The art of seeing: A study in Gestalt
As photographers we spend countless hours in learning the “rules” of composition; ‘rule of thirds’, ‘golden ratio’, ‘including foreground interest’ become our staple diet and we start to live by these rules. Now, what if someone is to tell you, that you can still compose your images well without following these so called “rules”? Rather you can create your own rules and modify them as per your taste!
Shocking? Disturbing? Outright blasphemous?! Well read on….
The very art of composition roots in the way human vision perceives the world around it. This ‘vision’ we discuss here, is not limited only to the visual data that our eyes keep collecting, it is a wholistic experience involving other senses and most importantly our past memories and influences. It is because of this nature of vision, it becomes extremely crucial to understand the psychology behind it, which empowers a photographer to successfully engage her/his audiences.
It is at the beginning of 20th century that a group of German psychologists formally started to study the human perception and came up with some theories about how we perceive the world around us; and with this the Gestalt school was born. The word Gestalt, is of German origin, which has no exact equivalent in English and is loosely translated as “shape” or “form”. Over the years Gestalt went through a lot of refinements and even opposition from other schools of psychology but remained undeterred as one of the major guidelines on human perception.
Gestalt theory emphasises that the whole of anything is ‘other’ than its parts. That is, the attributes of the whole are not deducible from analysis of the parts in isolation. This seemingly simple statement is the essence of every image ever made, because every image is made up of many individual parts, which, in isolation will have a different meaning altogether than put together to form a single image.
Let us now go through the six principles that the human vision generally follows to understand what the audiences might be looking for in our images:
Equilibrium (Need for balance): Whether we are aware of it or not, our visual judgements are greatly influenced by our sense of balance. You might be aware of why planets move in fixed orbits, or how the solar system is stabilised into one big group with many different natural forces counteracting each other to achieve balance; and like these celestial bodies our vision seeks balance too. This ‘need for balance’ can be utilised to our advantage while making images; straight lines(both horizontal and vertical) invoke a sense of calm and balance while diagonal elements create a sense of dynamism. Also, balance can be achieved or disturbed consciously by effectively utilising negative spaces in images.
In image 1, it is perceivable how the use of counteracting elements eventually balance each other to invoke a sense of balance, also, notice how the horizon, trees etc. are straight lines further reinforcing the sense of stability and balance. In image 2, the diagonal tree trunks adds dynamism to an otherwise static image of a tiger sitting up a tree. These subliminal factors might not be noticeable at first but in the longer run greatly helps a photographer to create engaging work.
Closure (Tendency of completion): Closure occurs when an object is incomplete or a space is not completely enclosed. If enough of the shape is indicated, our minds tend perceive the whole by filling in the missing information; just by seeing a few petals in the frame, our mind is able to perceive how the whole flower would look. Compositionally it is allowed to leave the top of the head out of the frame while making portraits as enough information is already provided for us to perceive the complete shape of the head. One of the best examples of closure which we come across very frequently is the cleverly designed logos of various companies; ever noticed that the Giant Panda from the WWF logo isn’t completely enclosed?
In image 3, the top of the head of the gorilla baby is left out of the frame, yet one is able to perceive the shape without any effort as enough information is existing for our minds to fill in the missing information and perceive it as complete, achieving closure. In image 4, the horizon is actually permeated by the trees yet is perceived as continuous. Also, the peacock is perceived clearly as enough information is provided for our minds to fill in the missing information.
Proximity (From 3D to 2D): The proverbial tree, lamp-post, building, or telephone pole that seems to grow out of our subject’s head is one of ‘not so good’ ways Proximity can affect our photographs. I’m almost certain that you have either seen it in other’s images, or have been in guilt of it yourself, but have you ever wondered why you didn’t notice it right before you tripped the shutter. The reason is that when we’re standing there about to take one of our important photos, we’re standing in a reality—our reality, and it’s in three dimensions. In this reality, it’s easy to see that the tree or telephone pole is away at a distance and not part of the immediate reality closest to us and our subject. However, the moment an image is taken, we’re altering that reality. What’s happening is that when we take a picture we lose the third dimension, depth. Now, we’re left with a two dimensional representation of our 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.
In image 5, the tree in the background seems to grow out of the head of the subject and takes our attention away. While photographing this scene, I was excited to see the quality of light and pose which made me ignore the tree in background completely, the result was an image I could only use to point out this mistake in an article like the one you are reading :) In image 6, we have a branch which seems to be growing out of the back of the squirrel. The scene is now 2D and super-telephoto lenses tend to highly compress a scene bringing backgrounds seemingly closer to our subjects.
Continuation (A push and a direction is all we need): This concept deals with mind’s instinctive tendency to follow a path, road, beach, river, tree line, railway track, fence etc. These compositional elements are extremely crucial as they direct and help us navigate through a frame. Providing multiple entry and exit points in and out of the frame, which increases our chances of connecting with a wide variety of audiences. If a road or tree line continues till the very edge of the frame, our mind assumes that it continues beyond it’s vanishing point. Our vision, almost always, is more likely to follow an established path in a frame than navigate to various randomly placed elements.
In image 7, our eyes instantly go to the rhino which is placed near the edge of the frame looking outside creating tension and our gaze doesn’t stop there and wanders off along the horizon where we have a lot of negative space on the other side where some text can be accommodated to create a cover for a story. In image 8, our gaze is directed by the winding road and as it continues outside the frame, it gives the viewer a comfortable exit point, out of the frame; this invokes a sense of continuation and the viewer feels that the road is continued beyond the vanishing point.
Figure / Ground (What are you? Are you the captain or the crew?): Figure-ground refers to the relationship between an object(subject) and it’s surroundings. This relationship defines if the subject in our images is standing out enough for the viewers to pay attention to, or is lost amongst the other elements of the background. Our subject(figure) should usually be easy enough to pick out from the background(ground), and various methods like difference in colour, patterns, size, orientation, contrast etc. can be used to achieve this. Another approach at using Figure-Ground relationships to our advantage is by creating Figure-Ground ambiguity where the viewer is not able to tell apart the subject from the background easily and only finds the subject after carefully examining the image. Yet another use of Figure-Ground is to create the feeling of the Figure being small and lonely. By making the Ground an overwhelming part of your composition, this message will come across to the viewers clearly.
In image 9, the bird(figure) is clearly separated from the background(ground) by keeping the sun directly behind it, which otherwise would’ve seamlessly merged with the surroundings due to similar tonality. In image 10, the toad(figure) merges seamlessly with the background(ground) due to a very similar coloration and pattern of the skin, it is only given away by the catchlight in the eyes.
Isomorphic Correspondence (We are what we learn): The most powerful of all the concepts we’ve studied so far, isomorphic correspondence deals with our response to meaning. When we see an image or artwork, we interpret it’s meaning based on our own memories and experiences. Our images connect best with a set of audience when it appeals at an experiential level; if I were to show an image of an oil rig to wildlife biologists and ask their opinion on it, the most probable answers would be related to the impacts of oil mining on nature; whereas, if the same image is shown to oil rig workers, it would most probably remind them of the time they spent working on a rig, it may even bring back some good memories of how they bonded in the harsh working conditions. Due to these facts, isomorphic correspondence takes precedence over all other concepts we’ve discussed so far; remember how those old family pictures, no matter how ill composed they maybe, never fail to amuse us. And for this reason it becomes increasingly challenging for a photographer to convey clearly what the underlying thought behind an image is. It is therefore important for us to keep our images simple and revolve around most frequently experienced situations and emotions.
In image 11, a viewer instantly forms a connection with the subject as the twig is held like a pen. In reality, the mountain gorilla is simply holding a twig before helping itself to a light snack! Our audiences connect best with our images when the images make them remember a familiar scene which here is a twig being held like a pen. In image 12, the subject seems to be winking while relieving itself and most of the viewers will find it funny as winking is a common human gesture; in reality the eland was disturbed by flies and closed the eye to save itself from them.
Text and Image - Soumabrata Moulick