We often think about science and art as being on opposite ends of the spectrum—art is about creativity and science is about logicality. However, the link between the two are virtually inseparable, as art is largely involved with observing and processing the world around us. We forget that when looking at a work of art, we are observing and processing the meaning of it with different parts of our brains. Visually, certain aspects of a photo will trigger different responses to it. So once you understand how the brain processes information, you can understand how to make your photos better and more impactful. Here are 10 principles that describe the ways our brains operate to help you improve your photography skills.
Similarity is a concept that’ss easy to recognize—it’s simply patterns, either in color or line or both. The brain is used to creating visual patterns in order to comprehend the world around us, so using the concept of similarity, you can create a sense of unity or harmony within a photograph.
2. Continuation/ Continutity
This principle is about line and directionality. Our brains like to follow lines, especially when they lead us somewhere logical. You can use this to your advantage when creating an aesthetic that leads the viewer on a path to a certain subject, or leads them around the photo in a certain order.
This is what our brain likes to do when there is missing information—we fill in the gaps. Similarly to a sentence where all of the letters are rearranged (for emalxpe, smoemhtig lkie tihs), you can still comprehend the sentence because our brain fills in the information. The same thing happens when we view an image. If there is missing information, or negative space, our brains will do our best to fill in the information and make a sensible image out of what isn’t there.
4. Law of Pragnanz
This is the overarching theory that groups continuity and closure. It describes that our brains, generally, process shapes into their simplest forms, which is why super abstract art takes more brain power to understand. If lines converge into something, or negative space plus positive space equals a figure, our brains will comprehend the form in the simplest way available. Using this, you can take note of your continuity lines and negative space to help you compose some incredible images.
Our brains also like to group things together to make sense of an image. Even if something in an image is 100 feet away in reality, you can use your camera to make it look like something is sitting right on top of another person or laying right between their fingers, which could create a new, inventive version of this reality. You can also use this principle to group people or objects together to create common themes or meanings. Watch out for this one though, as proximity can also lead to issues such as a pole sticking out of a person’s head or a limb growing out of an unknown origin.
6. Figure and Ground
Our eye likes to use light and shadow to differentiate a figure from a foreground and background. And if you have the right light, this is something you can have total control of. You can either choose to have your figure blend in with your background or you can have your figure pop out from the background, depending on what you’re going for. The eye generally differentiates tonality—so blending will involve using similar tones throughout the piece and getting your figure out of the distance will involve contrast. Also, the simplest way to make your subject pop is by lowering your aperture down and letting more light in—somewhere between f/1.8 and 5.6 will do the trick, depending on how far you are from your subject.
7. Left Brain vs Right Brain
Within psychology, it is noted that the left brain and the right brain have different purposes, yet work together. The left brain is generally geared towards logicality and analysis, linear organizing, and facts. The right brain is essentially the opposite—it processes creativity and imagination, visualization and feelings. What this has to do with photography is its effect on you; knowing if you’re a right brain thinker or a left brain thinker will help you to understand the roots of your composition and how they could potentially impact other people that think differently.
8. Rule of Thirds
This is a photography term that people use to describe organization of figures in an image. However, this term stems from the fact that our brain is used to balance—processing information is easier for us when things are in alignment. The rule of thirds states that you should block your photos into a grid (say, nine squares) and use that as a guide for your figures. An off center figure could align with the left portion of the grid, while a balanced figure will lie directly in the center. You can also use this principle relationally, organizing figures according to how you want to balance them in the frame. This principle can affect how pleasing or frustrating your image can be (but more on that later).
9. Selective Attention
This principle relates to the fact that our brains select certain things in our sight to pay attention to, and also the ability to block out details we don’t perceive as important. This is a useful tool when determining the details of each part of your composition. What details are going to be important, and what details do you want to focus on? Do you want certain things to be blatantly important, or do you want viewers to have to take a closer look?
10. Homeostatic Equilibrium
This, in basic terms, is the tendency for the body to stay in balance such as your temperature or mood. In psychological terms, this refers to the body’s tendency towards keeping a centered state of mind—whether you’re happy or sad, your body tries to come back to a neutral state, even as outside influences tamper with this neutrality. In regard to photography, this is all about how you want to affect someone with your imagery. Using all of the above knowledge about composition and psychological aesthetic, you can make people feel uncomfortable by creating something unbalanced, or even frustrate them by blending things into the background that are not represented that way in reality. On the other hand, you can make viewers feel happy creating something balanced, repetitive, or symmetrical. By increasing or reducing tension and balance, you have the ability to tamper with people’s subconscious response to what they see—a pretty impactful power to have.