Using Gestalt Theory for Composition in Landscape Photography

Using Gestalt Theory for Composition in Landscape Photography

There are a couple of composition rules for photography that often work great for landscape images. These rules are used for placing a subject in the best possible location in the frame. It can be difficult to find a clear subject, though. I believe Gestalt Theory can help in this regard.

The one thing that can't be left out in a landscape composition is a subject. This is what you want to show the viewer. It's also what allows someone to relate to the landscape in some way, whether through a sense of scale or a feeling that makes the place desirable to visit.

Without a subject, connecting with the viewer becomes difficult or even impossible. Finding a subject in a landscape can be challenging. The landscape offers many options, which can be overwhelming and make it hard to find something that truly stands out. In this situation, a bit of knowledge of Gestalt Theory can be helpful.

This subject is not a bunch of houses, but a village. It is according to the law of similarity.

What Is Gestalt Theory?

The roots of Gestalt Theory can be found in the 1920s. It's a part of Gestalt psychology, which was the answer to structuralism. The latter tends to look at things as small individual parts, while the former likes to look at things as the sum of their parts. Gestalt is a German word that can be translated as ‘giving shape’.

An analogy to music is often made. While structuralism looks at the different notes that make up the music, Gestalt Theory prefers to look at the music piece as a whole. In other words, Gestalt Theory sees the music as a composition.

I believe Gestalt Theory is almost always used in composition, even when you’re not aware of it. But having knowledge of the theory makes it possible to use it to your benefit. It works great in determining how to incorporate the subject into your images.

Gestalt Theory looks at the composition as a whole, not as a collection of individual elements. 

There are five laws in Gestalt Theory: the law of similarity, the law of proximity, the law of continuity, the law of common fate, and the law of Prägnanz.

Some mention a sixth or even a seventh law, being the law of closure and the law of symmetry. I only describe the five laws in this article because I understand the sixth and seventh laws can be considered as derivatives. But perhaps I am wrong about that. If I am, please let me know.

The Law of Similarity

According to the law of similarity, we tend to see similar elements not as a group of individual elements but as a whole. It’s like seeing a forest instead of individual trees or a flock of seagulls instead of individual birds.

According to the law of similarity, we see a flock of seagulls instead of individual birds.

These similar elements often have the same color, shape, and size. They’re located close to each other and not scattered across the frame. This way, it’s easy to see these elements as one subject. The further the distance between the elements, the less they seem to belong to each other.

The Law of Proximity

In general, elements in the frame that don’t closely resemble each other can’t be considered as a group. However, it is possible to force a connection.

This building and the tree form one subject. They belong to each other, even though they are completely different. This is according to the rule of proximity.

By placing different elements close to each other on purpose, they obey the law of proximity. This way, these elements start to form a group that can be considered one subject.

The Law of Continuity

It’s important to have an attractive visual flow through the frame. This can be achieved by lines and curves. However, these lines and curves don’t have to be formed by a continuous line, like a footpath or a stream.

This composition has a couple of curved lines. Together, they form a circle. This is the law of continuity.

By composing different separate elements in a successive way, an optical illusion of a continuous line or shape is created. In our minds, we fill in the missing parts of the shape, making it possible to produce a nice visual flow through the frame.

The Law of Common Fate

It’s possible to place elements in such a way that it feels like there’s a sense of motion in the frame, even when there is no movement at all. When this happens, the elements obey the law of common fate. The illusion of motion doesn’t need to have an endpoint. Only the illusion of motion is necessary.

The law of common fate brings the illusion of movement. In this image, there is a strong sense of direction that obeys this law.

The Law of Prägnanz

The fifth and last law I mention in this article is the law of Prägnanz, also known as the law of perceptual segregation. This means that a viewer will see the easiest aspects of a composition first.

Make your composition as simple as possible, and it can be a strong one. This is according to the law of Prägnanz.

If a complex and less obvious composition is used, the viewer will not notice this at once. In that case, the image doesn’t feel particularly attractive. When a composition is used that catches the eye at once, it is according to the law of Prägnanz.

In other words, keep a composition as simple as possible. Try to avoid complex and less obvious compositions if there’s an easier one available.

It’s All About Placement of the Subject

It’s not important to think too much about the laws of Gestalt Theory, but it’s wise to know they exist. In reality, it’s not that difficult. Try to discover what you want to show with your image. What are the important elements, and what do you want to tell with your image?

Just look at the landscape and find a subject. If there are more elements that can be considered subjects, it may be possible to force one of the laws of Gestalt Theory upon them by changing your position, perspective, and focal length. Even depth of field can play a role in the connection of different elements in the frame.

You can learn a lot by looking at your old images. Try to find out why something isn't working or why it does work. Knowledge of Gestalt Theory can be of help.

Determine how you want the different elements to relate to each other. Having heard of Gestalt Theory can make it easier to decide how to do that.

This can only be learned by practice and by studying the results afterward. Especially the images whose composition isn’t working as expected will teach you a lot.

Are you aware of Gestalt Theory, and if you are, have you used it for your compositions? I'd love to read about your thoughts on the subject in the comments below.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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Hello Nando, great article. The stupid thing about Gestalt theory is that most explanations are based on psychology. This makes it difficult for many people to recognize the essential statements. There is a need for people like you who are able to simply explain these essential elements of Gestalt theory and its benefits in photography. Congratulations.

Thank you very much

One of the best articles I've read on this site in a long time, thank you.

Thank you. I appreciate the compliment

Wonderful insight into landscape composition. I now have a clear understanding of how I composed many of my landscape photos in the past and how some have not worked as well as others. I feel like we all have used Gestalt composition for our photos. However, we just could not put a name on it until know. Thanks for sharing!

You're welcome

Breaking gestalt psychology in photography can be almost as effective as using it - no continuity, similarity, or proximity where it's expected, for example

The funny thing is, if you think you break one rule, there's another one that will apply. Breaking rules doesn't make a composition better. Forcing yourself to break rules, make a forced composition that often doesn't feel right.

I remembered that word from my psychology course at Purdue but had forgotten the meaning. Thanks for providing information I can put to use now that I understand it better.

In a sense it's still about psychology. It a derivative of the understanding how our brain works and how we interpret the world around us. Anyway, that's how I like to believe :)

Subconscious psychology maybe?

Nando, I had not thought about Gestalt theory since I was an Psychology undergrad which was was a long, long time ago. You description is so well done and the images are beautiful as well as illustrative. Thank you!

Thank you for your comment

Very interesting and very well explained and presented.

Thanks :)

Super piece, Nando! Funnily enough, just yesterday I watched a series of videos about Illusions, on Curiosity Stream. The filmmaker used Gestalt Theory to explain a series of fascinating optical illusions, both static and moving. It turns out that context and gestalt are the basis of an entire range of illusions, and your piece makes me realize that these powerful tools can also be used to understand photographic composition. I should also add that all of your examples are wonderful photographs.

Thanks a lot :)

Nando, many thanks for this one! One of the few Fstoppers articles I've bookmarked to come back and re-read. Multiple times.
I'd like to check my perception of a couple of your examples if you have a minute. The similarity, proximity, and continuity photos are so clear (and lovely) that I'm pretty sure I get it. The Prägnanz image seems to be about seeing the 3 rocks, then how the swirls relate to the rocks, then how the swirls curve to the straight line of the horizon. Way cool.
It's the common fate image that, at least for me, lends itself to a couple of readings. I can see the whole ridge crossing the middle diagonal as a wave moving left to right. Or I can see the same ridge leading my eye to the sun. Or I can see the little lines of trees on the right as waves. Any of these works, and maybe the whole thing works because of that. Did you have one of those in mind, or something else?
Whether or not you have the time to answer, thanks for the article! Serious food for thought.

Thanks for your reply.
The example in the law of common fate I see the diagonal lines running from bottom right towards the ridge that runs towards the sun. The latter is also a diagonal composition element that strengthens the visual flow through the image.
The beauty of composition is, that different persons can see different things. There is not one truth, but many interpretations.