To recap, what we have learnt so far in Part 1, is that the camera is a very powerful and advanced instrument. It is also a very intelligent machine with the present day DSLRs being so advanced that fully comprehending the entire functionalities of the camera is perhaps at par with a doing a college degree course. Mastering or at least familiarising oneself with its functions and capabilities is the first step towards learning as only once you familiarise yourself with the camera and have some semblance of how to control it to give you the desired results that one seeks is the stepping stone to greater learnings. Having said that I agree that it is at the end, an instrument only, a means to the end, not to overwhelm you, your ideas or creativity but to take those concepts and ideas to fruition and in order to do that knowing your camera and how to operate it does help greatly.
Breaking the frame or composition to the basic elements of design in photography, we learnt the significance of a point, the minutest element yet the beginning of the greatest design next. We understood its importance within a photographic frame and how its placement within the frame can be effectively utilised to create a link between other elements present.
The lines exercise taught us how to work them effectively in a frame to lead the eye to a specific spot or to use them to create depth or to flatten the pictorial space to create abstract images. Having learnt these basic building blocks, the elements, the next part it leads to is – framing. How do we now use these elements in the camera to frame a particular shot? What to include and what to reject?
Can one learn composition or is it inherent?
Reading all the quotes about composition in the coursework does make one wonder if composition can actually be taught or do rules and regulations restrict free artistic freedom? Is one born with it or can one acquire skills to produce great work? Genetics may have an important role in defining who you are and who you become. Education, social conditioning, influences around you have an equally important role to play in your shaping up as an individual. There are various schools of thought on creativity being inherent or not. One school of thought believes that teaching composition imposes restrictions on one’s artistic freedom and limits one’s creative flow, forcing them to think a particular way away from their artistic genius. Teaching composition may lead to learning the rules and producing work based on a strict adherence to text bookish rules, but it might not necessarily be visionary or extraordinary.
I don’t necessarily agree with that as I think, just like any other subject that you might have an interest in, knowledge and education can lead to enhanced learning, steering you in the right direction, not stifling your creativity but enhancing and building upon it. You might have a creative bent of mind but due to the lack of proper guidance and direction you might not have even known of it. Learning is a tool that helps one build upon their ideas and thoughts and helps furthering them. Helping learn the rules cannot hurt. After all how will one break them if you don’t know them?
In order to understand composition one must understand the theory of Gestalt psychology and how to effectively use these principles within a composition to build a story within your shot. “Gestalt psychology, school of psychology founded in the 20th century that provided the foundation for the modern study of perception. Gestalt theory emphasises that the whole of anything is greater than its parts. That is, the attributes of the whole are not deducible from analysis of the parts in isolation. The word Gestalt is used in modern German to mean the way a thing has been “placed,” or “put together.” There is no exact equivalent in English. “Form” and “shape” are the usual translations; in psychology the word is often interpreted as “pattern” or “configuration” (Britannica, 2019). In simpler terms, this theory propounds that our minds are built to simplify a complex scene into distinguishable and familiar shapes and patterns thereby making it easier for us to comprehend a visually chaotic setting.
There are six main principles associated with gestalt theory : similarity, continuation, closure, proximity, symmetry & order, figure/ground, as well as newer principles sometimes associated with gestalt, such as common fate, understanding of which can help improve our photographic compositions. The Gestalt psychology can help bind the separate elements in a composition as a cohesive whole, thereby building a holistic approach to composition; that the scene as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Law of Similarity: As per the law of similarity, our brains group items that are similar to one another. This can be applied using various means, like colour, size, shape, texture, etc. and when any of these attributes is shared by a group of items within a setting, the viewer’s eye will consider that attribute as a unifying factor between the objects and group them together.
As defined above, the law of similarity can be triggered by various means, like, shape, size, colour or texture, and any of those attributes when shared by a group of elements within a frame serves as a unifying factor between them and will be perceived so by the viewer as well. In the image above, even though the deer are scattered in the frame, their heads form a similar shape and colour and thus they are seen together as one group; a good example of how the law of similarity explores the mind’s tendency to identify similar features and bind them together in a visual frame.
Law of Continuation: When our mind perceives scenarios that lead our eyes into a continuous pattern, subconsciously we tend to follow it even beyond the frame once our eyes stop seeing them, for example bridges, rivers, roads and paths. When our mind looks for alignments and perceives them as related groupings of patterns is known as the law of continuance, which states that the human eye follows a sequence of shapes, lines or curves to establish a relationship between the elements. This continuation can be a valuable tool when the goal is to guide a visitor’s eye in a certain direction.
In the above image, the mud track is perceived as something continuous, not because it has no end but because our mind is wired to fill in the missing gaps for the unseen parts that are cut by the frame. We do not see it ending at the point once our eyes stop seeing it and tend to follow it instinctively. The human eye follows a sequence of shapes, lines or curves to establish a connection between the elements and thus such compositional elements form an integral part in engaging the viewer to travel around your frame participating in your visual story.
Law of Closure: The human mind has a subconscious tendency to fill in missing information and this automatic filling in of gaps is what law of closure is all about.
As per the Gestalt Law of Closure, humans have a built in tendency to fill in missing information. For example if one puts four dots at equal distance in the shape of a square on a piece of paper, the mind will automatically perceive it as a square instead of four dots. For example, in the image above, the fog tends to add an element of mystery to the scene by covering parts of it. This will engage the viewer to become a part of your visual narrative by completing the picture themselves.
Law of Proximity: Shapes and objects that are close to one another are perceived by our mind as related and hence it associates those objects as groupings. When faced with a chaotic scene, our mind tends to remove the chaos by establishing relationships between the objects that we see together or closer to each other, despite them being different from one another in terms of size, shape, etc. The law of proximity is used to communicate the unity of objects in a frame.
The above image is a good example of order in a chaotic image because of the law of proximity. The Tiger mom and her much smaller in size cubs are going through a busy deciduous forest, but even despite the busyness of the frame the eye goes straight to the tigers who are grouped together by the proximity they share.
Law of Symmetry & Order: According to this law, elements that are symmetrical to one another are perceived by our mind as a unified group, by giving us a feeling of solidarity and order.
In the example above the two spotted deer provide a sort of balance in composition , even though our compositions do not need to be perfectly symmetrical. The law of symmetry and order can be used to effectively communicate or convey information quickly as our eyes tend to find them quickly.
The Figure-Ground Relationship: The figure-to-ground relationship is the relation between the two components – primary object (the figure) and everything else (the ground). An unstable figure-ground relationship can confuse the mind of that difference, for e.g, “The vase” By Edgar Rubin is a famous example of an ambiguous figure-ground relationship, where its not clear which is the subject between the two. When we view an image, we tend to determine what the subject (figure) and what the background (ground) is. Sometimes this can be an area rather than the figure, which begs the question as how does one differentiate between the two?
I. Size: Generally speaking, the smallest area is perceived by the mind as the figure and the larger area as the ground. Images that appear larger will be perceived as being closer and part of the figure and those appearing smaller will seem farther away and as part of the background.
II. Blurriness: Objects in focus will draw your attention first compared to the blurred out ones.
III. Contrast of Value: By value here, I mean the relative lightness or darkness of a colour and the contrast in value is responsible for separating objects in space. Objects with higher contrast will draw the viewer’s attention over low contrast objects. This can also be effectively brought about by colours, for example, a warm and bright colour against a darker background.
IV. Separation: Another way to achieve distinct subject and ground is simply by keeping the figure isolated from the background. A standalone object in a scene will stand out no matter how chaotic the scene is.
I have chosen the above image to illustrate the relationship between figure and ground as it includes all of the four methods above that can create effective figure-ground relationship namely, size, blurriness, contrast and separation.
Law of Common Fate: Our mind tends to perceive elements moving in a similar direction as being more related to elements that are moving in different directions or are stationary.
The above image of the African elephants is a good example of the Law of common fate, where the mind tends to group elements that share a common direction or destination.
In Ways of Seeing by John Berger, he says that the way we perceive things is heavily influenced by our knowledge, experiences and background, and the fact that our perception may be inaccurate compared to reality. The above principles are important to understand and how they affect the audience’s perception in order to create a visually effective scene. Effective application of the above mentioned principles can go a long way in giving you greater control over your visual imagery as well as simplifying your work as a visual storyteller.
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Chapman, C. (2020) Exploring The Gestalt Principles Of Design| Toptal Design Blog. At: https://www.toptal.com/designers/ui/gestalt-principles-of-design (Accessed 04/05/2020).
Nonot Supriyanto, A. (2017) Gestalt Theory In Street Photography| SNAPSHOT – Canon Singapore Pte. Ltd. At: https://snapshot.canon-asia.com/article/en/gestalt-theory-in-street-photography (Accessed 04/05/2020).
Web Miami. (2020) The Principles Of Gestalt And Graphic Design. Part I | Web Miami. At: https://www.webmiami.com/principles-gestalt-graphic-design-part/ (Accessed 04/05/2020).