Color III – Contrasts II

In the previous section we listed the different type of color contrasts available, according to Johannes Itten. They were:

1.  Contrast of Hue

2.  Light-Dark Contrast, or contrast of Value

3.  Cool-Warm Contrast

4.  Complementary Contrast

5.  Simultaneous Contrast

6.  Contrast of Saturation

7.  Contrast of Extension or Contrast of Proportion

That section covered the first four types. Here we continue with the others.

Simultaneous Contrast

In the “real” world, the one defined by physics, objects have no inherent color. Instead, their surfaces contain materials that absorb some wavelengths and reflect others. Our eyes take in the reflected light waves and convert them into signals. Then, our brains translate the signals into color. If we see a green colored object, it is because the surface of the object absorbs all colors except green.

The only way to accurately describe any color is with an instrument like a spectrometer. Furthermore, the only way to accurately perceive a color by eye, with all of its qualities intact, is when it is isolated from other colors.

All colors interact with the colors adjacent to them. Simultaneous contrast is the name given to the effect colors exert on their neighbors. In the case of two colors side by side, the left will influence the one on the right. In turn, the right one will influence the one on the left. They influence each other simultaneously, therefore the term “simultaneous” contrast. The affect is not real in the physical sense but a result of the way the brain and eyes operate in the real world.

Below is a discussion of seventeen effects observed as colors interact. Keep in mind that some of these effects will be minor and difficult to perceive. If they are, keep looking by holding your gaze on the example, simultaneous effects will increase over a short time. In other samples, the effects should be readily obvious. When studying the samples, if you are sure that the examples are not accurate between the samples, copy them, and measure them in your photo-editing program. Use of the HSL scale will help you make the most sense of the comparisons. You will find the samples accurate.

Any color will change appearance when put in proximity of another color.

This is easiest seen using a neutral grey on a colored field. In the example below, the grey patches in the colored field are identical. However, there appears to be variations between them. In the next example, the identical blue-violet squares shift color even more dramatically than the greys did.

You will notice that the colored rectangles of the background between the two samples show a change in intensity. To see this best, move your gaze back and forth from one quadrant on the left to the same quadrant on the right. The colored squares interact with their colored backgrounds, creating a perceived difference between the backgrounds of the samples.

Dark colors and dark values look darker when exhibited against light colors and light values, than if against dark colors and values.

Light colors and light values look lighter when exhibited against dark colors and dark values, than if against light colors and values.

In this pair of samples, the four small squares are identical for each position between the two samples. In addition, the yellow squares on the left side of each sample are of the same hue, just as the blue squares in each sample are of the same hue. The difference between each hue pair is in the luminance/lightness measurements, one is lighter than the other is. Viewing the visual differences in value between the squares in the sample will prove the statements underlined above. For instance, when comparing the light blue squares, the one on the left will appear lighter. When comparing the dark yellow squares show the one on the right to appear darker.

Any color will influence an adjacent color’s hue in the direction of its own compliment. An adjacent color will be pushed toward the other colors direct compliment. Below, the light blue bars tend toward the compliment of the field color. The bar in the orange field picks up a slight bluish tint while the bar in the green field picks up a slight reddish tint.

This second pair of samples shows different bar colors on the same background. This illustrates how the complimentary push works regardless of the color associated with a given background. Looking closely you will notice how background colors are influenced by the bars, just as the bars are influenced by the backgrounds.

A non-complimentary color will create a shift toward its own compliment in the adjacent color’s hue.

This is something of a restatement of the one above. Colors push adjacent colors toward their own compliment. For example, a red field will push overlying colors toward cyan. Direct compliments cannot affect its opposite hue.

Any color will appear to gain intensity, and appear lighter, when exhibited against a black ground.

Any color will appear to loose intensity, and appear darker, when exhibited against a white ground.

These are pretty self explanatory, and commonly known to most image makers. To get the most intensity from a color, show it on a black background. To reduce the intensity of colors, show them on a white background. A mid grey background is used to show the image off in a neutral manner.

Dark colors on a dark complimentary ground will exhibit more intensity than when on a non-complimentary ground.

Light colors on a light complimentary ground will exhibit more intensity than when on a non-complimentary ground.

Any two complimentary colors will exhibit higher intensity contrast when side-by-side, than either color viewed alone.

In a section above it was mentioned that direct compliments do not affect each others hue. This is true but they will affect each others apparent contrast or brightness. The samples below exhibit more contrast when adjacent, than they do when alone in a field.

A high intensity color used with a lower intensity or toned down field of the same hue, will further reduce the intensity of the field.

In both sets of samples the colored field appears to be less intense when the smaller block of higher intensity color is included.

Intense colors next to less intense colors exhibit the strongest contrast when the colors are compliments.

In the two samples below the blue appears more intense on the degraded yellow compliment than it does on the split complimentary green or other colors. The backgrounds vary only in hue, the saturation and value settings are constant between them.

Light colors on light, non-complimentary backgrounds gain strength by use of narrow borders of black or dark complimentary colors. 

Dark colors on dark, non-complimentary backgrounds gain strength by use of narrow borders of white or light complimentary colors. 

In these samples, thin key lines added around the upper set of circles act as an accent, setting the circle off from the background color and strengthening their affect. You can see how the bottom set of colored circles loose strength without the addition of the outline.

Complimentary colors of similar brightness can emphasize one another in a way that causes “irradiation”, or a sense of vibration along their common edge.

Direct compliments used adjacent to one another, when of similar value, create a vibration along their common edge. This is called irradiation. Irradiation can be used effectively to accentuate elements and was commonly used on concert posters during the Hippie era in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Wes Wilson’s work would be familiar to most.

When used with toned down colors the affect is not as great yet the edges seem to begin to blend together making it often a poor choice for use with text. Over use of irradiation is tiring on the eyes and can lead to visual fatigue and even headaches if one has to view a lot of text presented this way.

60's era poster by Wes Wilson.

60’s era poster by Wes Wilson.

Image source

Simultaneous contrast is affected by contrast of extension.

Extension is the same as proportion. Affects can be increased or decreased by changing the proportions of one color to another. A further discussion of extension follows down the page.

Simultaneous contrast creates fluting along sharp edges between colors.

This is best demonstrated by creating a posterized gradation of a color  or a grey step scale. Even though the intermediate steps are not gradated, they appear as if they are. When a sharp edge of light against dark occurs, the eye will perceive the lighter area becoming lighter as it approaches the dark area. Conversely, the darker area will appear to become darker as it approaches the light area.This effect gives the area a sense of having a curved shape or being fluted like a the columns of a Greek marble temple.

If you have ever seen halos along an edge in a photograph, you are seeing a form of intentional use of the fluting effect. The engineers who developed sharpening techniques took a cue from human perception and used the technique in image sharpening solutions.

This fconcludes the list of complimentary contrast effects. What is left is to cover the last two types of color contrasts.

Contrast of Saturation

Think of this as contrast of tones and tints. The contrast can occur for a single hue or among differing hues. Saturation is controlled by using tints (the addition of white to a color), shades (the addition of black to a color), tones (the addition of any mixture of black and white to a color), or by mixing a color with its direct compliment (eventually producing a grey).

Contrast of Extension

Contrast of extension is all about proportions. It is contrast created by controlling the proportion of one color relative to the other. It is used to balance, or counter the balance of an image that is heavily weighted toward a single hue. It can also be used to affect  brightness or intensity of a hue.

Consider that use of color harmonies present a choice of colors. How much one is used, over the others can affect your message and affect the balance of the image. One may seek balance of equivalence through proportionality, or imbalance through disproportionality, making one color more active than the other does. Other contrasts, such as contrast of light and dark, become strengthened or weakened through contrast of extension.

In the red/green samples below, the first appears to be in balance. Both fields are of equal size and exert similar weight. In the second sample, the green stands out due to contrast of extension. The smaller proportion of the green to the red, now draw emphasis to the green squares giving them more importance.

The next set of examples use orange and blue. Orange and blue do not balance well when in equal proportions as can be seen in the first sample. The blue seems to be the more dominant color. If the proportions are changed to 1/3 blue and 2/3 orange, giving the orange more opportunity to exert itself, then the colors seem to balance.

Those who have read the chapters on Gestalt may have felt that the second red/green sample above was not a fair example, because of the influence of proximity and similarity of the green squares. Yes, there is a strength exhibited by the proximity and similarity factors in the sample, but we can still use color extension alone to create the interest. In the two samples below there is only a single figure on the ground and the colors are reversed from one to the other. As can be seen the smaller object still grabs the stage, with the color strengthening its effect.

This brings us to the end of the discussion on color. As stated before, color is a huge subject and this discussion gets below the surface. The intent was to present the same depth of knowledge found in a high-quality color design class found at the college level.

There is always more to learn about a topic. If one wanted to further their depth of knowledge in color, I would suggest reading Johannes Ittens, “Elements of Color”. It is less than 100 pages with examples, and was based upon the classes he taught at the Bauhaus before WWII. This is still the best “first book” on color available.

The next book I would pick up is Josef Albers, “Interaction of Color”. Another short book based upon his work at the Bauhaus and at Yale University. This book is mostly of interest to those applying colors to designs, illustrations and paintings. However, an inquisitive photographer will find the information eye opening. The exercises presented in the text are sun and can be accomplished in a photo editing program or drawing program.

Once the initially promised outline for this blog has been covered other smaller discussions will take place, including covering tangents to the topics already presented. For instance, discussing Albers’ exercises showing how to make four colors appear as three, or three colors appear as four, by manipulating their basic elements.

Next time: The Principals of Art

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.

Elements of Design – Value and Texture


Value is a description of an area’s relative lightness or darkness. Therefore, it relates to a greyscale more than the color wheel. In a sense, value mostly ignores hue and operates only on the level of how much tint (addition of white), or shade (addition of black), a color may have. Value does not ignore hue completely though because all fully saturated hues will fall on a different natural levels of a value scale (grey scale).

Values help create forms and differentiate space or distance. Gradation of values within a space or shape create forms, or the illusion of volume and mass.

Values can be loosely predicted by looking at the color of the object. Pure yellow will fall near the top of a grey scale, while pure blue-violet will fall near the bottom of the grey scale. All other pure hues fall somewhere in between. Looking at the two images below, the second image is a grey scale conversion of the first. Note how light the value of the yellow circle is compared to the others, also note how little difference there is between values of some of the other colors. This affect is used in B&W to remove any emotional and psychological reaction to color. In return, the viewer responds more directly to the formal constructions of the image and the message.

Today, most photographers are not consciously aware of the colors in their photos. Whatever colors are in front of the camera are of no major concern. There is no attempt at controlling the palette of the image, so unfortunately, value control is also of less concern.The fact is, value can impart as much, or more, emotional response than color. It is the main component of black and white photography. High value or high key images have a light, pure feel to them. By manipulating values through exposure control, a high-key or low-key image can be created. A great example for tone is the work of Edward Steichen.

Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was one of the first commercially successful fashion photographers. He is considered the first modern fashion photographer and worked for large ad agencies. Hired by Condé Nast, he shot for Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines from 1923–1938, the most famous and highest paid photographer in the world during that time. He won an Academy Award for a documentary film in 1945 and became the head of the Photography section of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Below are examples of his work. Note the use of tones to create drama in the images. His work had a major influence on both the commercial and film industries through WWII.

Edward Steichen, "Norma Shearer, 1935"

Edward Steichen, “Norma Shearer, 1935”

Image Source

High valued or high-key images illustrate lightness, airy, open, friendly spaces and aid the impression of confident success. In this image of model Norma Shearer, one can see how the high key tonal use helps elevate the impressions of high culture, wealth and well-being. The placement of her head in front of the mirror subliminally places a halo around her head. This halo becomes a crown when ones vision registers the crystal ornamentation truncated at the top of the mirror. This is an instance where the figure-ground can reverse in the black shape within the mirror. It seems to stand forward of her head at times.

Edward Steichen, "J P Morgan, 1903"

Edward Steichen, “J P Morgan, 1903”

Image Source

Dark value or low-key images usually have a heavy or oppressive feel to them. Steichen has used low key lighting and dark tones in presenting us with a menacing image of financier J P Morgan, one of the most feared and hated men of his day. Note how the arm rest on the right side of the image takes on the appearance of a knife.This was not entirely unintentional and shows one approach to strengthening the message of an image.

Edward Steichen, "Margaret Horan, 1935" for Vogue

Edward Steichen, “Margaret Horan, 1935” for Vogue

Image Source

Using heavy darks in concert with vibrant whites adds drama.This image of Margaret Horan, shot for Vogue Magazine, is a study in shapes, lines, forms, space and tones. Steichen could easily have used an overall darker palette but would have lost the drama and elegance of the image. A high-key treatment would have become too much of an abstraction dismissing the pose and human element. Consider also how the image would change just by shifting the camera 1 foot to the left. The near tangent of her upper thigh would have disappeared into the rectangular shadow on the rear wall. The elegant line created by her left side would no longer show, resulting in a less glamorous image.

If you are observant you will also catch the implied line traveling from the statuette down both arms to the piano. Only to be turned back by the right triangle in the white space created by the curved shape of the piano top and her arm.


Texture is created by contrast changes along the surface of an object. It is a byproduct of the angle of the light and the roughness of the surface of an object. The illusion of texture in a photograph is created by small, localized changes in contrast. If a surface is rough, there will irregularities on the surface. As long as the light illuminates the object from aside or rear angle, it will create a shadow and highlight on the irregularities. This creates changes in value or color, higher in the highlight side and lower in the shadow side. These differences in local value, contrast, are what we perceive as texture on the object.

A smooth surface has no irregularities so it exhibits little localized contrast and so appears to have no texture.

Texture gives an object a sense of being real and tactile. Presented correctly, texture becomes a quality we can “feel” without actually touching. The brain sends a feeling to receptors in the fingers and we experience a “sense” of the texture. Coarse textures exhibiting high localized contrast will have a rough or severe character. Smooth textures exhibiting lower localized contrast will have a calm or sensuous character.

These images by Edward Weston (arguably the most influential photographer of the 20th Century) exhibit entirely different textures. The first image, titled, “Church Door, Hornitos, 1940 is a good illustration of how localized changes in the surface create the feeling of rough texture. Notice that the light is coming in from a high, side angle. Without the right lighting, texture becomes nothing more than the tonal changes we see in the shadow area of the door.

Edward Weston, Church Door, Hornitos, 1940

Edward Weston, Church Door, Hornitos, 1940

Image Source

The second image, titled, “Nautilus, 1927” illustrates how a lack of texture enhances the illusion of an objects smooth surface on the two-dimensional print. Using rather flat lighting enhances the affect by filling in any local texture. This reduces contrast changes even more.

Edward Weston. Nautilus, 1927

Edward Weston. Nautilus, 1927

Image Source

The same applies to Weston’s, “Pepper No. 30, 1930”.

Edward Weston. Pepper No. 30, 1930.

Edward Weston. Pepper No. 30, 1930.

Image Source

Unrelated to texture, notice how the figure-ground relationship of the upper portion of the shell itself can change, resulting in an ambiguous form. At any one moment, the upper hollow of the shell seems to take a shape, projecting forward, toward the viewer. At another moment it reverts to a literal reading of the shape and recedes behind the base of the shell. Both of these photographs are illustrative of photography’s ability to transform an objects image from a record of an object to a sensual, organic form created in the viewer’s mind. The shell might remind one of a toadstool or a phallus The pepper imitates a human form rendered into a twisted shape and is mirrored in Weston’s most famous nude of Charis Wilson.

Continue reading

Elements of Design – Space


Space is the interval of distance or area around or between objects. Space on a page is 2 dimensional, but 3 dimensional space can be implied by overlapping elements, changes in size, using perspective, using diagonals or using color and tones. Space contains background, middle ground and foreground. One can perceive space as positive (figure) or negative (ground) depending on its use.

In relation to the Elements of Design, positive space describes the object or subject within the frame. Negative space describes the area around the object or what remains.  Space also refers to the area that a form or shape contains.  Use of space is most recognizable in 3 dimensional objects including sculpture.


In the image above, the positive space is the blue squares or figure, the negative space is the dark orange ground. The space an object appears to reside in can be influenced by its placement within the frame. An object placed higher in the frame appears to reside farther from the viewer than an object near the bottom of the frame. In a case like that, the brain creates its own perspective accepting the higher object as more distant.

Title unknown

Title unknown

Image Source

In this image by Paul Stand, title unknown, we see effective and expressive use of space. If you first view the image as an abstract, the dominant feature in this image is the flat expanse of water stretching into the distance, filling nearly 2/3 of the frame. By focusing on the water, and not the trees, the water and fog appear as a higher-valued (lighter toned) figure or positive space. This allows the brain to see the image as an abstract of darks and light and makes for an interesting tone map.If you find it difficult to perceive the image in this way try squinting your eyes until they are about ½ closed. By removing the detail, the forms, tones, shapes and spaces become more apparent. You can use this technique with most any image. I have also included a tone map of the image just below. The tone map, by itself, is interesting enough, visually, to use as an illustration.

Viewing the Strand image by focusing on the trees and spit of land create a more literal reading of the image and enhance the sense of place and time. The bases of the trees are flooded and convey a sense of isolation and vulnerability within the expanse of the water. By placing the trees to the far left of the frame, Strand has isolated them in their space, further affecting the impact. This impact would have been greatly reduced had he included more land to the left or less water in the fore ground.

Space as we can now see has expressive qualities that enhance our purposes.

Using small spaces between objects can connect them through proximity.
Surrounding an object with lots of blank space or white areas will draw attention to the object.
Overlapped objects or perspective creates a depth of space.
Unequal spacing between similar objects is more dynamic than regimented grouping.
Blank spaces or white areas also create a visual place of rest for the eyes, just as rest intervals in music are the quiet intervals in between notes.

It should be evident by now that most of these elements of design, and the Gestalt elements, do not singularly occur on their own. In most images, you will observe multiple elements at work in concert with one another. This means that attempting to create an image based solely on any one element will be next to impossible.

Next Time: Elements of Design – Value and Texture

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.

Elements of Design – Shape and Form


Shape describes two-dimensional space. The actual defining of shape is done by other elements of design: line, space, value, or color. In combination, these other elements form the shapes we see in a work. Shape occurs when tone or color fills the area between lines. Shape is the brains attempt at resolving an object as recognizable (logical) to one’s experience. In the two-dimensional world, there are three simple geometric shapes – the square, the triangle, and the circle. All other geometric shapes are some combination of these three.

There are also more the more complex organic shapes we see in natural and man-made objects, such as the silhouette of leaves, trees, cars or other everyday objects. Shape is the foundation of form.


Form is the three-dimensional counterpart to shape. Shape is to form as a square is to a cube. In the three-dimensional world, the basic geometric forms are cube, sphere, pyramid, cylinder and cones. Form is shape with dimension or volume. To change a shape to a form, dimension must be created by the addition of tone or color transitions within the shape. This results is the illusion of three-dimensions in a two-dimensional space.

In the first decades of the 20th Century photography was moving away from Pictorialism, the trend of photographers attempting to imitate painterly effects in photos, mostly through soft focus and romantic subject matter.  Some of the influences drawing photographers away from Pictorialism were Dadaism, Cubism and a move toward images in sharp focus. It was during this transitional time that Edward Weston took this early masterpiece of composition, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921. This is clearly a transitional piece borrowing from Pictorialism and touching on elements of gestalt. It also seems to  echo some of the modernist notions of space that were explored in the two decades leading to the production of this image.

This is an image that uses shapes almost exclusively in its design. The framing of the image presents the viewer with an ambiguous space where we don’t know if the central dark form is projecting forward into the space or receding toward the left due to the the figure-ground flip-flops. Is the woman, Betty Katz, leaning against the wall? Or is she looking at it head-on, while being separated from another space on the far side of the projection? A third reading could be of the entire wall being perfectly flat with an abstract design painted on it. The woman’s organic dark form counters the geometric lines and lighter tones of the space. Her size and placement within the frame balance the otherwise expansive mass of shapes and tones.

Edward Weston, Attic, Glendale, California, 1921Tone map of Westons, Attic.

Image Source

In this image, Weston is obviously playing with the shapes as geometric planes in space. Texture is non-existent and  any volume in the image is generated by tonal changes determined by the angle of the surface.  The tone map indicates a simple, yet appealing set of lines and tones.

Below is another famous photograph,  this time by the Master Photographer Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946. Even if you don’t know that Stravinsky was one of the 20th Centuries greatest composers, the shapes within the frame leave no doubt that he was connected to music in some way.

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Arnold Newman, Igor Stravinsky, 1946

Tone Map

Tone Map

Image Source

This is a very graphic design and just an outline of the shapes would be interesting. Here is another instance where creating a tone map breaks the image down into a collection of shapes without any form or other information. The arrangement of shapes within the frame is interesting for its own design.

Below is another Newman portrait, this time of Alfred Hitchcock, the famous film director/producer and master of the psychological thriller and suspense genre in the middle of the last century. Newman, master of the environmental portrait, has him sitting quite far forward so that his body seems detached from the head in a way that the head seems magically attached yet ready to roll down front by its own weight. Notice the simplicity of the image with only 3 objects in the frame: the forms of the body and head, and the background shape. The graphic quality of the image being obvious.

Alfred Neuman, Alfred Hitchcock, date unk.Image Source

Returning to Weston, during the middle of his career Edward Weston’s work often concentrated on finding the “essence” of is subject matter. His work by then had evolved from the Pictorialist soft focus image to the sharp, maximum focus practices of the F-64 Group. Now everything possible was in focus and finding the composition leading to a deep connection with the subject was paramount. Form now became important when photographing a subject and the details found in the local contrasts of objects became important. The essence of the object itself became the subject, as well as what the image by itself could elicit emotionally.

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

Edward Weston, Dunes, Oceano, 1936

Image Source

In this shot of sand dunes in on the Central California Coast, we see a study of lines, shapes, forms and textures. Weston is using nature’s ever-present design as a subject of its own. This image can be viewed in numerous ways. It can be seen as a realistic study of the land, with all of its details sharply delineated from the foreground to the mountains in the far distance. Alternatively, it might be viewed as a counter-comment to a realistic reading of the image, abstracted into nothing more than a study of shape, form, line, and tone. Still others may see it in a spiritual sense, as an equivalent to a deeply felt personal event or other experience from life. Regardless of Weston’s original intent, he was highly aware of the formal elements of design within the ground glass and used them to his advantage.

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern

Image Source

The image above, Imogen Cunningham, Leaf Pattern contains some of the elements we have discussed over in the past few posts. See how many of the items you can pick out.  Include any Gestalt elements you might recognize. As a starting point realize the photo is a picture of leaves in front of a white wall and the shadows they cast on that wall.

Don’t think that all of this discussion about line, form, shape etc. is just “old bunk” that no longer applies. Practiced every day, the Elements of Design still hold true and in the worlds of design, publishing, photography and Art. Familiarizing yourself with, and utilizing these concepts, but not letting them control your vision, is one of the best ways to improve your photography. As an exercise, spend the next few photo outings looking for designs in nature or at man made locations, they exist all over. When you find them, spend some time considering the best way to frame them in a way that the design becomes  part of the subject of the image. You will find that over time, your brain will start to connect more with design and you will be utilizing it naturally without effort. The end result will be improved vision and better photographs.


Next Time: Space


Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.

Gestalt – Figure and Ground – Artifice


Artifice is another aspect of figure-ground where techniques like object blending, hiding, and visual deceptions work to conceal, or fool the eyes of the viewer. John Pfahl is a well-known practitioner of artifice photography in the form of visual camouflage, is most known for his “Altered Landscapes” series. In his images, we see an exploration of creating ambiguity of space and scale within the two dimensional space of the image.

Jerry Uelsmann practices a form of psychological artifice with his masterful blending of portions of different, unrelated negatives into prints of extraordinary beauty and mystical content. His work has led to a whole genre of digitally manipulated photographic images. Partly because of his masterful technique, but mostly due to the surrealistically logical imagery in the scenes, most of his images are immediately readable.

Artifice occasionally influences my own work, probably due to looking at too much Minor White over time. I find it can come in two forms visual and emotional.

Visual artifice, like the scene below, tricks the brain into seeing something other than the object photographed. In this instance, the effect is strengthened by the title. The title: “Control of the Oceans – A View of Iron Bottom Sound”, suggests a logical framework for the brain prior to looking at the image.

Emotional artifice comes in the form of strong emotional reactions to images. Anytime empathy for, or personification of an object occurs, a form of artifice takes place. The image below is strongly reacted to by most viewers. Part of a series of images taken over the period of a year and a half, this image evokes differing emotional responses ranging from pity to anger.

Aesthetic Analysis

Formal aesthetic analysis of any creative work usually begins by mapping the visual structure of the image. This is an analysis of the lines, shapes, tones, contrasts etc, found in the image. This analysis is informed by the Principals of Art and the Elements of Design. These in turn are influenced by the Gestalt elements found in the image.

To illustrate lets look again at the image above. What makes this composition work?

Looking at it formally, there are three vertical elements: the wooden upright, the plexiglass rectangle and the rectangular compartment on the left. Each is supported by strong horizontals top and bottom.  These verticals, anchored by the horizontals, create a sense of repose and solidity. The verticals are further reinforced by the fluting of the cardboard backing of the right compartment.

Three verticals elements deliniated by color overlays.

Three verticals elements anchored by horizontals.

If it contained a plain background in the compartment on the left, this composition would have appeared heavy and overly imbalanced to the right. With the broad “barber pole” like diagonals, the image seems comfortably positioned and in balance. The image below illustrates how the space is divided by the horizontal, vertical and diagonal elements.

Division of verticals, horizontals and diagonals within the frame.

An implied triangle running from the top of the larger dolls head down to both sides to just above the horizontal base of the right compartment shown below left.  This triangle strengthens the composition and adds gravity, anchoring it within the visual space. There is also a similarity of the rounded shapes described by the bodies of a both dolls creating an implied circular shape within the frame shown below right.

Other Gestalt elements found in the image include similarity in the shapes of the doll heads, and the rectangular forms of the left and right vertical compartments.

The implied circle within the frame helps strengthen the composition.

The implied triangle adds gravity to an already solidly based compostiion.

All of these steadying components then fall counter to the tension created by the emotional desire to personify the doll on the right as a deceased infant, contrasted with the laughing figure of the impish character on the left .

Keep in mind that these elements were not analyzed as the exposure was being made.  There was though, a decision to include what is currently in the frame. A second composition was made by shooting closer, excluding the left hand compartment. Since I always try to compose to the whole frame (no cropping) the 2:3 format cut into the upper portion of the right compartment in the second framing. Visually, it was unsatisfying and the image felt imbalanced to the eye. I also almost removed the small figure on the left prior to exposure but in the end I left it in. Removing it would have resulted in a weaker overall image, deleting a key component of the emotional artifice.

Again, most of the design influences in framing the shot were not conscious decisions made prior to exposure. But being subconsciously aware of the Principals of Art and Elements of Design would have influenced the overall approach when framing the shot.

Next Time: Grouping


Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.

Gestalt – Figure and Ground – Selection and Boundary

Selection and Boundary


Selection is a key aspect of figure-ground. One shape or the another is selected by the brain according to the task. If you are looking at a series of letters on a page looking for a Z, most of what you see is ground and the Z becomes figure when your eyes pass over one, but only because the task is to find the Z. During the search your eyes may focus for a split second on other letters that are similar to the shape of a Z, but once the search is done it is usually only the Z that can be recalled. The same happens when we are driving; we ignore the multitude of buildings, people and signs yet easily isolate the traffic signals and signs.

A number of diagnostic tests used in human sciences test the selection abilities of the subject. A number of them serve to illustrate the strength of figure-ground in perception. The most common example is the slat fence drawings below.

In the instance above, the lines are of equal spacing from one another. Depending on which space (slat) you are looking at, every other slat from that one will seem to be figure, in a space closer to the viewer. The other spaces will be perceived as ground, in a space farther from the viewer. It is possible to see the focused slat as ground but it requires time or effort to see the effect. The brain wants to see the object focused on as field.

In the second drawing, the lines are no longer evenly spaced. Do you see the wide slats as field or ground, how about the narrow slats? Most people will see the narrow groupings as figure and the wider groupings as ground. This makes it easier for the brain to hold the initial grouping it perceives, but the field and ground still reverse with a little effort. What you see as figure at any moment is the result of selection.

If we added an additional line to the right or left we would introduce more ambiguity because all of the elements would no longer be paired and “grouping” would influence perception. The closer elements are together the more likely they will be seen as figure and related. This is a result of “proximity grouping”, discussed later.


Boundary is an component of Gestalt showing how common edges can affect the perception of an object. A single expressive line can create multiple shapes that the brain associates with known objects creating a “contour rivalry”. Contour rivalry creates a tension within the frame as the figure and ground flip flop. Closure of one shape or another can help resolve the conflict. Closure is discussed later.

Above we see the classic example of boundary effect on figure and ground in the “Rubin Vase”. What do you see? Is it the shape of a goblet or a profile of two faces or what? Which did you see first and how long did it take to see the other? The second example is the same but with added information. So you still see the same forms that you did in the first example?
Boundary is a common element found in graphic symbols and logo design. Corporations and graphic designers often use a boundary element when creating logos as shown below. Here the brain perceives a sphere where none actually exists, only a series of horizontal lines.

Next Time: Artifice

Gestalt – Figure & Ground

Figure and Ground

The instant you introduce any visual element into a Ganzfeld things begin to happen. A Figure-Ground relationship appears in the frame. Figure-ground is a duality between the object placed in the frame and the balance of the image, the part that remains.

Figure-ground is the spatial relationships between an object and what exists around it. Recognition of these spatial relationships illustrates how perception depends on figure and ground. Figure and ground may manifest itself through selection, boundary and artifice.

There are observations to make about figure-ground:

The most striking being that both figure and ground cannot be “seen” (brought to the fore) simultaneously. The brain only resolves one or the other at any moment. Figure and ground can be seen sequentially though, meaning the image flip-flops like a good politician. This depends on your point of focus or the brain synapses at the moment. In the figure below if you focus on the black circle, the white periphery becomes secondary and appears as ground. If you focus on the white periphery, the black circle becomes secondary and appears as ground.

The second most striking observation about figure-ground is that they do not appear to exist on the same plane within the frame. Ground is perceived as receding into the frame while figure is seen as projecting forward. In the image above, it might appear as if there is a black hole in a white surface one moment and a black disc on top of a white surface the next. Without further visual reference, the brain cannot resolve the conflict. Again, the figure-ground relationship can change state. Color and its components will easily affect the depth relationship within a figure-ground construct.In the following illustrations the blue seems to recede into the grey while red seems to lift from its surface, even though the two colors are of the same approximate value.

Third, we observe that figure usually occupies a smaller space within the frame than does ground. But this isn’t always true. See the two figures below. It is easier for the brain to accept the circle as ground (a hole) in the first instance than in the second. In the second, the larger circle resolves easiest as a disc (figure) on the surface of the white area (ground).

Fourth, figure is perceived as having contour, or shape, while ground is not. In a sense, ground is usually what is left over. The existence of figure-ground is subject solely on the existence of contrast and is a selective process within the brain. Both illustrations below are the same except the values of the shapes and background have been reversed. In both cases, the rectangles read as figure and the balance is ground.

Last, neither figure or ground can exist without the other. The moment something is placed into a field, it creates a figure ground construct.

Figure and ground have a direct correlation with signal to noise, and positive and negative spaces. They are simply terms sharing a similar definition within different disciplines.

Below are examples of effective figure-ground usage in graphic design. Both use the figure and the ground as parts of the design’s elements.

Figure and ground (Positive and negative space, signal to noise) can be a result of contrast from lite to dark, large to small, cool color to warm, or other contrasts. The positive and negative can conflict and may flip flop as we have already seen in boundary and selection. In the figure below, it may be questionable as to which direction the arrows point, in or out, and whether the arrows are blue or orange.

In most circumstances positive is seen as figure, and negative space as ground. For some outstanding examples of using positive and negative space in photography, one can look to the work of Andre Kettesz. In particular see the images Chez Mondrian, Mondrian’s Studio and Poughkeepsie.

Next Time:  Selection and Boundary