Plugged in: Out of your depth — photography and Gestalt

By Joseph Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

We can learn a lot about composing good photographs from Gestalt psychology, sometimes known as depth psychology.

Gestalt is primarily a scientific examination of how human perception, including visual perception, works within the brain. It’s a form of experimentally validated psychology that examines how the human brain recognizes patterns and the “big picture” from incomplete, often subconscious, information. These include the fundamental principles of visual perception.

Gestalt psychology has many serious real-world applications, such as designing better aircraft instrument panel layouts and human-computer interfaces. The U.S. Army uses Gestalt concepts to understand how some soldiers become adept at intuiting the presence of ambushes and IED booby traps from a few subconscious cues. During World War II, the U.S. Navy handpicked geologists as anti-submarine warfare officers because their dry-land geology experience also gave them the skill to “see,” despite fragmentary data, where U-Boats lurked in a very large ocean.

Aside from avoiding ambushes and sinking U-Boats, Gestalt is also an excellent tool for understanding and improving the composition of your photographs at a deeper level than simple “do-this, don’t-do-that” suggestions.

For photographers, Gestalt provides a proven guide to the most basic principles of how people visually perceive and then mentally interpret the world around us all. Composition is simply the strongest way of seeing a particular subject, and composition “rules” are made to be broken under the right circumstances. However, they often provide insight into a better way to compose your photograph.

Let’s look at a few basic principles of human visual perception and how they might broadly affect how you compose a photograph.

  • Totality — Our minds blend the perceptions of our senses and our life experiences into a totality that integrates both our physical perceptions of something and our resulting mental interpretations. Unless our cognition and mental processes are fragmented, basically psychotic, our minds need to see each component as part of a larger, overall context. Where the big relationships are not clear, our minds try to fill the void by projecting our own thoughts, desires and fears. That’s one reason why ambiguous photographs often result in widely varying but powerful emotional impacts for very different sorts of people.
  • Interpretation — There’s usually a predictable correlation between our conscious perceptions and experiences and how our brains interpret them. Here’s an obvious example. Our eyes can detect part of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. We call that visible light. The light waves we can see do not have any inherent color. We see different wavelengths as different visible colors because our brains have evolved to see longer wavelengths as red, medium ones as green, and shorter wavelengths as blue. We call someone “color blind” when their brains interpret visible light differently than the great majority of us. Color is simply a mental process inside our brains.
  • Partial perceptions — Our minds try to construct larger patterns from partial perceptions. Figure 1 shows the classic example where our minds tend to see a triangle being formed by the three partial circles, even though no triangle actually exists.
  • Closure — Our minds tend to “see” elements of an image that our vision does not actually perceive in order to complete a regular figure. Figure 2 is just a series of disconnected lines but our minds complete the image and we perceive it as a rectangle.
  • Stability — Our minds prefer a stable arrangement of picture elements that attract and hold the eye, rather than causing it to shoot off the image. That’s one reason why images composed using the Rule of Thirds, Figure 3, tend to appear calm and pleasing to many people.

Photographs composed using the Rule of Thirds would use one or more of the four horizontal and vertical lines as an axis for placing a principal subject of the photo. For example, stable, calming photographs can be composed by placing the horizon on either the upper or lower horizontal line, or an upright human figure on either the left or the right vertical line. When you want to deliberately create a very staid or boring photo, and that works for portraits and some other types of photos, then place the subject in the center. The eye doesn’t move around the picture, which feels static and fixed upon the subject in the center. When you want to create a sense of tension in the image, compose your image so it’s unbalanced and doesn’t comply with the thirds.

  • Similarity — The mind groups similar elements into larger collective totalities, depending upon their relationships of form, color, size or brightness. This is one reason why patterned photographs often work, although these have been done so often that they’re not exactly novel or startling anymore.
  • Proximity — Physical proximity of different subjects may induce the mind to perceive them as a related totality. As an example, the people in a crowd probably don’t have the slightest relationship to each other, but when we see a photograph of that crowd, viewers tend to fill in a common thread or relationship among the people in the photograph and we can find it disturbing if the people are facing away from each other and seem oblivious to the presence of others.
  • Symmetry — Symmetrical images are perceived as part of a unified whole even if they are at different distances.
  • Continuity — The mind continues patterns, basically filling in gaps until it perceives an expected whole object. That’s why unusual cropping often works so well. For example, your mind still perceives a human figure as the photograph of a person even if the right or left one-half of the body is cropped out by one of the edges.
  • Common fate — Subjects moving in the same direction are perceived as a single collective unit. One example would be birds flying in the same direction. We perceive them as a single flock with a common purpose, even when that’s not the case.
  • Meaning — People respond to images based upon the meaning that each of us reads into the image, which in turn derives from our own experiences and culture. That’s why each of us sees different things in a good image. We’re actually interpreting the image as a mental reflection of ourselves and our own lives.

One way to improve your photography is edit your images, focusing upon images that may be broadly interesting and meaningful to many people, rather than only to the people present when the photo was taken. Ask others for their candid opinions about why an image does or does not work for them. Taking photographs that have real meaning for many different people is a challenge. It’s what separates personal snapshots from creative work.

These concepts apply to our visual perception of all images, abstract as well as hyper-realistic. Next edition, we’ll look at some practical ways to use these proven, fundamental principles in making stronger, more interesting photographs.

Local attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website,


1 Comment

Filed under photography, Plugged in

One response to “Plugged in: Out of your depth — photography and Gestalt

  1. Some very interesting visual challenges, thanks for posting!

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