Let’s get back to the subject of composition in photography. Today we start talking about the famous school of experimental psychology, the Gestalt school, and its explanation of visual perception.

Our doubts

When we look at other people’s photographs or analyse our own, there comes a time when we want to understand why some photos interest us more than others, or simply why some images work and others don’t.

We ask ourselves:

How can we improve on our pictures visually?

How can we make them more interesting and impressive?

How can we reinforce what I am expressing with visual media?

Gestalt psychology’s answers

The school of Gestalt psychology (also called form psychology or configuration psychology) that emerged in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century can help us to answer all these questions.

When we look at an image, we’re not aware of how we perceive it – how do we actually “read” it? From left to right just as we read a text in our written word? Or perhaps from top to bottom?

The theorists of the Gestalt school say that we perceive the image as a whole (gestalt) and we do not build it from its different parts.

La formula clave de la psicología de la Gestalt es:

The key formula of Gestalt psychology is:

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Let’s do a little experiment! First let’s try to perceive the parts of an image separately and then we’ll see the whole. That way we can check what this rule says is true.


Is he a painter’s palette? Or is he a big cook?

¿Es un canguro de tres piernas?

Is that a three-legged kangaroo?

¿Son ideogramas chinos?

Are those Chinese ideograms?

Esto es un todo que tiene sentido por encima de las partes que lo componen

This is the entire form that makes sense over the parts that make it up.


What is a whole?

In other words, everything perceived is much more than information coming to the senses. In reality, what we see and what we understand is defined by our previous visual experience, i.e. our visual culture. Secondly, it is also influenced by the context in which we are seeing an image. It is not the same, seeing it displayed in an exhibition or in a magazine. It depends a lot on the objective we have when looking at an image. And quite an important factor is having the ability to use visual thinking.

What are the fundamental principles of the Gestalt school?


Emergence is the process by which we perceive an image as a whole, in one go, instead of first perceiving the different parts that make it up and then inferring the image as a whole.


The dog cannot be recognised by identifying its parts (legs, ears, nose or tail) and then inferring the image of the dog from those parts that make up the image. On the contrary, the dog is perceived globally.


Reification is a constructive or generative aspect of perception by which, thanks to previous experience, when perceiving an object the mind adds more spatial information than the perceived reality actually shows.


For example, in the first image we clearly perceive a triangle when there is really no triangle drawn. Likewise in the second image we perceive a three-dimensional figure that in fact is not shown to us. In the third image the eye is able to identify the parts of the drawing that are “hidden” forming an image.



Multiple Perception

Multiple perception is the ability of human perception to give an image two or more interpretations.




Maurits Escher



Photo: Alexander Gnatenko


Invariance is the property of perception by which simple geometric objects are recognised independently of their movement of rotation, translation and scale; as well as other possible variations such as elastic deformations, differences in illumination and variations in the composition of their different features.


Foto: Bill Brandt

Photo: Bill Brandt


Foto: David Hockney

Photo: David Hockney


What do the principles of the Gestalt school give us?

The following principles can help us not only to understand and know how to read other people’s pictures, but also to improve considerably on our own pictures. Knowing how our eye and brain perceive images, we can avoid many typical and more implicit mistakes we make when composing our photos.

Thanks to the rules of the Gestalt school we will know how to create the images that arouse the interest of the viewer, that have an element of surprise and that have a pattern within the photo that catches the eye of the viewer and makes him/her keep looking at it. And finally, we will learn how to build the compositions that are a whole, and not a chaos of elements piled up inside a frame.

Thanks to Andrey Zeigarnik for the idea and the selection of the images.

To be continued…


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