The World of Photography–Chapter One–The Theory of Photography

I have noticed in life that everybody thinks that they need a theory in order to gain acceptance and respect. I think of photography as an art. It should be pleasing to not only the photographer but the audience that he/she is trying to reach. That is all. What else do you need or expect from a form of art. Now if we are talking about architecture that is a little different because it is serving a function besides giving pleasure. I suppose when photography is used for documentation or photojournalism it is serving a purpose other than that of increasing endorphin production. But few photographers are involved in these types of photography. The vast majority of us simply do it for fun and yes to maybe create a little beauty along the way.

Since theory is what you want, theory is what I will give you. Who am I to argue?

Principles of Photography

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Principles of Photography, completes the composition of an image. The elements and principles come together to form a successful image and help create better and more interesting images. There are 7 principles of Photography i.e. Pattern, Balance, Negative Space, Grouping, Closure, Colour and Light/Shadow. By applying these 7 principles, Photographers can create a complete image in the foundation of art theory.

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Patterns makes sense of the visual world through regularity. Elements of design can be put together in a predictable manner to form a pattern. Incorporating patterns lifts the image of the page and is like exploring the different photographic techniques. This effect creates a calming effect to the viewers and draws the attention to it. Patterns also create a visual harmony and familiarity.

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Balance makes the composition look aesthetic. It is used to show the visual weight of the image and can unite or create division. The balanced picture emphasizes the stability of the image. Whereas, an unbalanced image causes imbalance or disunity, which later creates a disturbance in the viewers point. The balance includes Symmetrical balance and Asymmetrical balance.

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Negative Space

Negative Space or the space behind the subject with no emphasis. The dead spaces or the negative space distracts the viewer’s eye, with no focus on one element or in one direction. The focus main element is considered as the space surrounding which can be fixed later diminishes the quality of a photograph. Inorder to achieve a harmonious and well balanced picture, one has to consider the elements and principles of Photography.

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Grouping forms a co-linear or line of direction of the image. Shapes and lines are perceived as a single element and the rest are considered as unified shapes or lines. The Human Brain likes to group things together, by making sense of the image. One can group an image through following the elements of design or else the image has more potential to become abstract if its background has too many items.

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Color contributes a lot to any photograph and it’s more than creating a visually pleasing element. It sets the mood and frames the subject. Contrasting colors are eye-catching as they don’t blend into each other and they create a separated line between two subjects, which forces the viewer to stare longer. Cool toned images can create a dark or mysterious image whereas a warm color creates a lighter and happy mode.

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Closure or the tendency to fill the missing gaps in an informative way to finish a story by the Photographer. This is an important method which must be followed in order to not make the image look incomplete. It creates a feeling of chaos when it is imbalanced.

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Light and Shadow

Light and shadow plays a major role in Photography. When there’s absence of light, it is generally overlooked and shadows can help the eye to a specific point which creates a composition. Shadows are also used as a hint of drama which highlight an image and emphasize the light. Having both light and shadow creates a balance.

Harness the power of Gestalt theory in photography

Gestalt theory in photography is where photography meets psychology, but it’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds. Also, it doesn’t apply to just photography, but to all aspects of art and design.

The theory was devised by a group of German psychologists in the 1920s to explore how we perceive the world around us.

Why use Gestalt theory in photography?

As photographers, if we can understand how our minds work, we can create compelling images that draw in and hold the viewer.

Gestalt theory in photography explains why certain rules of composition work.

Gestalt principle of continuity using leading lines

When we understand why something works, it’s so much easier to put it into practice.

How does Gestalt theory in photography work?

Gestalt theory in photography is based on the idea that our brains automatically try to find structure and patterns to simplify and organize a complex image made of many elements.

It groups together parts of an image instead of treating at it as a series of unconnected elements. According to Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, this is summarised as “the whole is other than the sum of the parts”.

As a photographer, when you compose a well organized image, you help your viewers to see the image as a whole, which makes your message easier to understand. We do this using Gestalt principles.

Gestalt theory in street photography

Which Gestalt principles are being used in this image? Read on to find out.

What are the Gestalt principles in photography?

Gestalt principles, also called Gestalt laws, make up Gestalt theory. Principles of Gestalt theory in photography include:

1. Figure to ground
2. Similarity
3. Continuation
4. Closure
5. Proximity
6. Emergence
7. Common fate

As we go through these principles, remember that when we view an image we’re not at all lazy. Humans are actually more interested in an image if they have to work a little. Not too much, mind, because that’s what this is all about – making it easy for the viewer to figure out the image.

But if the viewer has to work a little to fill in the gaps of what they see, they’re more engaged in the image.

I’ll remind you of this along the way.

Gestalt theory in family photography

A man and his granddaughter are the clear subjects of this image, because they stand out against a busy background full of people.

1. Figure to Ground relationship

differentiate the subject from the background

Before applying any other Gestalt principles you must first understand the figure ground relationship.

If you’ve ever wondered why a blurry background is the goal of so many portrait photographers, it’s because of the figure to ground relationship.

This is not as complicated as it sounds. An image has two parts – the figure and the ground. The figure is the subject and the ground is the background and or foreground of the image, i.e. the rest of the image.

So the figure to ground relationship is simply about how those two parts, the figure and the ground, form an image.

The focal point stands out because it's different

The figure (aka focal point or subject) must stand out from the rest of the image.

The reason this relationship is important is because our eyes automatically try to work out which is the figure and which is the ground. We’re trying to understand the image. Our eyes should go to the figure (subject) first and then the background and or foreground (ground).

When we can easily determine the subject and the background, the figure-ground relationship is stable. When the difference is unclear, the figure-ground relationship is unstable.

A perfect example of an unstable figure-ground relationship is Rubin’s vase. Some people will see two faces, others will see the vase. However, nobody can see both at the same time.

Figure ground relationship of Rubin's vase

Rubin’s vase shows two faces in white with the black background forming a vase shape. It can also be viewed as a black vase against a white background, which happens to form to faces.

How to create a stable figure to ground relationship

You’re about to go aah. This is where Gestalt theory in photography becomes more familiar.

Photographers have a few tools to help separate the subject from the background and guide the viewer’s eye. They include:

-Depth of field



Gestalt law of separation using a blurry background

The subject is in sharp focus and the background is out of focus, because I used a shallow depth of field to establish the figure ground relationship.

Depth of field

Our eyes are drawn to the in-focus part of an image first. So using a shallow depth of field to make the background and foreground blurry, helps the viewer go straight to the in-focus subject.


Because we scan for differences to help us separate parts of an image, contrast is a powerful tool to use. There are many types of contrast that we use in photography composition. Here are two:

Tonal contrast

In an image of light and dark areas, our eyes will first go to the light areas. When our eyes roam around an image they will constantly be pulled back to the light areas from the dark areas.

So, if the background is darker than the subject, your viewer’s eyes will be irresistibly drawn to the subject.

That said, if you place a dark subject against a light part of the background, the subject will again stand out as the viewer is drawn to the light area where the subject is.

If we then add a shallow depth of field to the mix, the subject is unmistakable.

Color contrast

Colors are divided into warm colors and cool colors and our eyes are drawn to warm colors more strongly than to cool colors.

A figure dressed in red, for example, in a landscape of greens or blues will demand our attention.

Color contrast in Gestalt principle of figure ground

The subject is clear and stands out in this image, because she’s framed by the pillars and is wearing red against a blue background, so we can say the figure ground relationship is stable.


A subject that’s isolated from the rest of the image stands out as the figure, even if the image is filled with many other elements.

Aside from depth of field and contrast, you can also isolate a subject with:

Framing – position your subject standing in a doorway.

Filling the frame – getting in close to make the subject fill the entire image.

Simplicity – in a minimalist composition the subject will stand out.

2. Gestalt law of similarity

our eyes group together similar elements

We see objects that are similar in shape, size, color and texture as belonging together, like a flock of sheep. According to Gestalt theory, this is our brain simplifying the parts of the image to make it easier to read.

This is why in family photography it works if your subjects are wearing similar colors. Not exactly the same, as that’s going too far, but a good rule of thumb is to use different shades of up to three colors that work well together.

Gestalt principle that we group similar objects

In a busy scene, using the law of similarity will simplify the image, which is particularly useful in street photography.

For example, imagine using a slow shutter speed to photograph a crowd of people moving, with just one person standing still. The blurred moving people will be grouped as one while the still person in clear focus will stand out.

It’s not just a photo of a person standing around. That person is different from everyone else in the shot and the viewer then asks why is that person standing still? Or why is everyone else rushing around? There’s a visual contrast that engages our minds.

Because, according to the Gestalt law of similarity, our brains group together similar objects, we create patterns of these objects. Breaking this pattern with a different object, the subject, immediately draws the eye.

Gestalt principles of continuity and similarity

The repeating pillars on the right and lights on the left form leading lines that converge into the distance behind the subject. This the Gestalt law of continuance, a version of the Gestalt law of similarity.

3. Gestalt law of continuance

the viewer’s eyes are taken beyond the subject and continue through the image

Remember my point earlier about the viewer liking to have to work a little when viewing an image? The law of continuance is one such example.

When we see an image with lines that go to the image edges, like a road or row of streetlights, our minds assume that the lines extend beyond the edge of the frame. We know that the road doesn’t just end there.

We naturally fill in the gaps for the areas of the image that we can’t see.

Photographers use this logic to take the viewer on a journey around the image by using leading lines to lead to the subject and sometimes beyond.

If you know anything about leadings lines, you’ll know that they don’t have to be actual lines. They can be implied, like a row of streetlights, which forms a line.

If you thought, hang on, that’s the law of similarity, you’d be right. We’ve just seen with the law of similarity, that our brains group together similar objects as one.

Principle that our eyes follow lines of similar objects

However, when it comes to a line of streetlights, the law of continuance (also called the law of continuity) uses the law of similarity in a more focused way. It specifically creates lines of similar objects that we use to lead the eye around the image.

This is because, according to the Gestalt law of continuance, when we spot a series of similar elements that form a line or curve, our eyes flow from one element to the next trying to assess the relationship between them.

So, a series of streetlights becomes a line and can be used in photography composition as a leading line. Not an actual line, of course, but an implied line.

Gestalt theory of closure in photography

We can only see the arms and legs of the grandfather, but we know that he’s in the grass and they’re playing with each other by the child’s expression. Our mind fills in the blanks using the clues in the image. Not that you’d know he was her grandfather unless I’d told you, but you get my point.

4. Gestalt law of closure

our brains fill in the gaps

The Gestalt law of closure states that our brains will complete shapes that don’t actually exist. So we don’t need to have all the information to understand an image. In fact, our brains like to work a little to complete the image, because it’s more interesting that way.

We’ve already seen with the laws of similarity and continuance that our brains follow lines and curves, even when part of the object is not visible.

So, as a photographer, it helps to see your scene as shapes, rather than individual elements, to compose in a way that makes your image more engaging.

For example, in the image below, even though we can see her legs from the knee down only, we know that she has thighs too, so our mind fills in the gaps. Using the law of closure gives the viewer something to do and makes the image more engaging.

Gestalt law of closure in photography composition

You can take the law of closure a step further by experimenting with tonal contrast, like in this image below. It’s a high contrast image with bright highlights and deep shadows that I took to the extreme in post production.

Even though there’s very little information to tell us that it’s a photo of a woman, we know it is. In addition, it’s an attention holding image, because the viewer becomes more engaged in the photo while their brain completes the image.

Gestalt law of closure allows us to fill in the gaps

Our minds fill in the blanks by following the lines to decipher this portrait of a woman. We don’t need to see everything to know it’s there.

5. Gestalt law of proximity

objects that are near each other are perceived as belonging together

Our brains want to reduce confusion and chaos. So they group objects that are close together as one unit rather than seeing them as individual objects.

Gestalt principle that we associate close groups as one

The objects don’t need to be similar to each other to be seen as one when they are close together. In fact, the law of proximity is so powerful that it overrides the law of similarity.

Gestalt law of proximity is stronger than the law of similarity

In portrait photography, if you use the Gestalt law of proximity to breakdown a large group photo into smaller units, you’ll make the image easier for the viewer to understand and appreciate.

Law of proximity and the rule of odds in family photos

Even though the youngest daughter is separate from the family group, she’s linked because of the connected gaze between her and her mother.

If you intentionally position a subject separate from the group, you’ll not only draw attention to them, but also add to the message of the photo.

That doesn’t mean that everybody in a family photo must always be together to show the family unit. As long as they’re connected to each other in some way, for example by looking at each other, they’ll be part of the same group. Plus, it deepens the story.

Using a shallow depth of field further highlights the proximity of the subjects to each other, especially if there are others in the background, as in the photo towards the top of this article.

Gestalt principle of segregation isolates the subject

The subject (figure) is separated from the background (ground) with a shallow depth of field, causing a blurry background.

6. Gestalt law of segregation

your subject must stand out from the background

This takes us back to the first Gestalt principle I mentioned of figure to ground relationship. If the subject blends into the background, the viewer won’t easily be able to tell the subject (figure) from the rest of the image (ground).

This is particularly important if your subject is small in frame. While this is a great way to lend scale to a subject and make it seem small and vulnerable in the larger landscape, you must ensure that it is separated from the background in some way.

Refer back to the points on Figure Ground for how to do this using:

-Depth of field


Gestalt theory in photography using principle of emergence

The family is closely grouped together using the law of proximity and they’re also dressed in shades of blues and greys, so the law of similarity highlights their family unit. There’s one other Gestalt law in use. Can you spot it?

7. Gestalt law of emergence

the whole image is identified before the parts of the image

The law of emergence is not something you can use often in photography. However, I think it’s important to know, especially if you like to be playful with your composition to make a photo a little more interesting.

When you use the principle of emergence, you ensure that an element of the photo is not immediately obvious. It only becomes visible after studying the image for a while.

For example, in the above image, did you notice the dog in the grass?

Gestalt laws of common fate and proximity

Not only are the children grouped as one, because of the laws of similarity and proximity, the law of common fate is also used as they’re moving in the same direction. The cyclist however is going in the other direction and is separate from the group of three.

8. Gestalt law of common fate

objects going in the same direction are grouped together

It’s similar to the law of proximity, but with the law of common fate, the emphasis is on the objects moving in the same direction.

In the above image the three children are running in the same direction and the cyclist is going in a different direction. They’re clearly two different groups.

If one of the children was running towards me, instead of away from me like the other two children, the viewer would perceive three groups:

-Two children running away

-One child running towards me

-A cyclist

We see this at work in sport. Of course in most team sports their uniforms are very different, so our minds group them with the law of similarity.

However, let’s use cricket as an example, because the dominant color of all players’ uniforms is white. Yet when the camera pulls back as someone is about to be knocked out we can clearly see the fielding team moving in towards the batsmen.

Gestalt theory in photography conclusion

There are a few more Gestalt principles, but these are a great start for photographers of all skill levels.

Resources, “Principles of Photography.”;, “Harness the power of Gestalt theory in photography.” By Jane Allan;