle indicates how the rock is perceived in its entirety since the dark shadows don’t really indicate the entire form, but the eye completes it because of continuation once more. Otherwise it would look like a multi-sided shape with round and square edges. And finally the yellow lines indicate very subtle repeating curves using the principles of similarity and continuation yet again. The effect is harmony and a visual simplicity to the image that moves the viewer to questions about meaning instead of the actual elements. 

Conclusion

I hope you can appreciate how these deceptively simple principles can be used effectively in very complex images to create simplicity and visual harmony. When someone says that a picture makes them feel a certain way, or elicits some emotional response, you can be sure that it’s the relationships between the elements that lets the viewer look past individual elements, and understand what the photographer was trying to convey.

If you’re in the field and having difficulty with composition, think about the basic principles of gestalt and how you might find larger elements within the details to unify the scene.

  • Perhaps an area with strong light can be emphasized to balance a darker area.
  • Maybe a single color can be used to unify an area that seems chaotic at first glance.
  • Remember that the edges of your frame create very strong “borders” that can really help to develop a relationship between elements.

The viewer could care less about detail, they want to be taken a journey in your landscape. That’s why I strive for in every image I make.

Practice once again is the key to letting this become second nature, together with looking at other great photographs and paintings.

Questions or comments, please let me know below – I’m always happy to answer and help in any way possible.

RR Jr

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This Post Has 8 Comments
  1. G’day Robert, and a Happy and photographically successful new year.

    I wanted to thank you for the above information; some of it I was aware of (leading lines and vanishing points), which I use as often as I see them. I do appreciate the Gestalt principles and will practise these groups and relationships and see what I can do with them. Everything is a learning experience.

    What I find interesting, as a very enthusiastic amateur (and wannabe semi Pro), is the various way we individually see an image.
    With the last image, the first element in the shot that caught my eye is the strong line that is formed by the Granite (I presume) shoulder, starting at the lower two thirds from the left, that led my eye to the ocean beyond. Even though the rock in a strong presence and an essential part of the image, it was more a distraction from this line. It can’t be ignored in the image as it gives so much weight to the overall scene (perhaps a tad too much to my eye) but there is still a good sense of balance.

    I intend nothing more than an observation about individual perspective, as I never feel qualified enough to critique anyone’s work.

    Two questions.

    How would one, in wanting to retain the image feel, perspective and texture, reduce the presence of a strong element such as this rock/boulder?
    I’ve never tried to do it but have several shots that have a similar strong element that I would like to do more with.

    Another question that comes to mind in considering the Gestalt principles is, do you ever look at a scene, and, not finding any of these elements, don’t take the shot; or do you always find something in every scene worth shooting to see if it works?

    Really appreciate your blog Robert. It’s got to be my favourite.

    All the best to you and yours.

    Wayne : )

    1. Hi Wayne, great to have you here and thanks for your valuable input – never feel hesitant about offering your opinion, after all your way of seeing is as valuable as any one else’s regardless of what the “authorities” say, especially when it comes to something as subjective as photography. Having said that, there are “rules” that we all should learn based on those who have come before us and established our visual literacy. We should all strive to make our “own” images, and therefore there is no wrong way of seeing, just more effective ways of conveying what we feel in a landscape.

      As to your specific questions, the first is a hard one because it implies imagining the same image without the boulder, in which case it becomes a different image and the choice of foreground to background relationship changes significantly. A short answer would be “eliminate the boulder from the composition”, but again that changes everything including the desire to make the image in the first place. It is the visual weight of the boulder that allows the other strong elements to work as they do, otherwise, I wind up with a bland sky a fairly feature less water in the distance. Perhaps it’s not really about any of this things, but rather the feel of being in the presence of nature’s mysteries?

      As to the second questions, I am motivated/inspired/overwhelmed by the experience of a landscape – whether grand or small. That implies I need to “feel” something first, and usually when I do, I use all of the visual tools to attempt a composition. Often I fail. But if I don’t feel moved to share, then all of the gestalt principles present in the scene just create a literal image. And yes, I have on hesitation to leave my camera in the bag and try again later…but I also believe in productivity for creativity, so that is a fine line to manage…

      RR

      1. Thanks Robert for your comments.
        I think you may have misunderstood my question due to a lack of clarity on my part.
        I was interested in the exercise of reducing the presence of a particularly strong object in a photograph as opposed to eliminating it altogether.
        I have several shots each different that would fit this mould, and looking at your shot reminded me of them and the attempt to reduce the strength of a particular object.
        Obviously, it would be different for every photo but there are principles that maybe could be applied to each situation.
        Of course, the other option is that I am on a goose hunt in crow territory. ; )

        Best regards

        Wayne

      2. Perhaps I tried to answer your question too conceptually, and didn’t really address that specific situation. In general a “strong object” is just that, and trying to minimizing it often leads to lack of clarity or worst clutter in an image. In general, there are no neutral elements in an image – either something adds or detracts. The only way to reduce the presence of a strong element is to introduce a stronger element, and that is a very subjective and difficult thing to do, and ultimately leads away from simplify, not closer to it.

        In the case of this particular photo, I’d have to eliminate the boulder completely, because including only a part of it, or placing it far away still calls attention to it since it is such a prominent geological feature. Hope that helps!

        RR

      3. Yes, I get that Robert. Thanks for the comments. I’m quite new at landscape photography and have a steep learning curve having been mainly interested in birds and flowers and dabbling a little in architecture. Finding an interest in landscape photography has opened my mind to a whole new way of looking at light, and your blog has been a large boost in getting up and running. I am also learning to sit and look at a scene, to watch the light play on the whole scape and to experience the variations in temperature and emotions.
        So thanks for your comments and the sharing of your experiences. It’s really a great help!
        I live in Oz and find that some of your images remind me of some areas here, but not many photographers in my area to bounce off.
        Thanks again Robert

  2. Well, I finally got around to reading this…had it noted, but wanted to spend more time with it than a quick read. ‘Lots of food for thought here…it can be a real challenge to be mindful of these principles when I’m in a situation with some amazing elements, patterns, colors, shadows, textures, and the light is changing fast…. ‘seems particularly the case this time of year with snow and ice, and the earliest light of the morning or latest light of the evening. ‘Very much appreciate the sharing of your knowledge and experience…much to learn here!

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