The Photographer’s Guide to Gestalt Theory

By March 12, 2019 May 30th, 2020 Photography

Have you ever looked at billows clouds and seen a recognizable shape such as the figure of an animal?

What you’re looking at is nothing other than clouds in the sky. But what your mind is doing is take those clouds and putting them together into some recognizable kind of shape.

Welcome to Gestalt Theory

“Gestalt” is German for “shape.” The Gestalt theory evolved way back in the 1920s to attempt to explain the various ways in which people perceive the world around them.

This theory posits that when faced with a visually chaotic scene, our minds simplify the scene into more recognizable shapes and patterns that we’re familiar with.

According to this theory, there are basic principles of visual perception that explain how the brain makes sense of visual images that lack any standard order.

These include the gestalt law of proximity, similarity, continuity, closure, continuance, and common fate. The central principle of Gestalt psychology is that the human mind forms a global whole by recognizing patterns and similar elements.

Gestalt Effect in Photography

Gestalt theory offers insight into the process of recognizing patterns when people look at images. By understanding its basic principles, you can use them as a guide in organizing and improving your photographic compositions. 

Creating a well-organized scene can help your viewers appreciate its separate elements as a visual whole. This helps make the message in your photo easier to grasp.

Clouds in the sky shapes like a dogIn this regard, Gestalt psychology introduces to us a holistic approach to composition; the idea that the scene as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

For example, you can deliberately choose to include an object in your photograph that is only partially visible, and have the viewer complete its shape.

This is to say that, thanks to the Gestalt effect, your photograph does not need to reveal everything to the viewer for it to be successful.

It provides you, the photographer, with the incentive to be structurally economical in your composition. In other words, you have the liberty to avoid interpreting the scene in an overly explicit manner without fearing not to get the message across.

This tactic can go a long way in getting you closer to your viewers as a photographer.

By nature, people’s interest goes up when a composition leaves them with a part to resolve by themselves. Eventually, the viewer finds him or herself involved in the narrative of the image, with an elevated emotional and personal attachment to it.

The Figure-Ground Relationship

In photography, it is important to realize that Gestalt theory is based on the figure-ground relationship.

When viewing a photo, the eye looks to determine which is the figure and which is the ground. When we can easily tell the subject from the background, then the figure-ground subject is stable. Distinguishing the subject and the background is easy.

"The Vase" by Edgar RubinWhen it is difficult to tell which is the figure and which is the background, we have an unstable figure-ground subject. In such a case, what some people perceive as the subject is seen to be the background by others.

 “The Vase” (on the left) by Edgar Rubin is a famous example of an unstable figure-ground subject. Rubin’s vase is frequently referred to as the figure-ground vase or Rubin’s face because it consists of ambiguous two-dimensional forms.

A viewer may recognize the two faces looking at each other as the subject, while another viewer may consider the vase in the middle to be the subject. It’s not instantly clear which is the subject between the two identifiable elements in the photo.

The figure-to-ground relationship is about the subject and the background forming two components of the visual field. Our visual system tends to simplify a scene into the primary object (the figure) and everything else in the picture (the ground). When the viewer looks at a picture, the initial attention should go to the figure first (subject) before moving to the ground (the background).

However, this figure can sometimes be something other than an object – it can be an area. Which begs the question:

How do you Distinguish the Figure from the Ground?

The mind generally perceives the smallest area as the figure and the remaining larger area as the ground.

In general, the cues that guide people’s eyes when looking at a visual scene, which a photographer needs to be aware of include:

I. Size

The mind will perceive images that appear larger as closer and part of the figure. Images that appear smaller will seem farther away and will be seen as being part of the background.

II. Blurriness

Think about the depth of field. Objects that are in focus will draw your attention first, while those that are fuzzy will draw your attention last. The in-focus objects in the foreground are often distinct and crisp, instantly drawing the eyes of the viewer to them. Those things that appear blurry or hazy draw less attention as they immediately appear to be in the background.

III. Contrast of Value

For our purposes, I will define value here as the relative lightness or darkness of a color. A contrast in value is what’s responsible for separating objects in space.

Contrast is a major factor as far as attention is concerned. High contrast objects tend to draw the viewers attention first before low contrast objects.

If you want the viewer to look at the subject first, you’ll want that subject to have high contrast against the background. 

One way to achieve this is by identifying your subject based on color. Eyes are naturally drawn first to brighter, warmer colors such as orange, yellow, green. Having a bright subject against a dark background is an effective way to guide the viewer’s eyes through the image.

IV. Separation

The other way to keep your subject distinct from the background simply keeps it isolated from everything else. A standalone object in the middle of a visual scene will instantly draw attention even if the scene is chaotic. Keeping the object isolated from the rest of the scene increases the likelihood of it being seen as a figure versus background.

Notice that these cues frequently work together to create the distinction of the figure from the background.

An object that appears isolated in the frame will draw attention as the subject, with everything else as the background. However, the object needs to have enough contrast against the background for it to be easy to see and identify. Otherwise, they’ll merge into the background and become difficult to recognize.

Once you understand how to apply the dynamics of figure and ground in your photos, you’ll have much greater control of how your images will be perceived.

This knowledge can go a long way in simplifying your work as a visual storyteller.

Gestalt Law of Proximity

Whenever we see objects close together, we tend to think that they are related. Our minds naturally associate such objects as groupings. This is what the Gestalt law of proximity attempts to explain. It posits that shapes or objects that are close to one another appear to form groups.

Our minds are wired to try and remove chaos by establishing relationships between the objects that we see. So, even if they are profoundly different from one another in terms of sizes, shapes and the like; to our mental eyes, they will form a group if they appear close together.

The Gestalt law of proximity is quite a powerful principle. It is tactfully used to communicate the unity of objects in a picture.

Penguins near one another vs. Penguins Far from one anotherThe law of proximity is something you want to keep in mind when deciding how to position your subjects.

You have probably heard of the rule of odds. The rule of odds states that our minds find odd numbers (usually in threes) to be more visually pleasing than even numbers. Odd numbers are considered dynamic, while even numbers as often viewed to be somewhat formal and static.

Based on this idea, groups of three’s will create a better composition instead of groups of two or four. However, you may still get away with an even-numbered group of subjects if you opt instead to use the Gestalt rule of proximity.

Consider the images of the penguins above as an example. Although both of the pictures contain two penguins, we see the penguins on the left image as if it has only one. The proximity between the two penguins on the left image helps the image have a more unified look.

The Law of Continuance

George Washington Bridge

Think about standing at the foot of the magnificent George Washington Bridge. Imagine tracing its length with your eyes across the vast distance. 

Your mind will tend to perceive it as something continuous, not because it has no end, but rather because of your visual system. Our minds naturally fill in the gaps for the parts that we cannot see. We do this all the time when we see photos of paths, rivers or other lines that are cut by the frame.

If it’s a bridge, like the one in this photo, we imagine that it keeps going. We don’t see it ending at the point where our eyes stop seeing it.

Whenever we experience scenes that lead our eyes in a certain continuous pattern, we tend to follow that continuity subconsciously. We undo the interrupted movement so that what registers in our minds is something that does not end base on we can see in sight.

We look for alignments of elements and perceive them as related groupings of patterns. This is what the law of continuance attempts to explain.

It says that the human eye follows a sequence of shapes, lines or curves to determine a relationship between the elements.

If you take a picture with a path, river, steps, tree line, railroad tracks, or something similar; expect the viewer to follow that to the end of it instinctively. This makes such compositional elements very important in engaging the viewer. They make the viewer travel around your frame, and take part in your visual story.

If well utilized, the law of continuance can be a great incentive in coming up with very compelling landscape photographs. You need to place this central element in a manner that irresistibly draws attention.

Gestalt Law of Similarity

Silver penguin among a crowd of brown penguins

The Gestalt law of similarity suggests that our brains group together items that are similar to one another.  

Take the brown penguins in this photo for example. There are many, but since they all share the same color and texture, we see them as one unit. Due to the law of similarity, we break down this photo into two parts: the group of brown penguins and one silver penguin.

Notice that you could trigger the law of similarity using various means, including color, size, shape, texture or some other attribute. As long as that attribute is shared by a group of items in your scene, the viewer’s eye is going to consider that attribute as a unifying factor between the objects – grouping them.

The Gestalt law of similarity explores the brain’s tendency to identify matching features and quickly tries to identify its meaning.

As a photographer, that’s what you want your viewer to do; have them take an active role in experiencing your photograph. So be sure to use the law of similarity to create connections between non-connected elements in your photos.

Gestalt Law of Common Fate

Flock of birds flying in different directions vs. Flock of Birds flying in the same direction

All of us, at one point or another, have experienced the Gestalt law of common fate. The postulation here is that objects that are oriented in the same direction appear as one coherent group. It’s not much different from the Gestalt law of proximity, only that here there’s the element of motion or direction.

What comes to mind when you see several birds flying in the same direction? Even if they’re distinctively different, we are bound to see them as a GROUP of birds subconsciously.

Take the image above as an example. 

The image on the left contains birds that are flying in different directions. Every time we see a bird flying in a different direction from another bird, we treat them as separate entities.

The birds on the right, however, are all flying in the same direction. The law of common fate states that our minds will naturally treat the birds on the right as one.

Of course, this is a subjective categorization. But it is how our minds work. It could be useful to keep this in mind when deciding how to take your shot. The law of common fate can have a significant impact on how the viewer will see your picture. Whatever you choose, know that the elements that appear to move in the same direction will make the dominant theme in your photograph.

Gestalt Law of Closure

Yosemite Valley Foggy Sunrise (Black and White)

Gestalt Law of Closure posits that humans have an innate tendency to fill in gaps and complete missing pieces. Now, we’ve alluded here before, that one of the most excellent ways to keep the viewer involved in a photograph is to have them complete its visual narrative. In other words, have them fill in the blank. That’s Closure.

By having your viewers work at filling in missing pieces in an image, they become active participants in your photo’s visual story.

Take the photo above as an example. The fog gives the image a taste of mystery by covering parts of the scene. This gives your reader the chance to complete the image and close the picture themselves.

One way to use closure to your advantage is to have overlapping objects in your composition. The viewer will automatically take part in completing the part of the object(s) obscured by the other(s).

You’ll have your photographs keep the viewer’s eye riveted on them for longer, increasing your chances of getting your message across each time.


The human brain works in exciting ways to understand reality and perceive the world around it. Armed with a good understanding of Gestalt theories, you can improve your compositional ideas and create more powerful images that effectively intrigue your audiences and draw them into your world. 


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