Monday, November 2, 2009

Gestalt - Figure/Ground Articulation

A pleasing composition begins with an understanding of how we see - and that leads us to the gestalt theories of perception. Gestalt - which is a German word literally meaning shape or form - is defined by Miraiam Webster as "a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts." But what does that mean, exactly?

The whole is more than the sum of it's parts. An image is made up of individual elements - shapes, lines, colors, textures, etc. As the photographer, we can change the elements within an image - their placement, color, relative size, softness, and so on.

So - let's start with the most basic premise of Gestalt. Figure/Ground articulation simply states that we generally perceive our visual field as being divided into two parts - Figure and Ground.

Take a look at the figure above. The small green object seems more important than the larger blue figure. In this case, because it is smaller, and seems to be on top , the green shape has become "figure", while the blue shape has become "ground". In photography, the goal is often to separate figure from ground using compositional elements. Here's an example...

Here - the small, light colored circles are perceived as "figure", while the orange sandstone becomes ground. The distinct color and shape of these elements separate them in our minds.

The unusual ridged stone in the foreground becomes "figure" in the image above, while sky and rock become "ground". And in the image below, the beams of light are clearly "figure", even though some of the overlapping walls of the slot canyon are closer to the camera.

So - why do our brains separate elements in this way? How can we begin to understand why we see things the way we do? And how can we apply a basic understanding of perception to composition in photography?

I'll talk about this more in future posts. :) Stay tuned!

More gestalt:
Similarity Principle
Proximity Principle

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Anonymous DKing said...

That's a bit of a different way to consider composition than I've seen before. Looking forward to your next installment.

November 6, 2009 at 3:42 PM  
Anonymous John said...

What an interesting topic, and explained so succinctly! Thank you for this posting. You know, it's amazing that we think that first example is a small green shape on blue ground - why doesn't our mind think "a large blue shape over a green ground"? Interesting, fun posting, thanks again. (PS, my first visit to this blog, glad I found it)

November 7, 2009 at 8:18 PM  
Blogger Varina Patel said...

Welcome to our blog! So glad you enjoyed it, John! I think our perceptions are fascinating - which is why I started this series. There's more to come... just as soon as I get through the voice-overs for this tutorial I'm working on! :)

Thanks for taking the time to comment! I'll hope you'll stick around!


November 7, 2009 at 8:44 PM  
Blogger Varina Patel said...

Dking - it took me a few days to post your comment! Sorry about that. Somehow, it got lost in the shuffle. I hope you find the next installment interesting too. I'm getting to it!

November 7, 2009 at 8:46 PM  
Blogger Rakesh said...

I'm looking forward to the next installment as well :)

November 17, 2009 at 6:03 PM  
Blogger Varina Patel said...

Thanks, Rakesh!

November 17, 2009 at 8:10 PM  

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