A Picture Is Greater Than The Sum Of Its Parts: Seven Advanced Composition Rules You May Not Know
There are a lot of sayings floating around in photography that sound awesome but don’t make sense. However, an image being greater than the sum of its parts is something we should consider as it is the basis of how our mind perceives images. Here are seven ways to do it.
Learning the rules of photography is important. If we study why a photograph is beautiful, then our eye for good composition helps us to create well-composed images without thinking about it. For example, many beginner photographers begin by learning the rule of thirds. Like riding a bike, framing a shot this way becomes natural. Then they can discover guidelines, and these become part of their subconscious as well. Then they could study the golden ratio and delve into color theory. As they become more and more advanced, new composition techniques also become ingrained in their minds. With enough practice, these are also used without conscious thought.
People often say we should break photography rules. However, even when doing this, we usually apply other established techniques instead, even if we are not necessarily aware of them.
But have you ever wondered why some compositions work and others don’t? It’s all about how our brain processes the scenes unfolding before us. Diving into this can help us perfect our photography.
When we look at the world around us, our mind organizes the objects we see, grouping them together in certain ways that allow us to perceive the scene holistically. It’s good that we see groups of objects and not individually, because we would be overwhelmed by sensory overload.
The closer the objects are to each other, the more likely we are to group them. For example, when we step back and look at a building, we see the wall, not particular bricks. Similarly, we are looking at a grove and not the individual trees. Get closer and the groupings become different; you can see the whole tree. However, not all of its individual parts are recognized in our minds. If we get even closer, each of these little features forms its own groups: leaves, twigs, and bark patterns. However, we find neither the leaf veins, nor the lichens growing on the twigs, nor the insects hiding between the contours of the bark. This type of clustering is known as proximity law.
Moreover, a murmur of starlings is perceived as a single body, and not as each individual bird. Yet the mind sees this collection of birds as a shape in the sky. It is this shape that our brain mainly notices.
We also see a stone circle as a circle and not as a collection of individual stones. It’s because your mind fills in the blanks, creating forms that don’t really exist. This process helps us to simplify a scene, this is called the law of closure. In other words, one cannot help but see the overall shape formed by the grouped objects.
Perhaps the best-known proof of the closure law is the following diagram. Named after an Italian psychologist who devised the first version of it, the Kanisza triangle tricks the mind into believing that a black triangle exists when there are only three circles with cut pizza slices. You are also assuming the existence of a white triangle, when there are, in fact, three V-shapes.
Moreover, the mind also expects the grouped elements to act together, behaving as a single object and not individually. This is called the law of common destiny. For example, in the following shot, the kayaks are grouped in our mind as one entity and the arctic terns as another. We expect these two groups to behave independently of each other, but cohesively within their own whole.
The proximity of individual items, like the bricks in the wall, the leaves of a tree, and the flight of birds, is just one of the ways our mind groups objects. But what about when the elements are further apart? The mind also groups objects together if they are similar. It can be in color, size, shape or shape. If some elements of a frame look alike then, even if they are not close to each other, we will still group them together if they are similar in some way. Of course, this is called the law of similarity.
Removing distracting elements and reducing clutter usually works well in photography. This is because the human spirit is drawn to simplicity. Yes, of course, it’s called the law of simplicity. It goes beyond removing subjects from the frame. The mind creates order in complex shapes and patterns to simplify what we see. Think of star constellations. We look up at the sky and see the shape of Orion, but it’s only in our minds. In reality, its nearest star, Bellatrix, is only 245 light years from Earth, while Alnilam is 1342 light years away. There is nothing that connects these two stars except the pattern which has been recognized worldwide since ancient times.
In photography, simplicity can also be brought about by creating balance in an image, which appeals to the human spirit. Symmetry is a basic form of balance, and there are also other ways to achieve it, which I will discuss in a future article.
The Law of Good Continuation states that the mind will extend shapes and lines beyond their end. In landscape photography, we may have a fallen branch in the foreground pointing towards a subject in the distance, or there may be a series of rocks pointing towards the horizon. The viewer’s eye follows this line, drawing an invisible line between them.
Another thing we photographers often do is try to make the subject stand out from its background. If an image is cluttered with many similar-looking objects, the focus point will be lost. We use a variety of tools to make the subject stand out from the background, such as selective lighting, shallow depth of field, and choice of subject color. This makes it possible to perceive the chosen subject.
Use of Gestalt theory in photography
These seven laws are part of what is called the Gestalt theory. Although it stems from certain sometimes mistaken psychological ideas that originated in Austria and Germany in the early 1900s – observed objects are not physically reflected in our brains – the modern approach to the theory helps us understand why some compositions work and some don’t. We can use these techniques to draw attention to parts of the photograph that we want the viewer to pay attention to.
Gestalt theory explains that spirits love simplicity, and this is achieved by grouping items together in a scene. We also automatically fill in missing gaps, when there is enough information to do so. Thus, the whole picture is greater than the sum of its parts due to the connections the mind makes between objects. It also indicates that the mind jumps from seeing individual elements to understanding the whole picture.
By learning and understanding the principles, we can speed up or slow down the time it takes for the viewer to understand the meaning of our photographs. We can also choose whether we want to respect the standard constraints that apply to our photos, or on the contrary deliberately break them up and seek disharmony. After all, much of photography is taken for the love of the art, and good art almost always defies established and accepted practices.
This article only scratches the surface of Gestalt theory; there are many online resources and books on the subject, and I plan to review some of these rules in their own articles. It’s widely used in design and psychology, and its tools can be applied to all the arts, so there’s no reason not to consider it another set of useful tools for photography.
It would be great to see some of your images in the comments where one or more of the Gestalt rules apply, and I would really love to hear your thoughts on the subject. Thanks for the reading.