Tips & Tutorials

Gestalt Theory in Street Photography

Gestalt Theories were developed by German psychologists in the 1920's after following the lead of Max Wertheier on the belief that the mind uses self-organising tendencies to form a "global whole view." These theories try to explain how we perceived things that we see and organise them in our mind to create an ‘image understanding’. The basic idea is, when we are faced with a visually chaotic scene, our mind simplifies it into more recognisable patterns and shapes. These theories are known as the Gestalt Principles. The origin of the word Gestalt itself means form/figure/structure that is unified as a whole. So, the theories often are stated as “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” because our mind perceives an image in its whole form, rather than its individual parts. It’s a mechanism for the mind to not go crazy when seeing an image.

street photography, black and white

EOS 1000D; EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; 15mm; f/4; 1/180 sec; ISO 400 (Cold to Work)

Because photography is an act of presenting an image to the viewer, we can use the Gestalt Principles when we take a picture to give the right impact into the viewer’s mind. This way we can deliver the idea of the picture in a better way. Gestalt principle (laws) can be helpful to find out how visual perception works and why some images work better than others. Below are the Gestalt Principles for street photography:  

Simplicity

Our mind perceives an image in its simplest form. The law of simplicity explains that it’s important to simplify an image for helping the eye and the mind to feel comfortable in triggering interpretation of what we are trying to show. So when we take a shot of a scene, try to find its simplest form to make it interesting and “easy to digest” for the mind. And after some time, the mind will go deeper and realise the real meaning of the image.

street photography, black and white

EOS 100D; EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM; 194mm; f/5.6; 1/2000 sec; ISO 400 (Alien Robot)

Symmetry

Symmetrical elements in an image are perceived as part of the same group. The relationship of both sides helps us to perceive the elements as a united figure. When we take a picture we can use this law to create a perception of a whole image which actually consists of two or more elements. Symmetry can be created by balancing the elements or mirroring them. Yet, sometimes symmetrical composition can be quite boring, and it depends on our creativity to take interesting and fun pictures.

street photography

 EOS 60D; EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; 22mm; f/8; 1/100 sec; ISO 800 (Balloon Seller)

street photography

EOS 60D; EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; 10mm; f/8; 1/1000 sec; ISO 400 (Frozen Path)

Figure to Ground

In a single image, sometimes we need to show an object (the main interest) but the viewer’s eyes can’t see it clearly because the object are merged with its background. The figure-to-ground law helps us to explain which element will be perceived as the figure and which element will be the ground. The figure is the object or the main interest and the ground is the background behind or around the figure. Sometimes it’s not always an object, it also be an area. Our mind will perceive the smallest or the most contrast area as the figure and the larger area as the ground.

street photography

EOS 60D; EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; 22mm; f/4.5; 1/800 sec; ISO 400 (After the Rain)

street photography

EOS 1000D; EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; 10mm; f/11; 1/500 sec; ISO 200 (Working Early)

Common Fate

Common Fate law explains that visual elements which are moving together in the same direction will be perceived as part of united group. So, when we see a scene with a group of elements moving together, our mind will see it as a group, and the other element which stays still or moving in a different way will be considered to be outside of the group. By understanding this law, we can create an image of a group which actually consist of different elements or we can also cast away elements from the group.

street photography

EOS 60D; EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; 10mm; f/11; 1/1600 sec; ISO 800 (In a Hurry)

Proximity

A group of elements that are close to each other are more likely to be perceived as belonging together, than if they are far apart. So, if we want to create a connection between elements in an image, we need to put them close to each other.

street photography

 EOS 1000D; EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; 12mm; f/8; 1/60 sec; ISO 400 (Friends)

street photography

EOS 1000D; EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; 116mm; f/11; 1/60 sec; ISO 400 (Who is She)

Similarity

Our mind perceives elements as belonging to the same group if they look like each other. The law of similarity can be triggered using colour, shape, size, texture or any other attributes. Non-connected elements which has the same attributes, will be perceived as the same group. By understanding the similarity law, we can make connections between non-connected elements by using its colour, shape, size or texture. Repetition falls under this law.

street photography 

EOS 100D; EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM; 65mm; f/4; 1/50 sec; ISO 100 (Friends in Silence)

street photography

EOS 60D; EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; 22mm; f/11; 1/200 sec; ISO 100 (No Sweat)

Continuity

The law of continuity explains that our mind tends to continue shapes or lines beyond their ending points.  Objects will be grouped as a whole if they are co-linear or follow a line of direction. Shapes or lines will be perceived as a single element as long as they’re continuous even if they are segmented. And the smoother their segments, the more we see them as a unified shape or lines. Continuity such as leading lines also can be used as a lead for the viewer’s eyes to the main object we want them to see.

street photography

EOS 1000D; EF-S55-250mm f/4-5.6 IS STM; 250mm; f/5.6; 1/320 sec; ISO 400 (Out of Reach)

street photography

EOS 60D;EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; 13mm; f/13; 1/8 sec; ISO 400 (The Journey)

Closure

One of the great things our mind can do is the ability to complete shapes that don’t exist. Our mind has the tendency to complete unfinished objects. This is the closure law used to explain how our mind can fill the gap between objects or lines which are incomplete. Our mind has the skill to recognise elements of an image even if the element is only a part of the bigger object. In an image, completed shapes can be boring. Hence we can give the mind enough information that it can form figures, but still eave a little to the imagination. By understanding the Gestalt theories while doing street photography, we can create an image with the power to lead the mind of the viewers as the way we want them to see by composing its elements in an effective way.

street photography 

EOS 100D; EF50mm f/1.8 STM; 50mm; f/2; 1/50 sec; ISO 200 (Can't Find My Book)

street photography

EOS 550D; EF-S10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM; 10mm; f/3.5; 1/100 sec; ISO 200 (Your Order, Please)

Once again, Gestalt theories are about perception and reality.

Learn more about composition from the below articles

Camera Basics #14: Position and Angle

Composition Tip: Adding Life to Building and Factory Photographs

For more information about abstract photography, please check the articles below

Abstract Photography: Using Colour

For more information about conceptual photography, please check the articles below

Getting Started with Conceptual Photography

Conceptual Photography: Using Emotions and Other Elements

Conceptrual Photography: Tips and Tricks

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Agus Nonot Supriyanto

An office worker that loves photography. Always with his camera wherever he goes. Recording every side of human life, place, nature, space, and shape. Hoping to spread happiness and the beauty of photography, also stories through a photograph.

www.instagram.com/mynonot

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