John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Circular Compositions

The circle is the most primordial of geometric shapes. Among the wide range of organic patterns in nature, only rarely do we see triangles or rectangles. They are the hallmark of human-made things. Circles, however, have dominated our experience of nature for millennium. We see its shape in the sun that provides light and warmth, in the mysteriously peaceful glow of the moon, and in the journey of all heavenly bodies across the sky. The circle gave us the wheel, which empowered us to travel longer and further, ultimately culminating in the realization that the entire world, and perhaps the universe itself, are circular. Even our visual experience of the environment bears the kinship shape of the ellipse, as determined by the contours of our eye’s field of view. We would not see the world at all, nor have that proverbial opportunity to glimpse into the human soul, if not for the perfectly round iris and pupil of the human eye.

For all these reasons, circles are embedded in our minds as a fundamental experience and archetypic symbol. It represents unity, wholeness, completion, fullness, connectedness, and perfection, which is why we often associate it with the cosmos, spiritual energy, and a God with no beginning or end. It is the infinite and the eternal, as well as the sign of movement, mobility, repetition, cycles, and revolution. Because the circle encloses what is inside, it conveys the feeling of boundary, focus, centering, embodiment, containment, and self-sufficiency. In various religions throughout history, the circle symbolized the nurturing womb, sacred space, and the human psyche, as evident in the circular mandalas of Buddhism and Hinduism.

As you can see, it’s easy to wax the poetic about the circle. So let’s not forget some of its possible negative connotations. Despite its suggestion of unity, a circle can create inclusivity versus exclusivity. Some things belong inside; some are left out. Especially with small circles, the enclosure might feel insular, claustrophobic, even like a trap. The endless repetition of its shape might also suggest a lack of direction and aimlessness. No one wants to be accused of circular reasoning or walking in circles. Finally, a circle is zero, emptiness, nothing at all.

Given the variety of meanings we associate with the circle, it becomes a powerful device in photographic composition. In fact, circular compositions have been popular throughout the history of art and photography. They take at least four different forms: (1) a circular object serves as the primary subject of the image, (2) objects or people appear in a circular formation, (3) the placement of elements in a photo encourages the eye to move in a circular pattern around the image, and, (4) the corners of the frame are softened or rounded off in order to create a circular feeling to the photo. Complex pictures might combine two or more of these compositional approaches. Elliptical shapes can serve the same purposes as circular ones because the eye often perceives them as circles viewed from an angle.

A Circular Object as the Primary Subject

Our environment generously offers us a wide range of circular things to shoot. Besides eyes, wheels, and the heavenly bodies already mentioned, there are balls, clocks, fruit, globes, plates, cups, gears, disks, gauges, table tops, and signs, to name a few. Their circularity has an intrinsic appeal, both symbolically and on a purely visual level. Circular things are microcosms, worlds unto themselves. If there are several of them in a photo, they might suggest worlds joining, separating, cooperating, competing, or colliding. If they are embedded within each other, they reveal the mystical puzzle of worlds within worlds.

The circularity of objects can be pleasantly emphasized by their juxtaposition with the rectangular frame of the photo. The abruptness of the frame’s right angles provides a contrast to the smoothness of the curves. Circular objects within square frames can be particularly appealing, as both shapes are perfectly symmetrical, yet very different. In the photo at the top of this article, we see a variety of different circular shapes, some embedded within each other - with all of them tucked within a square frame.

Because they possess that feeling of an enclosing movement, circular objects also lend themselves readily to the Gestalt law of perception known as “closure.” Circularity is so powerfully suggestive that the eye will complete the shape of a circular object even if only a part of it, even as little as a third, appears in the photo. In the photo at the top of this article, part of the circular fire pit disappears outside the frame, and yet we have no problem seeing the entire shape as a complete circle. In fact, we would only need to see a small segment of its curved perimeter in order to imagine the rest of it arching out of the frame and then curving back in. In its power to unify, the partially visible circle joins together the space inside and outside the frame.

Circular Formations

Objects arranged in a circular pattern within a photo tend to create a sense of organization and unity. Even in cases where the image might otherwise look confusing, a circular formation can help simplify it by creating the impression of order. In fact, painters attempting to cope with a work that is starting to become chaotic sometimes resolve the problem by rearranging an element to create the suggestion of a circular pattern. Such control over the picture isn’t always possible in photography when shooting a scene, although photo-editing programs do give us the power to rearrange the elements of the image, similar to painting.

The circular formation draws the eye inward into the image, thereby preventing it from wandering outside the bounds of the frame. As illustrated in the photo of the chairs and rug arranged around a stool, the viewer’s attention becomes absorbed into the circuit, moving along the path of the circular pattern from one element to another, beginning at the point most prominent and later returning to it. Similarly, in the beach photo, our eye moves around the circular path created by the trees, the standing woman, and, most importantly, the subject lying down. Usually the effect is most appealing when the circular formation is subtle, perhaps barely noticed consciously by the viewer. An obviously circular design might feel contrived. As in the use of circular objects, circular compositions can be appealing in their contrast to the rectangular shape of the frame.

The effect of focusing attention on and within the circular formation can be so strong that elements outside it might not be noticed. For this reason, advocates of traditional composition say that the primary subject should lie either along or inside the circuit. If it appears outside, the eye will be thrown off the circular track. Of course, in an untraditional composition this might be exactly the effect you intend. If you want to create the idea of something being different, unconventional, not belonging, excluded, or disrupting order and continuity, place it outside the circular formation. An exit for the eye, like a door or window in the background, is another example of how placing something outside the circular pattern can enhance the quality of the image. Once the eye feels satisfied, it can leave the circuit as well as the image through the visual exit. Interesting elements outside the circular formation also can provide an intriguing balance of attention that alternates between focusing and opening up.

Radiating patterns, as in the shot of a foot on a spiral staircase, often function similarly to circular ones. They might suggest movement bursting outward or converging inward, but they do beckon the eye towards a central point, while also creating rhythms that please the eye.

Circular Observations

In a composition that encourages circular observations, the eye first focuses on the dominant element of the composition, then moves outwards, curving around the image to notice other elements, and finally returns to the dominant element. The cycle might repeat itself, taking a slightly different path each time, but with the overall effect being a circular movement.

Although this type of composition bears similarities to circular formations, it differs in that the elements creating the circuit are not necessarily separate objects arranged in a circular pattern. Instead, interesting features of just one or two objects encourage a circular movement of the eye. The circular feeling is more a function of how the eye moves rather than a tangible visual arrangement of different objects. Imagine, for example, a subject staring intently into the camera, with one hand gently touching the shoulder and the other gripping the waist. The eye is tempted to move from the face, to one hand, then to the other hand, then return to the face.

Especially interesting images that stimulate circular observations take us on a gradual process of discovery. We begin by looking at the dominant component, but learn increasingly more about its meaning as we widen our attention to consider the other elements in the circuit. When we finally return to the dominant component, we see it with a deeper understanding than when we started.

Circular Internal Framing

In traditional theories of composition, artists take care to mute the viewer’s awareness of the edges and right angles of the frame. They don’t want anyone’s eyes getting locked into the corners or wandering out the boundaries of the image. They want to encourage the viewer’s attention to stay inside the picture. Some artists believe that it’s actually much easier to create good compositions within a rounded rather than rectangular frame - but perhaps due to the greater difficulty of producing and displaying oval and circular formats, they never caught on in painting and photography. One could also argue, as I have previously, that the contrast of a circular composition within a rectangular frame can be aesthetically pleasing.

Nevertheless, it is possible to smooth out the rectangularity by softening the corners with internal framing. For example, use leaves or clouds to round off the corners, or darken or lighten them with vignetting. Some people regard such tactics as clumsy substitutes for truly good circular composition that keeps the eye moving within the image. But if used subtly, in a way that captures a meaningful sensation or emotion (like being trapped), or in combination with other techniques for circular composition, internal framing can work quite well. In the photo of the woman holding out her hand, the dark vignetting serves as a rounded internal frame that encourages the eye to circulate from the woman's face, to her hand, to the bracelet, and back to her face.

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