In all my years of printing and teaching printing workshops, the single most important thing…
2. Essentials of Composition: Relationships and Gestalt Theory
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.