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7 Tips for Using the Gestalt Theory for Better Composition

Gestalt theory and composition

Gestalt theory evolved in the 1920’s to explain some of the ways in which people perceive the world around them. The basic idea is that, when faced with a visually chaotic scene, the human mind simplifies it into more recognizable patterns and shapes.

Gestalt theory provides an insight into the pattern recognition process that occurs when people look at photographs. Once you understand the principles of gestalt theory, you can use them to improve the composition of your photos.

These are some of the useful aspects of the gestalt theory.

1. Proximity

A pair or group of objects that are close to each other are more likely to be perceived as belonging together than if they are far apart.

In this portrait, the proximity of the girl and horse suggest a close relationship between them. If closeness is what you want to show, it would be far less effective to position them with their heads further apart.

Gestalt theory and composition

Gestalt theory and composition

2. Similarity

Objects that are similar in shape, size or colour are seen as belonging together.

In this landscape photo, the three rocks in the middle distance are linked by proximity (the previous point) and by their similarity in texture, colour and shape.

Gestalt theory and composition

Gestalt theory and composition

3. Closure

The mind completes shapes that don’t exist. This is a principle used in some optical illusions but it also applies to photography. Part of the skill of composition is learning to recognize shapes, and building the design of the image around them. The principle of closure helps you see shapes in the subject.

For example, take a look at the landscape below. The bluebells form a solid block of colour in the lower two-thirds of the photo, with a strong horizontal line along the top. The line is interrupted by the trees passing through it, yet we still perceive it is a continuous straight line. The mind automatically fills in the gaps.

Gestalt theory and composition

Gestalt theory and composition

4. Simplicity

The mind perceives parallel lines that are close together as a single line.

The landscape photo below contains several lines, all leading towards a vanishing point on the horizon. The lines that are close together, like the cables dangling from the telegraph pole, are simplified by the mind which sees them as a single line.

It’s the same with the fence. This set of short, vertical lines is simplified into a long, diagonal line that follows the side of the road.

Gestalt theory and composition


5. Continuation

The mind assumes that lines extend beyond the edges of the frame. In the landscape photo above this principle helps create a sense of depth (along with the use of a wide-angle lens) as the mind believes that the road continues beyond its vanishing point.

6. Segregation

For human figures to be recognizable they must stand out from the background. That way we can identify them easily even if they’re small in the frame. This is a useful principle because you can include small human figures in the landscape to indicate scale. But it is important that they don’t merge into the background, otherwise they are difficult to see.

In this landscape, the man walking away from the camera is a dark figure against a light background (tonal contrast in action), and is easy to see and recognize.

Gestalt theory and composition

Gestalt theory and composition

7. Emergence

The viewer may not notice something in the photo when he first looks at it, but it becomes apparent after a period of study. This is an important concept because it is a way of making photos more interesting by presenting the viewer with something that is not evident at first, but reveals itself after reviewing the image. It’s a way of rewarding the viewer, and gives photos staying power.

For example, how long did it take you to see the cat in the photo on this page? Or the cow’s head in the opening photo (top of the article) of the singer?

Gestalt theory and composition

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Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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