Friday, December 4, 2009

Gestalt - Proximity Principle

Previous posts on this subject:
Gestalt Figure/Ground Articulation
Similarity Principle

The proximity principle states that objects which are closer together will be seen as belonging together. Take a look at the picture below:Most people will perceive two groups of shapes, rather than sixteen individual circles. We can see the individual shapes, of course, but our brains process them as two distinct groups. The principle holds true even when the shapes in the group have nothing in common with one another. The unrelated shapes in the picture below seem to be divided into two groups - simply because of their placement within the frame.
The gestalt principle points out the fact that we tend to perceive separate shapes as a unified whole because of their proximity to one another.

So - the principle is simple enough... but what about photography? How does the proximity principle apply to the composition of a photograph?

Take a look at this shot from Paria Canyon in Arizona.
Hundreds of small patches of mud make up the foreground shape you see here... and yet we are not overwhelmed by the complexity of the photo. In fact, the image feels quite simple. It seems to contain just two elements - the interesting foreground pattern of patched mud, and the unusual "windowed" walls of the canyon. Our brains group the individual elements into groups. In this case, the proximity principle is working hand-in-hand with the similarity principle I wrote about in an earlier post.

Here's another example of the proximity principle at work:
In this case, the two main elements of the piece (aside from the water and sky) share an obvious relationship - they are both rocks. However, because they are at a substantial distance from one another, they appear as two separate entities within the image. Here, it is the lack of proximity that separates them in our mind. Of course, that physical separation is amplified by the obvious lack of similarity as well. So in this case, the principles of similarity and proximity are working in reverse.

Now, take a look at the water in this shot. It is made up of silky lines of light and shadow... but we tend to perceive it as a single element in the image. Why? The water seems to create a continuous sheet because the water in the foreground is visually similar to the water in the distance. The similarity principle is at work here - and because there is no separation between foreground and distance, the proximity principle is in effect as well.

Photographers and other artists use these principles all the time - usually without even realizing they are doing it. Some artists have a hard time visualizing a 3-dimensional scene as a 2-dimensional image, and understanding gestalt principles like these can be helpful.

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Blogger Rakesh said...

This is a great series. Thanks!

December 4, 2009 at 4:07 PM  
Blogger Varina Patel said...

Thank you, Rakesh. I hope you are getting some useful information!

December 4, 2009 at 6:25 PM  
Anonymous Rafa Irusta said...

Very didactic. Thanks Varina

December 5, 2009 at 5:34 AM  
Blogger Varina Patel said...

So glad you think so, Rafa. :)

December 5, 2009 at 7:39 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

Varina, thank you so much. I use this skill a lot but sometimes I forget to use it when face a big scene. We just need more practice.

Your explanation is clear.

December 5, 2009 at 10:19 AM  
Anonymous Indranil Sinharoy said...

Well, firstly all the photographs are mind-blowing. They are REAL good and pleasure to the eye... and your explanation of Gestalt is a beauty -- simple, clear and succinct.

June 15, 2010 at 2:56 PM  
Blogger Varina Patel said...

Jim - you are more than welcome. :) I hope my gestalt posts are helpful to those who find themselves struggling with composition.

Indranil - Thanks so much for your kindness. I'm glad you enjoy our images, and I hope we can continue to offer helpful information.:)

June 16, 2010 at 7:41 AM  
Anonymous Partha said...

Thanks for sharing your experience .. I love both of your (Jay and Varina's) work. Great Article . Thanks for the Articles.

July 4, 2010 at 11:58 AM  

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