Your mind plays clever tricks, helping you make sense of the world. It creates imaginary groups and lines. So, understanding how that works will lead you to take more compelling photographs.
Our minds crave order and simplicity. One of the methods our minds achieve that order is by subconsciously organizing things into groups. Without finding ways of grouping objects, we would be overwhelmed with too much data from our senses. For instance, when we walk along the shoreline, we see a beach and not all the individual pebbles.
If you successfully create order in your photos, they become more compelling. Luckily, there are different ways in which you and your viewers’ minds group objects to achieve that. Applying these techniques will increase the viewer’s fascination with your photos.
The most obvious way of grouping objects is for them to be close. The closer things are, the more the human eye perceives them to be related.
But proximity isn’t the only way of creating order.
For your mind to group objects, there must be similarities between them. That doesn’t mean they have to be identical, but if they have shape, size, form, tone, texture, or color in common, the human brain can group them to form order out of chaos. So, while we are unlikely to group a duck, a car, and a mountain, we may well see the order in a flock comprising mallards, wigeons, and goldeneyes. Likewise, we can see automobiles stuck in a traffic jam as a single entity, despite all the differences between the individual vehicles.
A grouping gets stronger as its parts become more uniform. Imagine that traffic jam consisting solely of taxis; the group of cars becomes even more coherent.
From a photographic perspective, this can be both good and bad. Why bad? On its own in the frame, that uniformity can sometimes become monotonous with no single focus point. However, take a step back, and we see that group as part of a larger scene, then that grouping becomes a subject.
Alternatively, if we interrupt the group with something that contrasts with it, that interruption becomes the subject. Consequently, the group has less visual weight and falls into the background.
Something else that binds subjects together in a group is what is known as “Common Fate.” That is when the individual elements are seen to move together as one group. Typical examples include a flock of geese, cyclists on the road, and so on. Coherent movement of a collection of objects might not seem possible in still photographs, but our minds will use our existing knowledge and assume that the motion exists.
When we consider a flock of birds, we already know that they are similar, close to one another, and traveling in the same direction. There is another critical factor: the birds are enclosed within a structure. For example, while a skein of geese often flies in a V formation, a murmuration of starlings has a fluid, nebulous shape. We see the forms of the flocks more than we do the individual birds.
In photography, we can use this to our advantage. Perhaps the group’s shape can act to add balance or lead the eye.
Equally, we need awareness of groups making unwanted shapes within our photos. For example, in landscape photography, a group of three rocks could form a triangle where the apex points into the picture, thus leading the eye. However, try inverting the triangle, so the apex is at the bottom of the frame. The opposite line is then further up the images, acting as a blocker, stopping your eye from traveling into the picture.
If you align a group of five objects on a tabletop, they form a line, don’t they? No, that line does not exist; your mind creates it to simplify the image. Nothing is connecting them apart from the idea in your head. Furthermore, the imaginary line extends beyond the furthest object, leading the eye to whatever lies beyond. That imaginary line happens because of something called “Good Continuation.”
In other words, we extrapolate from the information we have that lines don’t just stop. Our minds extend the idea of a line beyond its visible end. We can use this phenomenon to point the viewer towards a distant object or a horizon without having a real continuous line leading all the way there. Additionally, when lines reach the edge of the frame, we believe they continue beyond the picture’s boundaries. Consequently, we can add objects to a group we cannot see in the picture.
Real and imaginary lines can also intersect other lines and meet other obstructions. This is where visual weight comes into play. The eye follows the route of least resistance. If the obstacle has greater weight than the line, the eye will stop there. However, if the line is stronger than the obstruction, the eye will continue along it and not stop.
In the following image, where I have roughly moved the rocks in the scene, the left-hand version forms a triangle pointing into the scene. The eye follows an imaginary line shown by the red dots. Despite that line being intersected by a line of seaweed and a line of rock (blue dots) the eye still continues towards the person because we give people greater visual weight. In the right-hand version, I have cloned the rocks into different positions. Now, the apex of the triangle is at the bottom on the opposite side delays the eye from moving toward the figure. Nevertheless, because of the powerful visual weight that we assign to other humans, our eye still ultimately finds the person.
There is a degree of subjectivity here, as your interest in the interrupting object might differ from mine. An avid ornithologist will favor a bird far more than an automobile enthusiast. So, their eye might stop at a bird sitting on a fence, while the car fan would take his eye to the Chevrolet in the background.
If a line intersects another, the idea of following the route of least resistance still applies. Take the letter X, for example. We see that as two straight lines crossing in the middle. That’s because our minds crave simplicity. A \ crossing a / is the most straightforward path for our eyes to travel. So, we ignore > adjoining < to make the X.
The woodblock print, South Wind, Clear Morning by Katsushika Hokusai is a fine example of all these factors. The visual weight of Mount Fuji draws the eye directly to the mountain. Then, we follow the line of the mountain’s edge as it sweeps to the left towards the solid area of cloud and the deeper green of the forest. The lighter clouds that frame the background don’t block the passage of the eye because the mountain’s edge has greater visual weight.
I hope you found this article an interesting introduction to this aspect of composition that ties together some of the topics I have discussed before. It would be great to see some of your images illustrating how groupings and lines work.