6 Principles of Gestalt Psychology That Can Improve Your Photography

Psych yourself into stronger photographs

Want to give your photography skills an upgrade? Wouldn't it be great if you could get people to spend more time looking at and appreciating your photos? Learn and understand these principles of Gestalt Psychology, developed over 90 years ago!

As a photographer, you may be looking for ways to infuse your photography with a more dynamic feel, filled with the lines, form and tension, with the kind of excitement successful photographs have in common. Want to tap into this not-so-secret source that many photographers—consciously or subconsciously—use every day to create great images? Let's take wayback machine, go back in time, and learn about Gestalt Psychology.


Gestalt Better Photography Example


Closure in the '20s

Specifically, let's dial back to the 1920s. That's when a group of German psychologists, following the lead of their founder Max Wertheimer, developed a group of theories of visual perception they referred to as The Gestalt Principles. These principles tried to describe how people perceive and process visual information.

The origin of the word Gestalt is German/Austrian, and it simply means: Shape, Form, or the Whole. It is often stated in this theory that, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” It is this perception that has had the most controversy since the very beginning.

Some experts in the field say that each of the individual parts has meaning on its own. In other words, the whole is not necessarily made up of the sum of its parts, but different than the sum of its parts.


Gestalt Better Photography Example

This is what Kurt Koffa, one of the brilliant minds behind the Psychology said. Kurt Koffa was born in Berlin, and worked under Wertheimer. Because he was fluent in English, he was able to bring the Gestalt Principles to America where they were mistranslated. What Koffa meant to say was, “ The whole exists independently from the component parts.”

What does this have to do with photography?

OK, this is where I come in:

When we use these six Principles of Gestalt in our photography, we’re working with and structuring these parts (if you will) that will eventually make up the whole…as in a completed photograph.

The methods we use to gain attention to our photography will vary, but what’s important is how we manage what the viewer perceives and processes when looking at a photograph. Visual input and perception of the world around us is a part of our everyday life, and as photographers it’s our prime objective to present this visual information in a way that takes control of what the viewer sees when looking at our imagery.

The more ways we can have the viewer move around our composition, while at the same time leaving and entering it through the use of these concepts, the longer they will stick around. The more things we can get the viewer to discover while moving around the frame will also keep them looking at and enjoying our photos longer. Isn’t that what we want?

To be sure, the whole is important, but the parts that make it up are equally important. These concepts are visual rules, and I agree that once the parts are placed and the composition is framed, the whole does exceed the sum of its parts.

In this photo of the old car, the parts are: the Information type of Texture which alludes to the age and history of the car, the “I like Ike” bumper sticker, getting “up close and personal,” and the abandoned environment. When you put them all together, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.    


Gestalt Better Photography Example


Moving up a notch

These Principles will take our photos to what I refer to as “moving up a notch.” To me, it’s so important to consider these concepts in our photography.  Great images can come when these concepts work in harmony with your photography.

When you look around, Gestalt is everywhere, and always has. It’s just that you may not have known the name. What’s important to know is that you’ve been using these Principles since the time you were crawling around the floor looking for your pacifier. For example, the age old adage of whether the glass is half full or half empty falls under the Gestalt concept called “Figure Ground.”

Although there might be others, the six concepts I feel are the most important as they relate to photography are: Figure-ground, Closure, Continuance, The Law of Common Fate, Similarity, and Proximity.


Gestalt Better Photography Example


1: Figure-Ground

Figure-Ground refers to the relationship between an object and its surroundings. Do you see the figure in front of you or the background?  Sometimes, it’s easy to pick out the Figure, which is the object  (the positive space) from the Ground, which is everything else (the negative space).

But it can be difficult, at other times, to pick out the figure from the ground.  It’s important to keep a balance between the negative and positive space as well as making the figure a quick read. In other words, be sure to make a clear distinction between the figure and the ground.


Gestalt Better Photography ExampleNegative example: In the photo at right of the mom and kid, it’s hard to tell where the figure ends and the ground begins.

I typically like to have the subject (Figure) stand out and be clearly defined. In these situations, I want the ground to support the figure. I can do this by controlling my depth of field by using a longer lens, the use of contrast (either dark and light areas) or making the Negative Space define the Positive Space (the subject). I can also separate the figure from the Ground by the use of color and size.

Another use of Figure-Ground is to create the feeling of the Figure being small and lonely. By making the Ground the overwhelming part of your composition, this message will come across to the viewer.


Gestalt Better Photography Example


Placing the skier in the bottom of the frame, where he’s close to each edge and the corner, also adds visual tension. This is when forces (the skier and the edges of the frame) act in opposition to one another; as in the skier about to bump into the two edges and the corner.

There’s a term called Figure-Ground Ambiguity where the viewer doesn’t know what the subject is and what is the background.


Gestalt Better Photography Example


In the photo of the man diving off the cliff, what is the real subject? Is it the incredible sky or is it the man diving?

An interesting note here is the intentional modification of the Figure-Ground that comes in the form of Camouflage. This is when we want to blend the figure and the Ground together. Strange as it might sound, Grant Wood (as in the famous painting called American Gothic) helped develop the Camouflage used during World War I.


Gestalt Better Photography Example


2. Closure

One of the ways to keep the viewer involved in our photographs is to have them complete an image, a form, or an idea. In other words, fill in the ______. That's Closure.

The brain has the ability to complete an unfinished form or subject and fill in the missing pieces. If enough of the shape is indicated, the viewer will perceive the whole. The viewer will also accept the fact that the forms are completed outside of the frame.

By having the viewer work at filling in the missing pieces in an image, he becomes an active participant, and he’ll stick around longer looking at our photographs. When the viewer forms the closure, a sense of pleasure exists. However, photographs that are more ambiguous create an enigma that will require even more time on the part of the viewer. A very good thing!

Our mind will also react to patterns or even words that are familiar, even though the information is incomplete or wrong. For example, read the following sentence:

I -m s-re th-t y-- w-ll b- -ble to und-rsta-d th-s s-ntenc- (I am sure that you will be able to understand this sentence).

Although more than 25 percent of the letters have been omitted. The mind is quite capable of bridging the gaps that were left in the sentence.

If you have the abitily to raed this txet, it’s a sgin taht Gestalt is at wrok.

One thing to be careful of is that the viewer is used to receiving information in an organized manner, and could become somewhat dissatisfied if he has to make too much of an effort to comprehend what it is that he doesn’t see. To me, the risk is worth it as it creates Visual Tension, which promotes good photographs.


Gestalt Better Photography Example


3. Continuance

In this concept, the viewer has an instinctive tendency to follow a path, river, beach, fence line, tree line, steps, railroad tracks, etc. These compositional elements are very important; they provide a way for the viewer to travel around our frame, and if these elements leave the frame, all the better.

As I said earlier, we want to give the viewer multiple ways to leave and enter our frame. The viewer is more apt to follow an established course, and stay on it; especially if there’s some payoff at the end. An example would be if you had a river going out and returning into your composition.

The viewer will also want to know what someone is either looking at or pointing at in our pictures, especially if they’re looking or pointing out of the frame.


Gestalt Better Photography Example


In the photo of the cowboy, visual tension is generated by placing him close to the edge of the frame and having him looking somewhere outside of the frame. It’s wondering where he’s looking that sets the mood and creates the Visual Tension.

When I was younger, my friend and I would go to a shopping mall and stand right in the middle of a busy area, and after a few minutes, we would point up to the ceiling. We weren’t pointing at anything, but it didn’t take long for people to stop and look up at what we were pointing to. It was Gestalt in action!

Insert ‘continuance diagram’ 1g
continuance diagramScanadobe.jpg


In the well-known illustration at right, the viewer will follow the finger to the smaller ball because that’s where it’s pointing. If you apply this idea to your thought process, you’ll quickly realize how powerful the idea of taking control of what the viewer sees really is.



Gestalt Better Photography Example


4. The Law of Common Fate

This is a fairly simple concept which basically refers to “Visual Direction” within a photograph.

For example, if you have two or more people moving in the same direction, you’ve created a directional line, and this line is known as the Law of Common Fate. Together they have a common destiny, and they become the dominant theme in a photograph; they’re also perceived as one unit.

It’s a good idea (but not necessary) to put a message at the point of their final destination. If you place these two people in such a way that they’re leaving the frame, you’re generating Tension. You’re implying “content outside of the frame”, and now you’re making the viewer wonder where they’re going.

I talked about having two or more people moving in the same direction to create a directional line, but they can also be doing the same thing. Together they have a common destiny or relationship, and this destiny/relationship is what makes the viewer become an active participant by once again having him wonder where they’re going. These directional lines can be shapes as well as organic forms.

Another important idea in this concept is when the viewer sees a group of arrows or hands raised in the air, and one of the arrows or hands is pointing in the opposite direction. This creates tension because the viewer doesn’t associate it with the whole.

Because tension is so important in photography, I use people in the same way as I would have one arrow or one hand pointing in a direction that’s different than the rest of the arrows; or hands in the same photograph. I do this by having a person looking in a different direction than the others.


Gestalt Better Photography Example


In this photo, I purposely had one of the kids look into the camera, ignoring the advice the cop is giving to the other children. By doing this it creates a persona that suggests a kid that you might be glad isn’t yours!!!

By the way, I’ll usually have my subject looking directly into the camera. The reason I do this is because Line is probably the most important of all the elements of visual design, and the implied line between the subject’s eyes and the lens is very powerful.


 Gestalt Better Photography Example


5. Similarity

Similarity is perhaps the easiest of all the Principles of Gestalt to recognize and therefore explain without going into too much detail.

Similarity occurs when forms, colors, sizes or objects look enough alike to be perceived as a group or pattern in the viewer’s mind. All these different elements, when occurring in your photos, give a sense of rhythm and will connote harmony.

The viewer loves to see photos that are designed with a variety of colors, shapes, and forms.

We are prone to identify matching shapes and colors and will quickly try to identify their meaning. As photographers, that’s exactly what we want the viewer to be doing; taking an active role in experiencing the photograph.


Gestalt Better Photography Example


6. Proximity

One of the most diverse, interesting, and sometimes complicated of all the principles, I’ve saved for last… ‘Proximity’.

If you’ve ever felt that your composition was a little off and you weren’t sure why, you might have been suffering from a Proximity Flaw.

There are several ways Proximity can add or detract from our photography:

The proverbial tree, lamppost, building, or telephone pole that seems to grow out of your subject’s head is one of the not so good ways Proximity can affect our photographs. I’m sure you have either seen it in other’s images, or have been guilt of it yourself but have you ever wondered why you didn’t notice it right before you pulled the trigger (that’s a Texas euphemism) for clicking the shutter.

The reason is that when you’re standing there about to take one of your more important photos, you’re standing in a reality—your reality, and it’s in three dimensions. In this reality, it’s easy to see that the tree or telephone pole is way in the distance and not part of the immediate reality closest to you and your subject.

However, the moment you pull the trigger, you’re altering that reality. What’s happening is that when you take a picture you lose the third dimension, depth. Now, you’re left with a two dimensional representation of your three dimensional reality. In other words, everything is now on the same plane and all in focus. Now the tree appears to be growing out of your subject’s head.

This is a very good reason why you need to study every part of your frame before taking the picture.

There are times when you can use this flaw to your advantage. One example is when you purposely arrange the elements of your composition so that they relate to one another and becomes a visual unit.

Gestalt Better Photography Example

In the photo I shot of the cop (right), I arranged the elements so that it would appear that the fan above him was actually sitting on his head.

The funniest example of which I don’t have a photo is when I saw a friend of mine’s five year old putting his thumb and index finger out in front of him aimed at his mother’s head and touching them together several times in rapid succession. I asked him what he was doing and he said that he was pinching his mother’s head. Try it sometime; it’s a great stress reliever!

That's Proximity in action!!!

Another way Proximity can make your images stronger is by grouping your subjects together so that a relationship or common bond is created. Research suggests that the viewer prefers to see similar objects grouped together, and by placing objects close together you will be offering the viewer an explanation of the message you’re trying to get across.

We all love repeating forms, shapes and colors, and if you can include these in your grouping, it will create a pleasing rhythm and a sense of unity that will keep the viewer around longer. Another good example is watching a flock of Geese fly overhead. I for one find it visually interesting and will usually watch them until they become dots on the distant horizon.

Well, that’s all folks!!

As you can see, these Principles of Gestalt are important when used as tools in our photography. It takes time to become aware of these Principles and to start incorporating them in your thought process. If you’re diligent in applying them to the area that you enjoy the most, whether it be in street shooting, macro, landscape, wedding, or portraiture your photos can’t help but to move up a notch!

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