Today’s article is the conclusion of the previous article on photography, psychology and why it’s all a mind game; we’ll explore how our subconscious and conscious mind views images, and how the photographer can exploit that to gain control over the way an image is interpreted. Understanding how your audience views an image is critical to determining how that image should be optimally constructed to deliver the right message, and in a way that’s memorable and impactful.
We need to start by remembering that photography is really a conversation between photographer and audience; except the rules are a bit different. Communication through photography is one way – the photographer cannot respond to the reaction of the observer to an image – and entirely visual; but like regular verbal conversations, a good portion of the meaning resides in what’s not explicitly said: body language, tone of voice, etc. The two parties may consciously or unconsciously pick up on these signals and alter their responses to match. The best negotiators will be consciously observing and actively altering their own responses – both verbal and nonverbal – to guide the communication to their favor. Since a photograph is really a one-way medium – the photographer has already said all they can through the image alone, before the audience has a chance to form their response – it is important to structure that image in such a way that the response generated is the intended (‘right’) one. We really only get one chance.
The order in which we perceive and react to things in an image is something that I believe is a holdover from our much earlier days in the wild, when our subconscious brains evolved hard-wiring to perceive and react to threats at a reflex level. Wait a bit too long to process things, and you might land up being dinner to a predator. Needless to say, those genes that survived further generations landed up being the ones that weren’t eaten. With that in mind, this is the order in which our brains process visual information:
- Brightness – brighter things are more obvious, to the point of being painful: this is our warning mechanism linked to heat and danger
- Size – physical proximity, again linked to danger
- Motion – potential threats approaching
- Color – nature frequently warns us in bright colors – take toxic frogs and mushrooms, for example. Thus anything with color contrast stands out immediately
- Texture – this is a much more subtle signal; but it allows us to be able to differentiate between different materials etc.
- Any combination of the above, especially that which breaks pattern; the more elements, the better.
You’ll notice that this list is very, very similar to the five ways of isolating a subject – light, depth of field, color, texture, and motion. However, the reason the order is different is because the real world isn’t still frames: it’s a continuously changing sequence of images, and on top of this, our eyes have to continuously scan back and forth in small increments to build up detail in a frame. This is because only the central portion of our retinas has sufficiently high cellular density to record fine detail; our brains effectively combine persistence of vision with some clever processing to perform real-time stitching. The perhipery of our visual field is only really very sensitive to motion; again an early warning mechanism of potential dangers approaching from out of our zone of concentration. * Needless to say, anything that falls outside of these five things – text, for instance, or abstract images – do not have the same impact because they require conscious processing. An image always registers before the headlines, let alone the captions; especially when viewing might only take place for a split second. The purely visual portion must be strong enough be both outstanding and memorable.
*If you try staring at one spot for a long time, you’ll notice that the edges of your visual field start greying out and losing definition; the moment you move your eyes again, all the detail comes back.
Woman, umbrella and street scene 2 – the individual elements are very similar to the first image, but notice how the arrangement, lighting and relative prominence are different; not to mention the body language of the human subjects. Now, think about the difference in the way you feel after observing this image versus the first one.
The upshot of all of this is that an image with a well-isolated subject will stand out more than a drab one; contrasting colors and luminance will attract more attention than something monochromatic and flat; and finally, changes in texture work better than camouflage (but this depends on the end goal of your story). But that’s just the primary subject: what about the rest of the image? Simple: each additional element in an image is a subject in its own right, too. You just need to make sure that the relative visual prominence of all of the subjects falls in the right order to support your story; in other words, your viewer should notice things in order of importance. A good example: if you have a row of identical objects and they go from bright to dark, you’ll notice the brightest one first; this is true in both reality and photographs. We tend not to notice things in the dark, but we notice the dark (or rather absence of light) itself: why do you think poorly lit areas make us feel uneasy at night? It’s a subconscious threat warning system; we are on alert and ready to run in case some unexpected danger suddenly emerges from the shadows. We don’t get the same feelings in a brightly lit and clean area, because there are few or no uncertainties – and thus no potential risks/ threats.
Is it therefore any real surprise that in a movie, the villain’s lair is always dark, the hero is light, and climatic battles take place with dramatic lighting, deep shadows and strong colors? No. This is entirely intentional on the part of the cinematographer, simply because they are making conscious creative choices that affect the perception of the audience. What surprises me is that there’s very, very little of this going on in photography, except perhaps at the higher levels of commercial work; how many of you consciously choose your color palette or white balance offset to create a certain mood? I’m willing to bet not that many, and that’s after most of you have already been influenced to some degree by my choice of tonal palette – which is always conscious and deliberate, by the way**. And yes – the use of black and white (the absence of color) should be a conscious choice too, not a reaction to ‘oh, the image is a bit noisy…’
**For further reading, visit my article on the inexact science of color and emotion.
Remember one of the points I made in the first part of this article: an image is more likely to be impactful – and thus memorable – if the viewer has an emotional connection with it. Although that universal emotional connection is difficult to consistently establish due to varying personal, cultural and societal biases for different audiences, there are some fundamentals that never change since we are all human. These mainly center around the fundamentals of human interaction and our immediate environment; we all have the ability to discern emotions from facial expressions, for instance; or identify weather, or water, or mountains. All of these things have a sympathetic emotion associated with them: we might feel what the subject feels, or we may feel the subject’s anger or happiness directed at or shared with us. These sympathetic emotions are important: they serve as mnemonics to elicit a response, and thus a memory. Even something as simple as eye position relative to the camera matters: if the subject is looking at us, we feel more of a connection than if they’re looking off into the distance, or merely a silhouette. This is because in real life, a large portion of communication relies on our eyes.
What does all of this mean in practical terms? Photographers have both a much more complex job than is immediately apparent – especially with human subjects – since the position, light and color of every subject affects the end message. However, it also means we have more control over the story portrayed in an image than we might first think: two nearly identical images can have a very different impact depending on something as simple as whether the subject is looking at the camera or not, or the perspective with which the photograph was shot. The more conscious control we can exert over each element of a photograph, the more say we have in the interpretation. Even in situations where you might not have the ability to physically move subjects or change lighting – reportage, for instance – control can still be exerted via anticipation and timing.
Unlike other art forms, photography perhaps places the highest weight on the subtleties of an image precisely because the reproduction of the scene is close enough to reality that the audience has no trouble immediately identifying each element; we must therefore be very careful with how we use said elements. As with everything, freedom and power are useless without control…try consciously viewing your images without bias; what would a fresh viewer think? This is not an easy skill to acquire, but it can be done with practice; it’s critical for being able to determine whether an image tells the intended story or not. Remember: all photographers are judged solely on what they show, not what they shoot.
I want to finish by re-examining the image from the first article: by now, you should have some understanding of why this image works, is impactful, and is liked/ remembered by a lot of people who view it. Firstly, it has a clear subject that stands out by contrast, luminance and texture; the secondary elements are balanced and aesthetically pleasing, but of lower visual prominence than the main subject. There is nothing distracting in the edges or borders. There are human elements, which instantly make them relatable to the viewer; there are clear cultural references that allow us to place the origin and context of the woman; lastly, it’s in the woman’s eyes: they’re not only the focal point of the image, but reinforced visually and contextually by the black frame isolating them from the rest of the image, which also makes it the highest contrast area of the image: our eyes go there first. As the audience, you build a connection with the subject, and you feel the subject doing the same with you. Was it a conscious choice to bracket the woman with two other people out of focus and looking in the same direction to provide visual echoes and harmony linking the frame? Absolutely. What about timing? Again, I waited for all of them to look in the same direction; I have several ‘insurance’ frames, but this is by far the strongest because of the connection through the subject’s eyes; that connection is what stays with you. MT
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