Gestalt Theory and Photographic Composition: Closure

© 2013 Marla Meier. All rights reserved.

Early this century German and Austrian psychologists developed a school of thought known as Gestalt, a German word meaning “shape.” It was their goal to learn how the mind perceived and processed visual input. The result was a theory of principles, supposedly free from subjective aesthetic bias, that artists have been able to use to present visual information – whether it be the printed page, painting or photography. This theory is called “Gestalt Theory” and although it may use unfamiliar names or titles, these principles may be familiar to most photographers. This is the second article in a series.

Can you identify the object in this photo?

Unless you have never seen a CD-ROM disc before you had no problem, right? Even before you read the text on the disc, you knew! The reason you did is our brain’s tendency to close gaps and complete unfinished forms. This tendency is known in Gestalt theory as “closure.”

Let’s look at another example:

Can you read this? Even though the first letter is not really an “E”? This is because we subconsciously close the gaps in the “E”.

Creating an Open Form

A closed shape, such as the example above , is complete, stable, passive and boring, even though it is well balanced.

An open shape, such as the one above is an invitation for the viewer to become involved (Photo copyrighted by John Gerlach. All Rights Reserved.)

Note how this “openness” is achieved – the flower intersects the edge of the frame. This concept also fits nicely with the principles we discussed in our article about positive and negative space discussed in Part 1.

In the case of closure, we invite the viewer’s participation by identifying and completing the form. Also because the form, in this case the flower, intersects the frame, it provides gateways in and out of the image. This is another important element of good composition, because it encourages the viewer’s eyes to move though the photograph in predictable and desirable ways.

Remember designs and compositions which actively involve the viewer always do better than those which do not.

Here is another example. The image on the left is well composed by traditional standards. It is well balanced with the background, but it lacks something. It is too static. By cropping in, and having the frame go through the subject’s head, we create an opportunity for closure to occur which will engage the viewer. We also create more gateways in and out of the image, and we create a more pleasing balance of positive and negative space. The result? There is more emphasis on the model’s face and a more interesting image. One that will maintain interest longer when hung on the wall.

Here is a very pretty image. It has an interesting balance of positive and negative space. There are several gateways in and out of the picture. The arrangement of the flowers compels our eyes to follow a path through the image – an “L” shaped composition, which can either be upright of inverted. And do you notice there is only one complete flower visible? (The third one down is actually obscured by the ones above and below. The one at top and the two on the bottom are cut off by the frame of the image.)

Practice, Practice, Practice

Practice seeing this with your existing photos using in-camera cropping to create the “L’s.” See if you can improve the visual impact of your images by cropping in tight. On your next photo session keep this concept in mind and try to compose your shots in-camera to accomplish this. Carefully study your results with cropping “L’s”. Eventually you’ll be able to do this naturally with no need to crop post-camera.

Our next concept will be “Proximity.”

Except where noted, photos Copyright, Corel Corp. All Rights Reserved.

You’ll want to read all of the other articles in the series:
Part 1 – Gestalt Theory and Photographic Composition: Equilibrium
Part 3 – Gestalt Theory and Photographic Composition: Proximity
Part 4 – Gestalt Theory and Photographic Composition: Continuation
Part 5 – Gestalt Theory and Photographic Composition: Figure/Ground
Part 6 – Gestalt Theory and Photographic Composition: Isomorphic Correspondence

by Michael Fulks

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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