Use A Little Gestalt Psychology To Make Your Compositions Stronger

Motion attracts attention.

Danger attracts more attention.

Including a person in an image does more than show scale; the person becomes the main actor in the scene.

Typically, man-made objects are almost as interesting as the people who make them, sometimes more.

Animals are almost as captivating as people.

Though they demand less attention than animals, plants still demand more attention than minerals. 

Metaphor, especially anthropomorphism, helps establish human interest in animate elements.

 

You can use psychology’s insights into perception to creatively enhance your compositions. Psychological forces not only divert the flow of the eye through images but also change reactions to image content in specific ways.

While all psychologists agree that perceptions are the products of complex interactions between a variety of stimuli, not all fields of psychology have the same focus and so they offer different insights. One field of psychology offers a particularly rich set of theories for understanding perception – gestalt psychology.


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3 Great Books On Composition

Michael Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye demonstrates how the elements of composition are applied in photographs, which are often so laden with detail that it’s more challenging to see the fundamentals.

Christian Leborg’s Visual Grammar is a quick read that you can look at for a long time. It is very useful to consider visual dynamics abstractly so that they can be applied more universally.

Rudolf Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception is a classic that discusses how the principles of gestalt psychology apply to composition.

Read more in my Creative Composition resources.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

How To Use An Image’s Frame Effectively & Expressively

The four most important lines of any image are the ones that are often least recognized consciously – the frame. Part of learning to make successful compositions is learning to become more conscious of the frame and how to use the forces it exerts on your images for desired effects. 

Watch The Movement of the Eyes Within the Frame

Whether visible or invisible, every line creates vectors of force that encourage the eyes first to move along it and second to bounce off it. The eyes search the frame in a consistent fashion and these tendencies influence our experiences of all compositions, no matter how diverse. The general tendency is for the eyes to move within the frame from left to right and top to bottom and then to return and repeat this process. The eyes quickly scan the frame itself (determining the limits of what’s included and by extension what’s not) before they scan what’s within the frame. On their first pass, rather than scanning each line of the frame precisely, the eyes quickly average the competing forces of the four vectors in a single sweeping gesture. Afterward, given time for a more careful examination of an image, the eyes may trace and retrace each line of the frame more precisely, until their quest for information is better fulfilled by other paths.

When it comes to motion one must always consider momentum, gravity, and resistance. Some motions, like falling (within the frame think top to bottom and left to right), are easier to get started and harder to stop than others, such as climbing (within the frame think bottom to top and right to left). Once a motion is started it tends to persist until stronger forces modify it. Place one or more barriers in the path of motion and it will shift and sometimes even reverse. Individual compositions work with these tendencies, whether subtly or dramatically, reinforcing, modifying, or working against them.

The motion of the eye within the frame

Powerpoints on and in the frame

 

Scan the Frame Consciously

Always be conscious of the frame. Scan it. Consciously move your eyes around the entire frame. Anything that touches the frame exerts a stronger influence on a composition. (This is particularly true if it touches a power point, like a corner or the middle of a border.) If information that is not important touches the frame it becomes even more distracting. To make a composition stronger, frame it in a way that only important information touches the frame.

By emphasizing more important elements and deemphasizing less important elements (or eliminating them entirely) you make images stronger. Before exposure, you have an opportunity to make the composition stronger through reframing. After exposure, you have an opportunity to make a composition stronger through cropping (this eliminates other image information that may or may not be significant) and/or retouching (this includes the image information surrounding the flaws).

Use Proximity to the Frame

Frame loose or tight? How you place elements relative to the border of the frame can have a profound impact on any composition. 


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See What You’re Missing – 2 Ways To Non-Destructive Crops

We’re responsible for everything that’s in the frame. We’re also responsible for everything that’s not in the frame. Deciding what’s in the frame and what’s out is a critical decision that can make or break an image. Framing and cropping are critical. If you miss a key element during framing you’re out of luck. However, if you overcrop you’re not, if you crop non-destructively and you remember to reconsider your crop from time to time. After you crop, you forget what you’re missing. It’s out of sight and out of mind. But it doesn’t have to be.

Lightroom and Photoshop’s crop tools allow you to see the image information you’re missing Here’s how …

In Lightroom, highlight an image and tap R. You’ll see the areas eliminated with a darker overlay. You never lose image information when you use Lightroom. It couldn’t be easier. What’s hard is remembering to do it.

Photoshop also makes almost as easy. First you have to open an image. Then press C (or click on the crop tool). Then click on the Crop tool control handles and you’ll see the missing information, again under a darker overlay. When you use Photoshop, be careful. Unlike in Lightroom, you can eliminate image areas permanently. Here are two ways. One, check the Crop tool’s option Delete Cropped Pixels. Two, flatten the file or merge other layers with the Background layer. You may think this has happened when you first look at a file that has been cropped in Photoshop as when you first click on the crop handles you won’t see the larger canvas but simply drag the right corner of the window out and you’ll see the bigger canvas.

Why would you need to reconsider your crop? To make future improvements as your vision evolves. In the analog darkroom photographers never (almost) cut their negative’s or transparencies. They masked them during printing. This means every time them made new prints they reconsidered their crops. Sometimes, after their seeing matured, they changed their minds – significantly. I’ve witnessed the greats reviewing their top images. One day, Arnold Newman adjusted his crop on his portrait of igor Stravinksy. Another day, my father reconsidered his crop for Running White Deer, making subtle but significant shifts in their final compositions.  Those two images are both dramatically influenced by the way they’re cropped. If the masters do it, you may want to consider doing it too.

Small changes can make big differences. But you won’t think to make them if you don’t see what you’re missing. So make it a habit to reconsider your crops from time to time. It only takes a few moments and if you do, perhaps even your best images will improve.

Read more in my Creative Composition resources.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

5 Ways To Use Abstraction

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1 – Simplify

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2 – Clarify A Structure

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3 – Show A Process

 
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4  – Visualize A Concept

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5 – Create A Pattern

To one degree or another, every photograph is abstract. At a minimum, photographs are flat rather than three-dimensional. Some photographs are more graphic than others, and the origins of a few photographs are virtually unrecognizable. Determining to what degree a photograph is abstract, how it is abstract, and why it’s abstract will help you understand more about it and its creator’s intentions; this might be you.
Abstraction can serve many functions: it can direct, structure, inform, and express.
Whether you use it a little or a lot, abstraction is a vehicle that can help you strengthen your stories and clarify your point of view. As every image is abstract to one degree or another, ultimately, the question is not whether you will use abstraction but how you will use abstraction in your images. Exploring abstraction is time will spent.
Read the full article on Craft & Vision.
Learn more in my creativity and digital photography workshops.
 
 

4 Ways To Divide The Frame


The four most important lines of any image are the ones that are often least recognized consciously – the frame. Second only to these are the lines that divide the frame, creating frames within the frame. Becoming more aware of how the frame can be used and how it can be divided will help you make more successful compositions.
There are many ways the frame can be divided. You can divide the frame horizontally, vertically, or diagonally; in each case the layers included define the virtual space presented. Different areas in an image can be divided differently. You can divide the frame (or a frame within the frame) multiple times; the more times the frame is divided the more packed and dynamic it becomes, progressively growing more design oriented and finally being reduced to pure texture. Each operation has significant consequences.
One of the most significant results of dividing the frame is the creation of specific proportions. (The combination of the individual aspect ratios of each element creates a new unified aspect ratio.) Much has been made of the ‘rule of thirds’. Dividing the frame into three parts (left/center/right or up/middle/down) is a simple and often useful strategy for making images more directed, by prioritizing one element over another, and dynamic, through imbalance. Too little has been made of other ratios. What of fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, or eighths? No musician would be content to only divide an octave into halves and thirds. Every proportion produces particular effects, which are further modified by placement (high/low or left/right) and content. Rather than a rule to be adhered to, proportion is a force to be explored expressively.
When it comes to controlling the division of the frame in your images, you have more options available to you than you might think. You can crop, retouch, distort, or composite. These four operations can be used in combination with one another. For instance, you may decide to first crop an image and then distort it to a standardized aspect ratio. Or, while maintaining a frame of the same aspect ratio, you might increase the scale of a selected area only and in the process crop a portion of it. Many other permutations are possible.
If you find these many new possibilities dizzying, you get it. The only way to understand this intuitively is to explore your options. The development of new possibilities encourages us to ask new questions and develop new habits. For what effect are you dividing the frame? To that end, how many different ways can you think of dividing the frame? My advice? Develop the habit of exploring your options before settling on final solutions, ones that help you create your strongest statements.
Read more at Digital Photo Pro.
See my related post Exploring The Expressive Possibilities Of Aspect Ratio.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Dividing The Frame Expressively


A majority of landscapes include the horizon line. (It would be fair to say I’m obsessed with the horizon.) How the frame is divided (creating an aspect ratio within an aspect ratio) by this line speaks volumes. It directs the gaze up or down. It also creates an expressive ratio. Every proportion has a particular psychological inflection.

The ‘rule of thirds’ is an effective way of encouraging people to make images more directed, by prioritizing one element over another, and dynamic, through imbalance. But overlooking the power of other proportions is limiting, if not simplistic and insensitive. So too, is avoiding the middle or balance. Proportion is a visual force to be applied, rather than a rule to be adhered to.

There are a number of ways to achieve a desired effect; distort, crop, copy, or combine are four. Each method brings other effects with it.

How many ways can you think of dividing the frame for effect in your images?

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Exploring The Expressive Possibilities Of Aspect Ratio

Distortions of the same image explore aspect ratio expressively

The proportion of an image’s frame is a fundamental part of its statement.
Unlike many documentary photographers who keep the proportion of their image frames constant to reduce their presence and suggest that their images haven’t been altered, I do the opposite for precisely the opposite reason, to more clearly highlight that my images have been altered by me. The question of whether an image has or has not been altered is a misleading question. Every image, whether documentary or artistic, has been altered, but to different degrees, in different ways, and for different reasons. Questions of method, extent, and intent are more revealing and interesting.
I use the proportion of the frame expressively. Because different proportions each add something different, I don’t standardize, I customize the proportions of my images. I distort the frame, crop the frame, and/or extend the frame through compositing and sometimes retouching, before settling on a final solution that creates the strongest statement.
How do you use aspect ratio in your images?
Read more on Digital Photo Pro.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Composition – New Column on Luminous Landscape


“How do you define something? One classic strategy is to let the dictionary define it for you. The Oxford English Dictionary defines composition in the following ways …
… the act of combining; forming relationships (between things); synthesis; reasoning from the universal to the particular; combining arithmetical factors, ratios, forces, elements to produce a compound; chemical combination; combining words and sentences to produce a literary work; combining sounds to produce a musical work; settling differences or an agreement; arrangement; constitution of mind and/or body or both; a creation shared by individual parts; union; aggregate; mixture; structure; design …
This paraphrases a more than one page definition. Reproducing the full version would be tedious. But I recommend you take a glance at the full definition to get a sense of how wide ranging the many definitions contained in this one entry are, which are used by many disciplines yet still related.
For the visual artist we could settle on a working definition, a simple statement that could be useful. Composition is the act of combining graphic elements to create a visual structure or it’s the product generated by this act. That suffices. That’s useful. But, while it’s useful to settle this, it would also be useful not to settle this issue definitively. The tension set up by continuing to consider all of the ambiguities, contradictions, connections, and unanswered questions will lead to some marvelous insights. For this very reason, I recommend you settle on your own working definition. And then continue to refine it. Because, rather than settling it definitively, by continuing to work with the question you’ll benefit even more …”
“You can see the fundamental structures present and visual dynamics at work in your images by reducing the wealth of information found in photographs. You can use Photoshop to do this in countless ways. Here are a few …”
Read more on Luminous Landscape. Click here.
Learn more about composition in my field workshops.
6/12-15 – Along the Waterline
8/9-15 – Iceland
10/16-19 – Fall Foliage