Elements of Design – Color II – Harmonies

Heirarchy & Harmonies

It is true that most amateur and many professional photographers will never have occasion to relate to, or arrange the colors in their images. Where much of the following information will come in handy is when seeking out abstracts or a scene where the colors become the composition, and content is secondary. It will also be important for a studio photographer planning scenes and tabletop setups.

This is not to dismiss the topic of color. It is still part of a well-rounded compositional background and should be understood at a basic level. Knowing when and how to adjust your colors will always prove to be a useful tool. Consider the color temperature tool, it works on the basis of a rectangular, double split compliment (see below). The Temperature control changes the Yellow-Blue balance (black arrows), while the Tint control changes the Magenta-Green balance (white arrows).

Rectangular Dual Split Compliments.

Rectangular Dual Split Compliments. This Yellow-Blue and Magenta/Green color scheme is used by color temperature correction tools in photo editing programs.

Ultimately color harmonies are easy to understand and visualize because the patterns the relationships make on the color wheel are composed of basic geometric shapes.


Colors have a hierarchy – Primary, secondary and tertiary.

The most basic colors, and the foundation of the RGB (Red, Green, Blue) color model are the primary colors of red, green and blue of course. The secondary colors are cyan, magenta and, yellow. Secondary colors are those resulting from mixing equivalent amounts of any two primary colors as seen below where the primary colors overlap.

RGB Light Projection

Red, Green, and Blue primary colored lights projected on a white wall. Where they overlap with another color, they create a secondary hue of Cyan, Magenta, or Yellow. Where all 3 overlap they create white light.

The tertiary colors are the results of mixing equivalent amounts of any primary and an adjacent secondary color. Tertiary colors are called by a hyphenated designation composed of their primary-secondary mix. For instance: yellow-green, magenta-blue, or cyan-blue. The only exception is the red-yellow combination named after a popular citrus fruit – orange. The other combinations do not have names that everyone would associate with a given hue. For instance, when we say purple, some people imagine a blue-violet while others imagine a lavender color. Other names like fuchsia or chartreuse are too vague for accurate use. Orange is the only tertiary color providing a common experience


RGB Color Wheel

RGB Color Wheel with co-ordinates.

Image Source

In the illustration above, the primary colors reside 120 degrees apart, beginning at zero. The secondary colors reside 120 degrees apart, beginning at 60. Tertiary colors reside 30 degrees to either side of any primary or secondary color.


There are seven basic color harmonies.

  • Monochrome
  • Warm – Cool
  • Diads
  • Analogous
  • Compliments
  • Triads
  • Split Compliments
  • Tetrads – Quadratic – Square or Rectangular – Double Split Compliments (all meaning the same thing)

Relationships between harmonic colors, like the complimentary a relationship, can be difficult to envision using the software color pickers. The best cure for this is to relate to an accurate color wheel like the one we will be using in this discussion. Above we have indicated the primary and secondary colors with their corresponding co-ordinate numbers from an RGB color picker.

Under most circumstances, harmonies are relative to a chosen target color. For instance, you may want to find out which colors harmonize with green. So green becomes the target color. Whichever color you choose as a target, you apply harmonic schemes to, in order to find out which harmonies fit the need.

Monochrome colors schemes are those where one hue is used in differing shades, tints or tones. The simplest example of a monochrome image is any black and white photograph. This detail of interior window of the then abandoned Uniroyal Tire  Building, near Los Angeles, CA. This image is a good example of the use of line, shape, tone, form and similarity.

Tension, Uniroyal Building, Los Angeles,  © Guy Manning

Tension, Uniroyal Building, Los Angeles, © Guy Manning

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Another example of a monochromatic image would be a sepia toned image or Cyanotype like the one below. Cyanotypes are one of the first alternative processes one would usually learn in advanced photography classes. Watercolor paper is coated with a solution mixture of potassium ferricyanide and ferric ammonium citrate. The paper becomes light sensitive and is allowed to dry in the dark. An image is produced by exposing a film negative to the paper under a strong light, or by placing items on the paper in a strong light. Once the exposure is made the paper is “developed” in a water bath. The resulting image is a monochromatic cyan-blue. like the example below made by Anna Atkins as part of a study of algae in the late 19th Century.

Cyanotype - Anna Atkins

A photogram of Algae, made by Anna Atkins as part of her 1843 book, “Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions”, the first book composed entirely of photographic images.

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Another example of monochromatic color use is this color image by Louisiana photographer, David Chauvin entitled, “Cypress in Mist II, Lake Fausse Point”. Though not strictly composed of tonal variations of one color, it is close enough to consider it monochromatic. Aside from the color, I love the way the shapes compose within the frame. The gestalt similarities working between the two grouping pair of Cypress tree’s, help draw the eye’s interest and unify the forms.

Cypress in Mist II, Lake Fausse Point

© David Chauvin, “Cypress in Mist II, Lake Fausse Point”

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Contrasting to these dark hulking forms, the brighter sunlit portions of the mist and water surface move across the bottom of the frame. These shallow diagonals add just the right amount of motion and tension to a space that would have become boring had the lights appeared in flat horizontal strips. In turn, the vertically hanging moss counters the shafts of light, which rhyme the same tonal and color range as the sun lit mist and water. These harmonies mask, but do not totally obliterate the details hidden in the background allowing the background details tell secrets of their own. Spatially the scene feels like part of a stage setting for a ballet. The background appears as the same flat plane one would see in an backstage screen. The dead still water surface appears as a dance floor, and I almost expect the “Wilis” from the ballet Giselle float across the space. The overall effect allows the viewer’s vision to wander the stage, but not too far from the major players. They still impose their presence through an aloof , monumental presence .

Warm – Cool colors are colors that the mind associates with temperature. Reds and yellows are warm hues, while blues and purples the cool hues. The border colors, greens and magentas, may be perceived as either warm or cool depending on how far off their center point the hue is, and the perception of the viewer.

Warm-Cool color boundary

Warm and cool color boundaries run approximately across the middle of a color wheel. The lines here, approximate the indistinct horizontal boundaries.

As a general guideline you could draw a line horizontally through the center of the color wheel above to divide the warm colors (top half of circle) from the cool colors (bottom half of circle).

Dyad color harmonies use only two colors located in close but non-adjacent proximity on the color wheel. Dyads would skip one intermediate hue. They may both be tertiary colors, or one primary and one secondary color. To determine Dyad colors one could look at an analogous layout and remove the central color. The examples below show target colors of a dyad. The color samples match the first and third color wheels choices.

Dyad Selection on color wheels

Dyad Selection on color wheels

Dyad Color Harmony

Dyad Color Harmony from first wheel

Dyad Color Harmony

Dyad Color Harmony from third wheel

It should be noted that there seems to be a confusion over the term Dyad. Some consider a dyad to be a color harmony made up of 2 colors existing opposite each other on the color wheel. This describes complimentary colors, so I am using dyad in the sense of non-contiguous analogous colors. This is also how I remember it from what I learned at Art Center, so I am sticking with the term.

Analogous colors, or an analogous color schemes, are colors that exist in close proximity to the target color on the color wheel. Analogous describes any color within about 30 degrees of the target color. Another way to think of it is the next primary, secondary or tertiary color that sits adjacent to the target color on the wheel. Analogous color schemes are the least complicated for just that reason. You do not have to go far from the target color to find them. About the only drawback in using analogous color schemes is that they tend to be boring. However, that may be used to advantage in the right circumstances, for instance a calming light blue color scheme in a nursery.

Below shows an RGB color wheel indicating analogous color schemes. In essence, any colors falling within the V shape would be analogous to the target color in the center of the V.

Analogous Color Harmonies

Analogous Color Harmonies on color wheels

These next two illustrations are the analogous combinations indicated in the first and second color wheels above. The first shows analogous colors from the red-magenta, through red, and into the yellow-orange range. The second example show a cool set of purple, blue and cyan. In both sets the colors exist adjacent to one another on the color wheel.

Analogous Color Harmony

Analogous Color Harmony based upon first wheel

Analogous Color Harmony

Analogous Color Harmony based upon second wheel

Since we are dealing with uneven numbers of colors, I have included a medium grey in the left over quadrant. Medium grey will compliment any color or color combination This is because grey is a mixture of all three primary colors equally. In this manner, the examples will not be influenced in an adverse way by an outside color.

Another of David Chauvin’s images serves to illustrate how grey can serve as a compliment to any color.

© David Chauvin, "Early Autumn"

© David Chauvin, “Early Autumn”

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Here we see a color palette made up of muted orange, yellow-green and grey. By themselves the orange and yellow-green analogous combination would lack interest and contain a slight overall warm feeling. With the inclusion of the greys, this feeling changes. The greys create a perfect compliment for offsetting the analogous palette, and move the whole toward a much cooler feel. A balance within the color palette is now obtained melding with the positioning of elements in the frame. A harmony is achieved that could not exist otherwise.

Complimentary colors are colors that exist opposite each other on an accurate color wheel. Complimentary color harmonies are the second least complicated of color schemes. Think of them as the Yin-Yang, the opposing forces, the contradictory colors. Complimentary combinations will always have one warm color and one cool color unless they both fall within the indistinct boundaries between warm and cool.

Complimentary Color Pairs

Complimentary Color Pairs will always exist on opposite sides of the color wheel.

Below are two illustrations using complimentary combinations taken from the second and third color wheels above. Notice that the first shows colors that ride on point where they are difficult to call cool or warm. You may feel the lavender color is cool while someone else feels it is warm. You are both correct because everyone perceives color a little differently.

Now look at the second set. Here the lavender has moved more toward a cool purple-blue and the green is moving toward a warmer yellow-green. From this, it should be evident that when one shifts warm or cools the other shifts in the opposite direction.

Complimentary pair, indistinctly warm or cool.

The colors in this complimentary pair are not so indistinct in their warm/cool relationship.

For those using pigments or paints, mixing complimentary colors can be useful for producing neutrals or toned down hues. This does not work when mixing colors on a computer. We are still hindered by the RGB palette and must suffer that restriction. For example, try to make a brown by combining green and red. You can do it with paints but not with a computer. Find the browns in the tones and shades of the orange area of a picker color picker.

Triad color schemes are composed of 3 colors equally spaced around the color wheel. These schemes will contain colors that are all primary colors, or all secondary colors, or all tertiary colors, due to the equal spacing between them. Notice how the indicators make up an equilateral triangle on the illustration below. The color samples are taken from the first and third wheels. Again, the grey panels are to balance the rectangle without interfering with the rendering of the colors.

Triad Color Harmonies

Triad Color Harmonies, the first is all primary colors, the second is all secondary colors, the third is all tertiary colors.

A triad of primary colors.

A triad of secondary colors
A triad of secondary colors

Split compliment color harmonies are when, instead of using the color directly opposite the target color, those analogous to the opposite color are used. For instance, in the first example below, the target color is red. The compliment for Red would be Cyan. However, the split compliments fall to either side of the compliment. This leaves the split compliments being a blue-cyan and a green-cyan. Think of the word split meaning there is a gap between two color elements.

Looking at the illustrations below you will notice that in split compliment harmonies, the splits will always be tertiary colors regardless whether the target is a primary or secondary color. If the target is a tertiary color, the splits will be one primary and one secondary color. The color samples come from the second and third wheels.

Split compliment color harmonies seem softer, less bold, than the triads.

Split Compliment Color Harmonies

Split Compliment Color Harmonies

Split Compliment Color Harmony

Split Compliment Color Harmony

Split Compliment Color Harmony

Split Compliment Color Harmony

Double split compliment harmonies may also be referred to as tetradic or quadratic harmonies, or by square and rectangular harmonies. They all mean the same thing. There are four color components made of two sets of complimentary colors. All double split compliments involve use of four hues.

It is probably easiest to refer to split compliments using the terms “square” or “rectangular” compliments. Latin based names are not easily processed by English speakers.

Square double split compliments consist of any four colors that exist 90 degrees apart on the color wheel, forming a square when connected. Some think of them as two pair of complimentary colors perpendicular to each other. The first color sample is based upon the first wheel, the second is based upon the second wheel.

Double Split Compliment Harmony - Square

Double Split Compliment Harmony – Square

Double Split Compliment Harmony - Square

Double Split Compliment Harmony – Square

Double Split Compliment Harmony - Square

Double Split Compliment Harmony – Square

Rectangular double split harmonies consist of two pairs of compliments skipping one color between each pair. Think of them as complimentary dyads. A rectangle is formed when connecting the colors on the wheel. The color samples are from the second and third wheels respectively.

Note that the rectangular compliment combinations seem to be softer than the square compliment combinations.

Double Split Compliment Harmonies - Rectangular

Double Split Compliment Harmonies – Rectangular

Double Split Compliment Harmony

Double Split Compliment Harmony – Rectangular

Double Split Compliment Harmonies - Rectangular

Double Split Compliment Harmony – Rectangular

You have probably already noticed the harmonies are all relative to geometric shapes, lines, triangles, squares, rectangles. This makes it easier to visualize them when needed.

Next Time: Elements of Design – Color – Contrasts

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 – 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 – Line


In his popular art appreciation book, A World of Art, Henry M. Sayer writes:

One of the most fundamental elements of art is line. If you take pencil to paper you can draw a straight line or a curved one. Straight lines can be vertical, horizontal or diagonal. Curved lines can be circular or oval (or segments of circles and ovals), or they can be free-form. Lines can abruptly change direction, in an angle or a curve. They seem to possess direction – they can rise or fall, head off to the left or to the right, disappear in the distance. Lines can divide one thing from another or they can connect things together. They can be thick or thin, long or short, smooth or agitated.”

A line is the mark a moving point describes. A line can vary in weight (heaviness of the mark) and width. A line can also vary in shape, it can have smooth edges, or jagged edges, they can be sharply pointed or blunt. Lines create psychological and emotional responses in the viewer. It can communicate as a symbol or as a motion, by way of its direction. Each of these qualities contributes to the expressiveness of the line.

Lines vary in width. In a pencil drawing, lines are measured in both length and width. A line separating the sky and the edge of a building or horizon I measured by length, it has no width. It only delineates a border. These lines are created by contrasts, changes in color or value.

Martinique, Andre Kertesz, 1972

Image Source

An example exists in the image above, you see a photograph composed entirely of lines, shapes and tones. The line created by the horizon has no width, it is a boundary line, a line delineating two shapes. As mentioned above it is created by a change in contrast.

The wedge shaped strip of ocean above the handrail creates its own flat toned shape and becomes a line. The verticals just below the handrail create a counterpoint to the preponderance of horizontal lines and create a rhythm contrasting with the other flat toned areas in the image. The lines of the handrail and the thin cloud in the middle of the frame both converge toward what is assumed the subject of the shot, a human form behind the glass. It could be argued though that this image is not about the human behind the glass, but purely a study in design. Imagine removing any one element in the image; the glass, the railing the human form, the sky or the ocean.  Would it have the same visual power?

Ask yourself, what would you do to improve on the image given the subject matter? Squint your eyes and look at it as a collection of darks and lights. Does the image seemed balanced in use of line? Also, notice how the image does not seem to use the “rule of thirds” as a compositional device, instead Kertesz successfully uses an “L” armature for the placement.

Lines can be explicit or implicit. A traffic lane line in the middle of the street is explicit. It can be seen, and is an object within the space. A line that is “suggested” by placing objects near each other is an implicit or implied line. In the illustrations above, an implied line exists between the circles. In the first instance, there is an implied line between the two circles. In the second instance there are implied lines running between all three circles, creating a triangle.

An implicit line might also be a line suggested by “motion” within the frame as you see in the image below.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

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Major line map in Cartier-Bresson image

Major line map in Cartier-Bresson image

In this Cartier-Bresson image, Hyères, France, 1932, the bicyclist is in motion creating an implied line from right to left. The handrail sweeping in from the right reinforces the implied line and directionality of the motion. The bicyclist seems to be in a frenzied hurry. This frenzy is accentuated by the swirling of the handrail starting on the left and connecting visually with the spiral pattern of the steps and the handrail coming in from the right. The steps coming up from the street visually appear to run down to an unknown lower level. All of the swirling lines create a vortex shape enhancing the frenzy. The white line sweeping along the curve of the curbing in the upper part of the frame seems to pen the bicyclist in and hurry him along, squeezing him out of the frame.

Types of lines

Horizontal lines express repose or rest, weight and gravity, and can become the dominant lines in a composition.

Vertical lines express lightness, soaring, spirituality and grandeur, illustrated by looking at both the outside and insides of gothic cathedrals.

Perpendicular lines strengthen the feeling of grandeur and can overpower adjacent horizontals. Combining vertical and horizontal lines create stability, permanence, safety and solidity.

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903.

Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903.

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Both horizontals and verticals  create a solidity relative to gravity, as seen in this image by Frederick Evans, A Sea of Steps – Stairs to Chapter House – Wells Cathedral, 1903. Here the massive steps leading to the portal heavily anchor the image. The open archways and vertical relief columns add height to the overall feel, yet retain the solidity needed in the ”sea” of undulating and foot worn steps.

Curved lines express qualities dependent on the amplitude of the curve.

Low amplitude, slow, shallow or soft curves evoke feeling of calmness, relaxation, comfort and safety. They can be familiar and comfortable like old friends. We see these types of line in the natural world on animals, landscapes, plants and ourselves; they are familiar and sensual. They suggest calmness, like a calm sea.

Oceano, Photograph by Edward Weston (1936)

Oceano, Photograph by Edward Weston (1936)

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High amplitude, deeply curved, angular or complicated lines on the other hand suggest confusion, anger, disorganization, stress or frenzy. Consider the shape of a turbulent ocean and you will understand the idea.

Leaf Pattern, Imogen Cunningham, 1928

Leaf Pattern, Imogen Cunningham, 1928

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Diagonal lines create instability, tension, motion, direction or depth. A diagonal might create implied movement when isolated; it will appear to be falling in the direction of the lean due to gravity and will create a psychological tension and anticipation. This feeling increases if the diagonal is in proximity to a vertical or horizontal line implying a base.

Using diagonals can give the feeling of distance and perspective like in a photo of a long straight road disappearing in the distance. Used in combination, diagonals effectively create a sense of motion or depth. Diagonals are one of the major tools for creating a three-dimensional feel on the two-dimensional space of the photograph.

Consider the image below titled, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951. In this image Cartier-Bresson applies diagonals throughout much of the frame enhancing the sense of depth in the image. The procession of women and girls in the foreground creates a crossing counterpoint to the strong diagonal running from the lower right to the mid left side of the image.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951

Henri Cartier-Bresson, L’Aquila, Abruzzo, Italy, 1951

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Notice also the use of similarity in the repeating form of the two arches coming off the handrail and the black forms of the women in both the foreground and background. Of these two groups note that the groupings also run at the same approximate angle to each other and the iron rails they align with. Each of these elements adds an amount of coherence to the image, making it a stronger composition and allowing the brain to find logic and beauty within the image. Below are image maps of the major lines and tones in the image. Note how tone maps can mimic semi-abstract paintings. In this one we can see the tone masses and how they carry am implication of a thought out design.

Diagonal lines used in non-symmetrical groups create tension, motion, apprehension, disorganization or clutter. Paul Outerbridge, another Master of Photography, understood almost immediately the importance of design in photography. Much of his work shows a heavy concern with composition of tone, shape and line.

The Triumph of the Egg, 1933, Paul Outerbridge

The Triumph of the Egg, 1933, Paul Outerbridge

Image Source

Next Time: Elements of Design – Shape and Form

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.

Image Mapping – The Basis of a Structural Critique

Herni Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004) is considered a Master of Photography, and the greatest of street photographers. One of the first to use a 35mm camera when they were first developed, he spent much of his life traveling the world making images for Life Magazine and Magnum Photos. Though they may appear to be accidental or spur of the moment compositions they were not. He would come across a scene and see its potential in the way the shapes, tones, lines came together. He would then wait for things to happen as people came in and out of the scene. At what he called, “the decisive moment”, he would trip the shutter.  Numerous exhibitions worldwide in major art museums have firmly placed his work as Art and as a model of study. Analysis of his images is a great exercise for those looking to elevate their images above the mundane. For a selection of books on by or about him go to the affiliate Related Reading page.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Var department. Hyères. 1932.

Image Source.

It can be highly instructive to map out the major lines and line groups in an image. You will often notice interesting patterns which as designs would stand up by themselves. Below are examples of image maps. The first shows not only the major flow  within the image, but also how the verticals in the frame enhance the design. The blue arrows indicate the direction the verticals are converging toward. This strengthens the downward motion of the overall flow. The dotted red arrows indicate the implied motion or direction.

Major and minor line maps for Cartier-Bresson image.

Major and minor line maps for Cartier-Bresson image.

This second map charts the stairs and the two major horizontal lines. It is a good idea to use lighter and heavier line weights to indicate the apparent strength of the line within the frame. In the instance above the lines for the steps are of  lighter weight because because the lines described by the steps are of lower contrast and not as influential is the verticals are. I used the orange line indicate the flow within the image, flow being a type of implied line.

If you used this mapping method to map the tones or values in the image you will see the steps play a greater importance in the image. See one possible example of a tone map for the image below.

Example of a tone map for Cartier-Bresson image.

Example of a tone map for Cartier-Bresson image.

Notice how the tone map appears to have coherence. The shape and tone placements feel comfortable and balanced. Note that even though you cant see actual objects the image still seems to have some motion toward the left.

So the lesson here is that design matters in photography. It can make a weak image strong and help it carry a stronger message. I recently read a forum post where a photographer was invited to help two photo editors select about 30 images for inclusion in a “best of” list. The first task was for each image to be viewed at thumbnail size only and decide very quickly if the image was included or not. Of the images that made it past the first cut, nearly all of them had some kind of “graphic quality” working in their favor. If that doesn’t reinforce the statement that “design matters”, I don’t know what does.

Study the masters in the genre you enjoy and study their compositional techniques by mapping tones, colors, shapes, lines etc. It might even be informative to turn the images upside down and see if the design holds up. If you think about it, all of those people who shoot large format view cameras are composing the images upside down when they look at the ground glass focusing screen.

The more you familiarize yourself with the contents of this site, and study images, the more attuned you will become to the possibilities in front of your lens.

Gestalt – Grouping – Continuity and Prägnanz


Continuity is when the grouping of one set of elements easily associates to another. In essence, the eye moves through one element group and into another. The eye takes the path of least resistance. In the figure below left, the eyes will most likely see two X’s grouped together. This is the easiest path for the brain to make sense of because there is little discrimination required for the interpretations. If instead, one focuses on the apex of the angle, they will perceive a chevron, or they may perceive a diamond if they focus in the middle of the form.

In the second graphic, we see a line diverge into two paths. The line creating the least change in the path is the one perceived as being strongest. The path diverging from the norm is the one with the least influence. In this instance, the brain will let the eye follow from the curve in yellow, through to the orange, as opposed to continuing to the straight yellow segment. Continuity occurs easiest along curved or straight lines.

Continuity can also be demonstrated as extending lines that don’t exist, or implied lines. Since the brain wants to continue in the path of least resistance, it may fill in where nothing appears to complete an implied line (a form of closure). Continuity is seen in logo graphics like the one below where the crossbar of the H continues out to the leaf shape.


The Principle of Prägnanz says that when presented with visual information, the brain will attempt to organize ambiguous information into the simplest form possible. What this is saying is that the brain will process the visual information received into as symmetrical  an image as possible, composed of the simplest shapes possible, and using the least number of shapes possible. So, since the brain’s initial reading of a confused or complex image will be the least complicated possible, any following readings will attempt to deconstruct more complex structures within the frame.

The first illustration in the Continuity discussion above demonstrates this well.  In that instance we see 2 X’s in the initial reading (or maybe a diamond or chevrons) but it is harder to process the whole of the design all in one glance.

The fact that the brain attempts to organize into the simplest shape possible is demonstrated below.

The image shows what appear to be mostly white circles within a black grid pattern. One, the largest white form, takes on more of a square shape. In reality, all of the shapes were made from placing white squares over the grid. Because the smaller shapes do not provide enough information to the brain, it sees them as circles. Circles are a simpler shape than squares. In the case of the largest shape, we see a square because it crosses more than one line in each direction. This provides the brain with more information allowing it to create the more complex square shape.

Another example is the one above. Prägnanz states that the simplest reading is that a circle is positioned behind a square as seen in the first position below, regardless if that were the case in reality. Without Prägnanz we might instead initially perceive the second or third readings below.

Prägnanz goes a long way in explaining the numerous sighting of the vestige of the Virgin or other religious icons in out of the way places like someone’s bathroom window, or the image of a human face on the surface of Mars. Again, we find the brain trying to resolve what it sees into something logical and familiar. A bit more discussion on this can be found by looking up Pareidolia which is a form of Apophenia.

Gestalt – Conclusion

Now that we have covered the principles of Gestalt Perception, it is necessary to point out that these principles do not often occur in isolation. One will not usually exist by itself but in conjunction with one or more of the other principles. Note also that there will be times when the principles do not manifest themselves at all in a given work.

As Richard Zakia states in his book, “Perception and Imaging

“You must not… think of [gestalt principles] as separate, for they are related and work together to facilitate seeing. Visual elements that are close together, that are similar, that form a smooth contour and that allow for closure can produce effective composition.

“Keep in mind, however, that many excellent pictures have been taken that do not conform to the Gestalt [principles] of perceptual organization. Examples of such pictures are those with strong emotional appeal and those that delve into the unconscious. “

Also remember that Gestalt is not considered completely scientific. It tells us what happens, but it doesn’t tell why or how it happens. Research has shown that the elements above happen across a broad population so they can be assumed as reputable guides. Their importance may not be so obvious at this moment, but once we cover the next two major sections, the Elements of Design and the Principles of Art, Gestalt’s  resultant influence  will become obvious. Simply put, the principles of Gestalt help explain why the  Elements of Design and the Principles of Art were able to be developed in the first place. Gestalt is an underpinning of most historical two-dimensional art and the rational basis of much of what has been taught in art school over the past few centuries.

Next time: Elements of Design – Line

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 – Grouping – Proximity, Similarity, and Closure


In physics, any two objects will cause a certain attraction force on each other. They call this gravity. A similar force exists in electromagnetic fields called magnetism. In Gestalt, the attraction force between shapes is Grouping. Just as in the sciences, the attraction force will not necessarily move the other element though there will be an implied, but real, attraction between the two.  Grouping is a major element in Gestalt and can be influences the visual center of an image.

The different types of grouping are: proximity, similarity, continuity, closure and pragnanz. Each is discussed below.

Consider that much of this topic of Gestalt may seem overly simplistic, but it helps to explain the actions of the unconscious mind during the act of viewing and you will see later how it supports the Principles of Art and Elements of Design. If you find it difficult to see the visual relationships described, try closing the eyes and clearing the mind as much as possible, then pay attention to what the eye and brain first perceives in the first second or two when viewing an image.


Proximity grouping is the influence objects within close proximity assert on each other. Looking below you will see how a grid of evenly spaced objects is nothing more than a grid of evenly spaced objects. It has balance and logic. Therefore, it is comfortable to the brains and the eyes can rest on it easily.

In the second image, we still have a grid of objects, but the brain accepts each set of double rows as being a single group of objects, though of the same shape. There is still a balance in the logic; it is just a bit more complex. Proximity also works for dissimilar groups of objects, as shown below.

Proximity of shapes affects the visual relationships of shapes within a frame, but the illustration may be a bit too simplistic. In the illustration below we will mix it up just a bit to reinforce the notion.

We now see 3 shapes of blue and 1 shape of grey. How does your brain relate them into groups? Though it is a different color and shape, the strongest reading seems to be that the square is grouped with the 2 overlapping blue shapes. The single blue shape on the upper left is likely grouped with nothing.   Now, consider the grouping in relation to the whole page. A secondary reading may appear grouping all 4 object together when contrasted to the type and page layout. This occurs because there is no framing around the 4 objects presenting them as separate from the balance of the page. This changes their reference and logic, so the brain may see them in either light.

Having too many things in close proximity can affect the  image negatively. This leads to incoherence, not allowing for the eyes to find a comfortable point of focus.


Similarity grouping is the influence that objects of like shape can assert on each other. Repetition of shape within the frame creates associations. In the illustration below grouping is mostly by shape. Even though the columns are separated they still associate in the mind. Because they are similar in size and color the grouping seems to be weak.

Color can be used to reinforce Similarity. Most people would see the arrows in this illustration below as being of two different groups based upon their color alone. There is no proximity change needed to induce the effect.

Look at the more complex examples of Similarity in the next two illustrations.

In the  illustration above , the similarity is easy to pick up due to the sameness of the objects in the frame. The lines seem to be one group and the triangles seem to be another.

Now look at the same frame without the triangles. Can you pick out any groupings now? It isn’t as easy because all of the objects are similar. You might see the two adjacent lines on the left side (running diagonally to the right) as being a group due to the similarity of angle. You might also see the two lines running from edge to edge as grouped. There are a number of ambiguous groupings and what you do make out, appears depending on your momentary point of focus.

Comparing the two illustrations show some of the strength in using similarities to create groupings within the frame. Similarities can take the form of colors, as we have seen. They can also be shaped by textures, values, tones, movement, symmetries, etc, as seen below.

Similarity of shapes in an image produce repetition. Repetition in an image can be as strong an element in imaging as it is in music. But too much repetition can become boring, so the best repetition also has an amount of variation included.If you listen to classical music you will have often heard titles including the term, “Theme and Variations”. these are pieces where material structure is repeated while the form changes by changing the melody, rhythm, orchestration, etc. singly or in combination.

How many similarities, or repetitions, can you pick out in the portrait of three peasants by the German photographer, August Sanders? What variations do you find?

Young Farmers. From "People of the Twentieth Century." August Sanders, 1914

Young Farmers. From “People of the Twentieth Century.” August Sanders, 1914

Image Source

Keep in mind, too much similarity can cause quick exhaustion on the part of the viewer. Attention needs be paid to placement in this case. For example, an image of a single texture throughout the frame will be boring, while taking swaths of differing shapes or colors of the same texture, arranged in a pleasing way may not.


Closure is the brain completing what is suggested or implied. It takes the information available and completes it, though not all of the information is presented. Looking at the first illustration below you will perceive a circle, yet it is not a circle but a series of arcs. To make it a true circle the spaces between the lines need to be filled. But we perceive the figure as a circle because the brain performs closure for us. The brain is familiar with the shape and accepts it as whole. The graphic in the second illustration show two forms of grouping at work. At one level, the four triangles group into a star like form due to similarity. However, a square also appears where no square actually exists; the corners do not join. Again, the brain creates a closure of the form (The logo of the World Wildlife Fund seen on the page about figure and ground is an excellent example of closure at work). Notice in the third example how the suggestion of the square is less pronounced. This illustrates how proximity of elements will influence closure. Closure is most noticeable when the elements are near each other. The effect can dissipate with distance or if other shapes intervene. The resultant form suggested can also change. Notice in third illustration how the closure is beginning to describe a circle instead of a square.

Look at another example of closure below. In this case, the frame around the objects cuts off those portions of the blue circle extending outside of the frame. Yet the brain performs completion on it, making it seem whole. In reality, the shape never existed as a circle; it is the same as the green object in the lower right of the frame. Even knowing this will not keep the brain from closing the shape. At times the green shape will seem completed as a circle, with the bottom of the circle protruding through the ground and out of view.

The closure seen above is accomplished by the brain, yet the image creator can make their own closure. Looking at the first image below, notice how the jagged lines do not seem to close with one another. Also that the similarity grouping seems weak.  Yet in the second instance, simply connecting the lines creates closure for us. In this instance, the addition of connecting lines enhanced the closure of unrelated elements and reduced the effect of similarity even more. You will also find there are times where a line from one shape creates an implied closure for another unconnected line.

Symmetry and asymmetry will respectively strengthen and weaken the effect of closure.

In the five groupings above, the first and last show only a little closure due to asymmetry even though they have a strong proximity relationship to their neighbor. The middle three groupings exhibit a certain amount of closure grouping due to their symmetry as well as their proximity.

The image frame influences closure. The frame can both complete the closure, or allow the closure to flow outside it’s boundaries.

The brain will accept continuation of the forms well outside of the frame. Looking at the image of jean Arp by Alfred Neuman, it is easy for the brain to finish the shape of the head. Again, logic born of experience comes into play with the brain completing objects based upon what it knows.

Jean Arp, by Alfred Neuman, 1949

Jean Arp, by Alfred Neuman, 1949

Image Source

Next Time: Continuity and Prägnanz

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.