Gestalt Theory and Photographic Composition: Equilibrium

Are there rules for design? This is the first in a series on composition.

Since the time of the Greeks, artists and scientists alike have tried to quantify what makes good design or composition. The Greeks came up the “golden rule” which is very close to what we now know as “the rule of thirds.” In fact, they went further by describing exact mathematical dimensions for their concept of the ideal. This ideal came to influence classical drawing and sculpture.

Early this century German and Austrian psychologists pursued a similar quest through the 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 should be familiar to most photographers.

This is the first in a series of articles about composition using some of the concepts of Gestalt theory.

Equilibrium – Our Need for Balance

Whether we are aware of it or not, our sense of balance profoundly influences our visual judgments. The principle of equilibrium explains our search for balance in everything we see. As we will discover, our use of balance, or our decision not to use it, influences the message and, therefore, the viewer of our work.

Let’s take a water droplet as it rests upon a solid flat surface. Notice that the droplet, obeying certain laws of physics, tries to draw its mass together into a round spheroid shape. This condition has been described as a stable, resting state – an example of an equilibrium of several conflicting forces. For those scientists among you, we can argue whether or not it really is a stable or a resting state, but for the moment let’s agree that an equilibrium is achieved.

When we draw a plain dot we are creating a similar state. It is a shape at rest with no tension and no dynamism. This concept has been used by several artists to create eye catching logos. Look at these famous logos and trademarks. See how your eye is pulled to the center. This is because each is balanced and stable.

 Trademark of CBS
by William Golden

The Woolsmark
by Francesco Seraglio

Portion of the
Photography by Fulks logo

We can use the same idea to help create a more pleasing line of text.

By breaking it into a more contained unit (Which is, by the way, easier to read!):

We can use the same
idea to help create a
more pleasing line of text.

Yet it is not always advisable to have everything in equilibrium. For example, we are told time again not to place the subject in the middle of a photo. Am I advocating this?

No. But there are other ways to create a balance besides putting everything right in the center of the picture. To understand why, consider the example of the logos shown above. Our eyes travel to the heart of each and stops. They have nowhere else to go. Portrait artists often do this in their “bullseye” style of composition, because they want you, as the viewer, to be drawn into the face and eyes of their subjects. However, many people criticize this form of composition for just this quality. When your eyes have nowhere else to go, you get bored and go off to find more stimulation – your hand to turns the page, or your feet to move on to the next picture. Not exactly what the artist has in mind.

The rule of thirds is achieved by creating a grid that tri-sects the image both horizontally and vertically.


Using the rule of thirds to arrange elements of a image along an axis, helps create balance.

So how do you achieve a balance or equilibrium if you don’t place subjects in the middle? The rule of thirds is a start. Remember that the rule of thirds does not merely describe four points in space; it also describes four axes along which you can organize elements of a photograph.

On a page, canvas, or with you images you can create equilibrium by grouping several elements on a common axis. In a peaceful landscape for example, we see the elements of our photograph aligned along the axis of the horizon.

You can also compose your photograph using the concept of positive and negative space. This concept strongly urges you to balance the mass of what is your subject, with the mass of that which is not. In other words, you need to pay as much attention to the background as you do the subject. Following this guideline creates images that are far from static, which constantly create interest for the eye, and yet are still balanced. You can learn more about positive and negative space in these two articles:

Photo Composition: A Primer on Positive and Negative Space, Part 1

Photo Composition: A Primer on Positive and Negative Space, Part 2

And yet, it should not always be your goal to create well balanced images. Realize, however, that the decision not to has consequences, because it creates tension or conveys meaning on a subliminal (or not so subliminal) emotional level. Consider the two drawings below.

Each drawing is dramatically off-center and full of tension. What do they mean? The first (Fig.1) is what the majority of a collection of people around the world drew when told to draw “loneliness.” The second (Fig.2) is the representation by those same people when asked to draw “depression.” (For more information about universality in the meaning of our compositions, see Betty Edward’s Drawing on the Artist Within. Fireside, 1986)

So, by choosing to deliberately create a composition which is not in equilibrium, you’re able to create a number of messages. They may be the two we described above or something as simple as motion or growth. The point is to understand what you convey by apparently arbitrary positioning of the subject here or there, and to use such positioning to effectively communicate your meaning.

Topic for discussion: Must all successful images communicate something? An emotion, an association, a message, an attitude, etc.? If you believe not, can you give an example of such an image?

You’ll want to read all of the other articles in the series:
Part 1 – Gestalt Theory and Photographic Composition: Equilibrium
Part 2 – Gestalt Theory and Photographic Composition: Closure
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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