The way in which we view a photo is heavily dependant upon the photographer’s choice of composition – this leads our eyes along a certain path. The more you understand about how people look at your photos, the better you’ll become at influencing them in the future.
Looking & Interest
At one time, this was a bit of a mysterious subject matter. Now, however, we have the technology to study how people view photos. And we can use that information to our advantage.
It doesn’t tend to matter whether you’re a photographer who’s well used to looking at composition and photographic elements, or a viewer, looking at their very first photo. We all look at photos in the same way.
If we’re interested by a photo, we’ll look towards the greatest point of interest and work our way around. The different elements of visual weight are fighting for our attention.
There are three main ways in which we look at a photo that change the way we scan it.
The first of these is trying to look for something in a photo, for example, a person. Liken this to viewing tagged photos of friends on Facebook and trying to find them in the photo, just glancing over the other people.
Without knowing anyone in the photo, you would have seen it in a completely different way.
The second way is what happens when there’s a large, dominating visual weight. This provides strong interest at first glance, changing our expectations of the photo and how we look at it.
If you saw a photo of a good looking person, you might be immediately drawn to their face. Upon seeing that you like it, you would glance over the rest of their body, leaving the other elements of the photo to wait.
These first two ways of observing are for obvious reasons and would be quite hard to create photographic art from.
The final way that we tend to view photos has a lot to do with the various visual weights that contribute to them.
Without any expectations in a photo, our eyes are left to browse for themselves in what seems like free movement. A good photographer will understand the elements making up the photo. They’ll use them to direct the attention of the viewer to a certain point.
This has a lot to do with visual weight. The more you understand about that, the better you’ll be able to direct the viewer. If you’ve not done so already, I suggest going back to read this post.
In the photo below, I knew that having the sun on the left hand side of the frame would draw our attention first, before the brightness encouraged the eyes to look elsewhere.
The light landing on the rocks in the foreground acts as a welcome and interesting rest for our eyes. Then they work their way diagonally up the frame, ending up at the blanket just as I had intended.
Our eyes take this in as an interesting contrast to the rest of the frame. And we start to look closer at the rocks, sounding them in comparison.
You can introduce other composition techniques to make this more effective, as I’ve done in the photo below.
The photo is of a model but I used a triangle to help the viewer explore the frame.
First, you glance over the breakwater, before meeting the model’s eye-line. You see that her body language is leaning into the photo, with the right side of the frame feeling quite uncomfortable.
The eye-line takes you back across the photo over to the end of the breakwater in the sea, down the breakwater to the model’s arm and then back up to her face.
Our eyes are known to scan from left to right so, when you remove a human subject from the frame, they will glance across the frame much more naturally.
Have a look at the photo below and you’ll see that your eyes will glance over the triangular shape of the land on the left briefly, before skipping briefly over the hills in the background, then landing on the boat in the foreground.
Your eyes are likely to have skipped the small boat because the boat in the foreground is much more dominant. Once they take it in, the eyes are free to move around again, quite likely going back to the small boat.
We’ve seen what our eyes do when there’s a human subject in the frame and when there’s no human subject. But what about when all there is a is a human subject?
The first things we look at are the eyes.
These tell us the most about the subject: how they’re feeling, where they’re looking, what they’re thinking.
We are used to looking straight at a person’s eyes.
Next, we’ll look at the mouth. There’s often a lot of emotion in the body language of this. Lastly, our eyes are free to explore the frame, so long as there’s nothing too interesting about the subject.
If the subject is conveying strong emotion, or looking away from the camera, that would dictate where our eyes look next.
If you want to learn more about composition, I would strongly encourage it; it will make a massive difference to your photography. To help fully understand this tutorial, check out my post on visual weight.