Power your photography with these 5 basic principles of psychology

Photographer taking a picture of a tree lines

Image source: Tomasz Zajda.

Evolutionary psychologists have long studied why humans make and appreciate art. Among the most widely accepted theories is that doing so allows us to find and explore meaning in the world around us.

Ask any photographer why they do what they do — regardless of the type of photography they are engaged in — and you will likely receive a similar response about the fulfillment that comes from being able to express themselves through imagery. Whether they are capturing images of products, people, or nature, photographers make countless small decisions that add up ultimately to a unique psychological fingerprint — their inner world translated into the physical.

The power of a person’s psychology to shape an image does not end after it’s been shot, however. Creating something with meaning is a two-way street, a conversation between the creator (via the creation) and their audience.

In other words, images are constantly modified by the minds that interact with them. For some photographers, this living relationship between their art and viewers can feel threatening — a kind of forfeiture of control. Others may find it freeing when the psychology of their audience adds more meaning and context to their images.

For a look at how to apply some basic principles of human psychology to improve your own work, read on.

Use the principles of psychology to improve your photography

The good news is you don’t need to be a psychologist to convey ideas in a creative and meaningful manner. A basic understanding of the Gestalt principles of design, as laid out below, can help you know how your work can affect an audience.

Image of woman with her hands to her chest.

The ability to identify this image as a woman — as well as the tendency to immediately imagine the eyes and other missing features — is an example of the Gestalt principle known as closure.

Close

Closure is a principle that refers to the brain’s ability to fill in gaps in an image based on what elements are present. For example, if you remove a small section of a simple shape such as a triangle, most people will still be able to recognize that the object is a triangle, even with that information missing.

You can use the principle of closure to make viewers infer the presence of something in a photo, even if it is not pictured. This may be particularly beneficial in mediums such as abstract photography that often feature simple, recognizable shapes.

Image of a road lines with trees.

In this image, the individual trees seem to merge to form two solid walls — the result of the Gestalt principle of continuity.

Continuity

The human mind’s tendency to see similar sequential elements as smooth and continuous rather than disjointed individual elements is known as continuity. For example, although a movie is a series of individual frames, our mind perceives it as a continuous whole. As a photographer, you can use this principle to develop a sense of cohesiveness in a series of photos through the use of similar elements.

Image of two children wearing yellow jackets in the middle of green bushes.

This image capitalizes on the mind’s habit of seeking a focal point and grouping subjects based on visual contrast — a phenomenon known as the Gestalt figure and ground principle — to draw a distinction between the subjects and their surroundings.

Figure and ground

We automatically search for the focal point of an image, and that’s why it is important to understand the relationship between “figure” and “ground.” The figure is the desired focal point while the ground is the rest of the image (typically the background or foreground). For example, in a photo featuring a person standing in front of a pond full of geese, either the person or the geese could constitute the “figure.”

Once you have decided what the viewer’s eye should be drawn to, you can more effectively make decisions related to framing and photo editing. You can bring attention to the focal point in a variety of ways, such as by incorporating high-contrast colors, blurring the background, or following the rule of thirds when composing a shot.

Images of a flock of chickens walking in the snow.

That the mind views this feathery flock as a single group marching in the direction of a shared goal is an example of the Gestalt principle known as the law of common fate.

Law of common fate

The law of common fate refers to our tendency to perceive singular objects that are moving as a group in a similar direction as being part of a cohesive whole. This principle is exemplified by how we view flocks of birds or schools of fish as one large entity. You can use the law of common fate to imply a shared goal or destiny of your subjects — be they people, animals, or abstract shapes.

Image of a tall building taken from below.

The Gestalt principle of proximity describes why the buildings here feel as though they’re in a kind of standoff, the tension rising with the structures before reaching an incomplete resolution in the form of the bridge connecting just two of the three skyscrapers.

Proximity

According to the principle of proximity, we perceive objects that are near each other as being part of a group. You can therefore use groups of objects to draw the eye of the viewer or to give a sense of unity. For example, you could capture a group of beetles climbing a tree to draw the viewer’s focus or give them the impression that the beetles have a common purpose.

Meanwhile, in the case of seemingly opposed groups of objects, you could even use this principle to create a sense of conflict. For example, a photo of two groupings of pillars could be used to demonstrate opposing forces or tension.

Image of a dead pine tree standing apart from its counterparts.

This dead pine tree stands apart from its counterparts not only in spacing but color and overall vitality. In doing so, it demonstrates the Gestalt principle of similarity — that is the mind’s habit of categorizing images based on shared visual traits.

Similarity

Our minds tend to categorize images based on how visually similar they are to each other. For instance, an image with natural elements next to human-made elements would offer contrasting visual features. The viewer would sort these elements quickly into two major categories. By using this principle, you can create a sense of uniformity or contrast.

Explore the connection

As a photographer, you’re able to portray the world through your perspective, highlighting issues that are important to you, spotlight subjects you are passionate about, and better understand your surroundings.

Just as your own inner world affects how you capture an image, your viewers’ mindset shapes how they view it. Exploring the powerful connection between psychology and photography can help inspire dynamic photographs — not to mention a powerful connection with your audience.

Leave a Comment