How To Practise Gestalt Vision

Subdivision © Kniut Skjærven

Factor Scene © Knut Skjærven

One of the pillars of Street Photographer’s Toolbox is gestalt psychology.  Developing gestalt vision is one of the important ambitions.

Why is developing gestalt vision so important? The answer is very simple: Because gestalt vision covers both innate perception and opens up for perceptions based on your private experience and knowledge. It combines the two.

Innate perception is the type of perception that goes on without you knowing it. It is one of the basic ways we as human beings operate in the visual world.. Knowing about gestalt vision is an immense resource for any kind of visual communication. Thus for photography in general and street photography in particular.

Getting intimate with gestalt vision and learning to use it in street photography require two things:

1) You need to know the factors of gestalt vision, and

2) You definitely need to practise  the factors of gestalt vision.

Don’t under estimate any of the two.

If you get it right you will have a resource for photography/street photography for the rest of your life. After a while you will see that the new knowledge and practice hook up in you spine and start to operate as second nature without you having to bother much about it. The factors work for you on their own. You will recognise factor scenes when you are out doing photography. And you will take the shots.

What are the factors you need to know?

Having been mentioned on this site many times already, let me just list the names: 1) Factor of Proximity; 2) Factor of Similarity; 3) Factor of Common Fate; 4) Factor of Direction; 5) Factor of Good Curve; 6) Factor of Closure; and 7) Factor of Past Experience or Habit. These are the 7 you need to know. They all derive from a ground breaking article written by Max Wertheimer published in 1923.

Yes, in (street) photography we are all way behind in this matter.

Knowing names is one thing, learning to use factors is a very different thing. There is only one way to learn to use the factors and that is practise, practise, practise. Without practise  you will think that gestalt vision is just another bright idea. Think that and factors will never do you any good. So do as Karate Kid and start waxing over and over and over. There is no other way to get it and get better at it.

Here are some advice 0n how to practise gestalt vision.

1) Focus on one factor at the time

Take a day off and use that day ONLY to shoot grouping by proximity. Forget all the rest and make sure that you build you groups by proximity. Proximity means close together.

Comment on photo above: This photo is all about showing how proximity gives meaning. Yes, there are also other factor at work but you need to forget them. Proximity dominates.

2) Practise in the sequence indicted above.  Meaning, start with 1 and work you way to 7 

The simple reason for this is that it is much easier to deal with proximity and similarity as starters as the other way around. Proximity first and habit last.

Comment on photo above: Yes, I have taken the medicine and have started with 1) Factor of Proximity  as my first training task.

3) Remember it is all about grouping

Gestalt vision is about how we perceptually shortcut ways of understanding to make it faster and operational. Proximity is not about placing a single object/subject  in each corner of a frame. A group of one is no group at all.

Comment on photo above: When you have more than one you have a potential group. This image contains two groups of people. The one is sitting, the other one is dancing.

4) Simple is super

Get rid of all disturbing messages in your photograph. It should not be necessary to explain what you have done. People should feel the impact of it. In a training session make all as simple as you possibly can. After that, continue with simple.

Comment on photo above: I have tried to get rid of access information as much as possible. The image is relatively clean.

5) Size matter

Yes, size matters. Not all content in a photograph comes with the same strength and value. Size is one of the parameters you need to get the grip on. You need to learn to mentally filter a scene  for what is visually important and what is not.

Comment on photo above: Yes, there is a third couple in this image. They are sitting down and you see their legs in the upper left corner. They don’t have an immediate value in this shot, so in a training session we decide to overlook them.

6) Don’t tell, show

After you have shot a photo take a really good look at it. Does it work, does it not work? You are the first to know. If you have to start explaining what you have done you could be in trouble because people may not agree with you or even understand what you say. Don’t tell. Show.

Comment on photo above: I hope that the two group are visible to most.

7) Two to tango

Remember that you are the artist.

But there is a second artist who is as important. That is your viewer. There are no final truths about visual content and meaning in a photograph. But that is not the same as saying that all photographs are visually as well handled as others. Beauty, if that is what you are after, is not in the eye of the beholder. But the beholder is a main influencer. That is, however,  a major difference.

Comment on photo above: Yes, it takes two to tango.

8) Get itchy

The first step in acquiring gestalt vision is to make concept shots. Dealing with proximity in a training session is first and foremost about shooting concept shots. Concept shots are about getting the concept right. Once you are on top of the concept, and others agree with you, then start to get itchy. Getting itchy means that you within a concept, or combining concepts, move  from the ordinary to the extraordinary.

How you do this is for you to decide. It will normally be pretty recognisable if you succeed or not.

Comment on photo above: Well, this is a training session so this shot will have to do :-).

9) Mediocracy and indifference is not the way

Street photography, as any other type of photography, treated with a serious ambitions will not work if you are not properly dedicated.  Work up a passion or just leave the area for another where you can maybe can work up a passion. If you don’t do your very best somone else will and you will be left in the dark.

Mediocracy and indifference is not the way.

Comment on photo above: Well, we all have to do our best :-). 

That’s all folks. Good luck with it. Now go and get the wax :-). Good day to you all.

© Knut Skjærven. All rights reserved. Text and photo.

Copenhagen, July 10, 2013.


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