If formal elements in composition are like 'alphabets & vocabulary' in visual language then certainly there must be principles, like grammar-rules, to arrange these elements to effectively communicate ideas. Many people in the past have attempted to decode these rules. In such an attempt to develop science of human visual perception, German psychologists in early 20th century developed theory of visual perception known as gestalt theory. Refining this work further theorists Kurt Koffka, Max Wertheimer, and Wolfgang Köhler gave the law of prägnanz, which says that we tend to order our experience in a manner that is regular, orderly, symmetrical, and simple. The theorists finally grouped their ideas into eight principles that we will study in this article.
I know this doesn't sound like a traditional 'top 10 composition rules' which comes with a disclaimer that there are no rules in photography or rules are meant to be broken. Often these laws are the underlying principles behind most common composition rules, therefore, understanding these principles is important to not just create stunning piece of art but also to develop your own creative style with an ability to do it again and again and again. Let's get introduced to these principles.
1. Law of Proximity
If two objects, in a composition, are placed close to each other, they will be perceived as a single entity even though the objects may be unrelated. We are hardwired to perceive a relationships between closely spaced objects. Following image shows how law of proximity works:
(Photo by Ashish Bharti)
This law governs a concept called 'spacing' in photography. Using this you may portray belonging, detachment or oneness. Sometimes you may place objects closely to create drama like in the above picture where it looks like the girl is holding the pyramid. However, most of the times you want to ensure sufficient space between elements in your composition to avoid making it cluttered at the same time space should not be so much that elements look unrelated. There should be sufficient space between objects and edges of the image as it takes the attention of a viewer away from the image.
2. Law of Similarity
This law states that similar looking objects are perceived as a group by our brain. Similarity can be of form, shape, size or color. This is the principle behind why patterns look so interesting.
In the image above can you see a cross made with squares? It's law of similarity at work which makes you see a cross made with squares.
3. Law of Closure
This law states that our brain tends to fill in the missing details to make complete sense of what it sees. Forms can be completed outside the frame in visual perception.
(Photo by London Photo Routes)
In the image above we perceive two women walking while there is only an arm and two legs of a person and rest is filled in by our brain to make sense of what it is seeing.
4. Law of Symmetry
This law states that our brain tends to see shapes to be symmetrical around the geometric center. It may override law of proximity sometimes as in this example:
In the above image we see three sets of brackets rather than six individual brackets. Presence of symmetry makes the composition harmonious and calming while slight shift in symmetry can bring tension in the image and make it more interesting. For example look at this image from stephenhogarden.com
Rule of thirds is a derivative of this law.
5. Law of Common Fate
This law provides basis for creating visual direction. Simply if two people in a photograph are walking in a direction then that works as a cue to our brain to perceive that the motion in that direction is going to continue. It could be direction set by a pattern, direction of gaze, pointing shape such as an arrow or motion. For example look at this image:
In the image above it is clear that the couple is going to continue moving in the direction till they reach the last tree or the point of convergence, however, in reality they may just turn from there and start walking back.
6. Law of Continuity
This law states that shapes are perceived to continue in the established manner beyond their ending points. Following image depicts this law:
In the image above it can be seen that we tend to perceive two wavy lines one from left to right and another from top to bottom. Note that here Law of continuity overrides law of similarity (color).
This Photograph uses this concept beautifully.
(Photo Credit: Gaurav Parashar)
7. Figure to Ground
This is one of the most important law among gestalt principles that we need to deal with every time we make a photograph. This law states that our brain has inherent tendency to categorize an image into a subject (figure) and its background. Sometimes, brain can see figure as background and background as figure and it flips but it never sees both at the same time.
Do you see the tree or lion and a gorilla? Notice how your perception flips back and forth but your can't see both at the same time. In photography, it's very important to take care that the background doesn't shout for attention and subject should stand out. Sometimes Figure is also referred to as positive space and ground as negative space. So in the image above if you are looking at the tree then it becomes the positive space and the white space on either side becomes the negative space. But, if you are looking at the lion and the gorilla then the black space around becomes the negative space.
8. Law of Past Experience
This law states that our perception of what we see is dependent on our past experience. It can be recent past experience or conditioning over long time. If a shape has a personal meaning to you then you'll see it as the first thing in an image. For example look at this image:
Do you see cross first or the buildings? Most people tend to see cross first due to its religious meaning which is based on past experience. This is an example of negative space (cross) dominating positive space (the buildings).
So these are the gestalt principles which govern how to use formal elements in your composition to impart meaning.