Thursday, January 08, 2009

gestalt principles and composition


Jeff Curto has just finished a good pair of podcasts on the application of gestalt principles of design to photographic composition. I remember the concepts from some of my computer imaging classes but had never really given them much thought in terms of how I use a camera. The podcasts are worth a listen and I don't plan on rehashing the basic definitions of Closure, Continuance, Similarity and Proximity (they are described in the third link above, as well as in the podcasts)

It did stir memories of one flaw I've been trying to work on for a couple of years. I've come to realise my default behaviour when faced with a thing I want to photograph, is to square up to it, frame it tightly, but not too close as to crop in to it and shoot something quite literal. Buildings are the worst - I always feel I'm trying to line up the plane of the front of the building with the camera sensor. I'm front and center, shooting straight on. I don't often get in tight enough to crop something out and leave much to the viewer's imagination.

This is where the idea of closure comes in to play. With the realisation that your brain is really good at filling in the blanks, e.g., recognising the whole implied spiral that exists in part in the image above, you can create compositions that are more engaging to the eye, by leaving something for the imagination to fill in. I tend to do not so badly with this when it comes to portraits, not being afraid to crop in to the head, or body, but I still have to work at that. The realisation is that it isn't just okay to crop in tighter into an object, but it might actually be better to do that, to improve the experience for the viewer and to keep them engaged. The other aspect of this affliction I have is often using very flat, open lighting - again not leaving much to the viewer's eye to fill in. Both of these are things that I'm going to try and work on more this year, using light to shape the subjects rather than simply illuminating them cleanly.

I'd read about the notion of Continuance being used for composition before. Particularly the notion that Western (left to right reading) cultures prefer images that flow from the left to the right. Jeff provides an example of this, where the image that is flipped might seem more abrupt or less comfortable to view because it flows the other way. I'd love to see some justification of this notion and wonder how true it really is. Do peoples who read in other directions really compose their shots differently, in the general case? I know I've experimented with the differences between a left to right and right to left flow - but I don't know if I came to that consciously after reading that it was supposed to be more comfortable, or developed that style, because it really does have a noticeable influence.

I also remember listening to Keith Carter describe the beauty in some imperfections in a shot, where things weren't carefully aligned and that the little imperfections in angles and arrangement made the shots more human; more pleasing. Something my engineering brain really struggles with is trying to find this human poetry in images, particularly when I'm composing them.

One other thing that stood out in Jeff's podcasts was how the principle of similarity of shape neatly encapsulates using visual rhythm as a means of composition. Craig Tanner talks about this approach in many of his podcasts and it is very clear in his work. However, when you consider gestalt similarity, the use of rhythm (with respect to pattern) becomes just one of three types of similiarities that can be considered (the others being size and tone/value).

This post feels a bit all over the place, but there is a lot of fundamental notions buried away in these simple ideas. Composition and design doesn't just start and stop at the rule of thirds...


Anita Jesse said...

This very thing has been much on my mind recently. I make tentative stabs at this, but I am a long way from having a good handle on it. Most of my attempts fall pathetically short of what I was trying to accomplish. Another excellent essay.

Anita Jesse said...

I forgot to say that I love the "illustration".

forkboy said...

Is it possible that we get too caught up in what we think we are supposed to be doing with our photographs (i.e. using the various methodologies outlined by experts and those "in the know") as opposed to simply taking photos that "feel" right to ourselves?

So you like your photographs to look a certain way and some person suggests that you can do otherwise and that it might be pleasing to the viewers eye to do such. But would it be pleasing to your eye? And if it's not, why bother taking the picture in the first place?

I recently acquired a few books concerning various topics in photography, but haven't cracked open any of them. I'm slowly coming round to the notion that many of the concepts we take for granted as facts are simply some people's notion of what is correct, most pleasing, best.

All I know is that certain types of photographs appeal to my eye and certain types don't and that very often it is the ones that follow the guidelines, if you will, that I like the least.