I like to think of Gestalt principles of visual perception as conclusions based on collective understanding of how we humans perceive things around us. That’s why I don’t treat them as “rules” to be enforced in image compositions but more like tools to help me choose my subjects and what features/attributes I give them while styling and how I arrange them. As I understand more and practice their application in my work, Gestalt principles begin to make more sense and feel more natural. I try to be mindful of visual perception as I make creative choices related to props, colour palettes, lighting and camera angles. These are big subjects and there are many topics to discuss and understand but here in this post, I’ll only be looking into how we could use the Gestalt principle of similarity to strengthen our food images.
What is perceived as similarity?
Let’s look at what registers as similarity to our eyes and brain.
- In a pile of fresh citrus fruit, all the oranges will look similar, so your eyes will easily pick them out as belonging together.
- In a bunch of mixed flowers, your eyes will easily distinguish the roses from the tulips. And in a bunch of tulips, your eyes will easily pick out the white ones from the orange tulips.
- In a group of people, your eyes will easily pick out those that are tall. And in a group of tall people(say while watching a basketball match), your eyes will just as easily pick out those wearing same coloured jerseys as belonging to one team.
Why does this happen?
Similarity of visual features registers as “connection” to us. We tend to naturally connect things that look similar, in our attempt to recognize, classify, understand and make sense of the visual inputs from the world around us.
The analogies above also inform us that things don’t need to be exactly identical in order to be grouped together as similar. Even a few shared key features can look and feel similar to us. Also, the degree of similarity depends on how many of those visual features are shared. Mandarins look more similar to each other than they do to clementines or tangerine oranges. Oranges will look more similar to each other than they do to other citrus fruit like lemons, limes or pomelos. Citrus fruit look more similar to each other than they do to other fruit like apples, banana or pineapples.
Some visual features (like colours) have a stronger ability to connect than some others (like shapes). For example, in the image below, the little sauce bowl containing a bright red chilli sauce gets unified with the bright red pepper, even though they are not the same shape. And because of that, even though there are only four red peppers here, the fifth red element creates the same effect as another red pepper would have and attracts eyes to the focal point of the middle pepper. Notice that even though one of the peppers has a different orientation, we hardly register that fact – the shared bright red colour dominates the other visual features here.
[This was me trying to implement the compositional rule of odds with an even number of red peppers with the help of principles of perception 🙂 This now feels like 5 red elements rather than 4 peppers and one bowl – so think about this the next time you have limited resources during a photo shoot!]
Let’s see how we can use this understanding to make better images with the help of more examples.
How to use the principle of similarity to create a sense of stability, motion, direction or height
If you’ve studied photographic composition, you already have some basic tools you can use to convey meaning through your image: lines to convey direction or create motion, repetitions/patterns to convey structure or rhythm, and visually balance to create cohesive compositions. And you may also know how to use cropping guides such as golden ratio, triangle, golden spiral, diagonal etc., to arrange your subject(s) along the strong lines/areas of interest so that your image has more impact. There are many ways to implement these composition tools and rules in your image, but let’s look at how the similarity principle can help with this.
In the image below, I’ve used a simple method. The asparagus stalks are already very “line-like” and similar in colour. I’ve trimmed them to create similarity of size and then arranged them to create similarity of orientation to create repeated vertical lines that feel like they are directed upward.
In the image set below, I’ve used the same principle to create lines of different types. The first image(left) creates horizontal lines. Your eyes would likely pick out two sets of lines – one created by cucumber and another by the dark spaces in between. Food subject is used to convey the natural characteristics of stability and solid structure offered by horizontal lines.
The second image(middle) creates slightly curvy, somewhat-vertical lines by the use of similar mini-pretzels. They convey motion and flow – just as naturally occurring curved lines tend to do. They help eye movement because of how they are arranged and their similarity to one another.
The third image(right) creates diagonal lines using asparagus heads which are similar in shape and size. And because strong diagonal lines tend to create a sense of dynamism and motion, this composition feels that way as well.
How to use the principle of similarity to achieve repetition, pattern or rhythm.
Let’s look at how similarity can achieve repetition and rhythm in a composition. In the example below, all the spices are of different colours, sizes, and texture. They are even in jars of different heights and shapes. But because I shot them from overhead, they are unified by the circular mouths of the their containers (even though varied in their sizes). In this way, because of the similarity of shape, they all look similar, even if they are not.
In the next image, the ground spices are all different in colour and texture. But because I’ve created little mounds of similar shape and size, they create a sense of repetition.
How to use the principle of similarity to create strong compositional shapes or curves
In the first image below (left), I’ve arranged identical pumpkin shaped rolls in an S-curve. At the top edge, the actual pumpkin visually connects with the rolls below because of similar shape and colour. And because of the shared visual features, this is now perceived as a single S-curve creating flow in the frame. If I had only used the four rolls, the S-curve may not have been as effective.
The second image also creates an S-curve but this time in multiple ways. The first one is created by the round plates and the second via the triangular yellow wedges on the plates.
The third image creates a triangle of avocado because they are similar.
Interestingly, the fourth image(extreme right) creates two triangles. Can you see why?
How to use the principle of similarity to create visual balance.
In the image below, I’ve created diagonal lines on opposite edges using similar branches. This creates visual balance and also guides attention to what’s in between.
In the image below, the pouring action creates a red line which achieves continuity and connection with other similar red liquids even though they are in glasses of different shapes and sized, making a stronger U-shape composition [or a lazy-C if you see it that way 🙂].
Our eyes tend to unite and connect the vertical elements together. So the red line created by the pouring action balances the tall branch on the right side of the frame. If you can imagine the image without one or the other of the vertical elements, you’ll see what I mean. Now, besides visual balance, we also get a sense of height. The two vertical elements framing the composition seem visually connected.
In the first image below (left), even though the blood orange on the left is much bigger, because of clear similarity of colour, shape, texture and size, the two smaller halves on the right visually balance this composition, which would have otherwise looked a bit lopsided.
In the second image, the bright red tomatoes near the diagonally opposite edges balance the visual attention.
In the third composition, I’ve created a second triangle arrangement by using similar colour and they balance the coffee triangle in the front. Without this second arrangement, the compostiion had too much white space at the back and not much to guide our eyes.
How to use the principle of similarity in multiple ways to create more interest in compositions
Lastly, let’s look at a composition where I’ve used similarity of colours to create continuity, curves/flow, lines/directions. All at the same time.
How do you see this image below: as a C-shaped grouping of fresh produce? Or a green S-curve, sweeping your eyes from the bottom to the top edge? Do you see this as an incomplete circle? Also, can you see how the carrots help navigate your eyes across the frame? the visual connection created by the colour purple – onions, radicchio, dry kidney beans all bordering the C-curve and strengthening it?
I’ve attempted to strengthen this composition by using multiple levels of similarity. I hope you will find it a good illustration for using the principle of similarity in multiple layers.
I’ll leave you with this image (below) which I created a couple of years ago. At the time I knew even less about the rules of composition or laws of perception. I was happy to play & produce images in a hit-and-miss manner rather than applying solid foundational tools of composition.
When I look at this image now, I see a bit of imbalance in the composition. The visual weight of the green lettuce seems to make the entire image top-heavy. The bright red pepper on the left feels a bit lopsided too. There is nothing to balance it on the right side). There is also not much to guide the eyes around the image so the viewer sees whatever interests them. Probably they’ll just look at the red pepper, the green lettuce and move on. Maybe this is just me picking apart my own past work like most of us all tend to do. Maybe you’ll find more things wrong with it. Or maybe you’ll see nothing wrong with it. That’s okay.
The idea is to observe what happens when the principle of similarity comes into play in an unintentional, unplanned way. Feel free to make your own observations and conclusions on whether or not the perception of similarity created unconsciously works for the composition or against it.
Until next time, stay well and keep practising.
For lots of intentional practice with smartly designed constraints for your food (or still-life/product) photography, head to our free app Photocue and practice to your heart’s content.