Photography and psychology, part two: how we view images

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Woman, umbrella and street scene 1 – think for a moment, how does it make you feel?

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:

  1. Brightness – brighter things are more obvious, to the point of being painful: this is our warning mechanism linked to heat and danger
  2. Size – physical proximity, again linked to danger
  3. Motion – potential threats approaching
  4. Color – nature frequently warns us in bright colors – take toxic frogs and mushrooms, for example. Thus anything with color contrast stands out immediately
  5. Texture – this is a much more subtle signal; but it allows us to be able to differentiate between different materials etc.
  6. 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.

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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.

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Two cinematic cityscapes: what is it about the tonal palette of the first one that says ‘morning’, and the second one that says ‘evening’?

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.

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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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  1. Great pair of perspectives Ming!
    The “reaction to threats” part reminded me of an article I read the other day in which scientists suggested the evolution of vision in primates is linked to the presence of venomous snakes ( There is undoubtedly evidence that certain colors indicate danger in the animal kingdom, and (less evidence but probable) that can be translated into how we view images, but something you did not touch on was shape. I am sure geometry also plays a role somehow and certain shapes trigger parts of our brains that invoke emotion. This is probably more complicated than color and stems from individual experiences but it may possibly explain differences in the emotions one feels when viewing your two umbrella images. The first has far more geometry which gives me a sense of order or stability versus the second.. If primates have something in their brain that fires off when seeing a snake, I bet you could test the strength of images by measuring brain activity and the take the findings to formulate the perfect image! haha just food for thought!!!

    =) Sam D.

    • Good point, Sam. I think it’s less to do with shape than symmetry/ order/ geometry/ breaking of pattern; I’m not sure there’s such a quantitative way of analyzing that one though. Perhaps food for a future article 🙂

  2. Leandro Gemetro says:

    “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”

    Humility Ming, Humility. Great images and flawless writing skills that I admire just got a black spot by that comment…

    • It’s an empirical observation – I see it in the images submitted to the flickr pool; >10,000 in the pool, and a 10:1 rejection ratio on average means 100,000 images over the past six months. I’d say that’s a very reasonable sample.

      • Leandro Gemetro says:

        I understand your point, seriously I do. I meet people from time to time that call themselves photographers, and their results are doubtful. But there are ways and ways to say things, Ming. While you are answering seeing the results in your Flickr pool, I’m just pointing out that your line regarding you inspiring people to do that and the way you say it, maybe it’s not the most humble and nice way to put it.
        Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been reading your blog for a year, but I think it would help a young guy like you to identify things that would make himself a better writter/teacher.
        Humility is paramount.

  3. good article. I have often thought about the instantaneous reaction a person has to an image vs the response they have if they know the artists work. As an example I am studying the work of Edward Hopper at the moment. Take a look at Ground Swell, and then listen to the wyeth lecture on the same painting. Its a bit long, and you could argue that it is a bit of a stretch, the lecturer even says as much, but it certainly adds layers of potential meaning. I guess my point here is that sometimes to get the full story you need to understand the context in which it was taken/painted and the reality the artist inhabited.

  4. I have no criticism of the content here – and I assure you that’s not “damnation by faint praise”. However… Like many blogs and websites the text is incredibly uncomfortable to read. This is because you violate one of the most fundamental rules of typography: for optimum readability the line length (aka “measure”) should never exceed about 65 characters. Yours exceeds 100 characters (spaces are included in the counts.)
    Ok, it’s the web, however the principle is independent of the medium – check almost any professionally typeset publication; books, newspapers, magazines. Ask any trained typographer. This has been understood for a very long time – take a look at the Gutenberg Bible.
    I await contradiction (it’s the internet after all.)

    • Well, you’re the only one who’s complained so far. Also, if everybody followed the same rules for everything, then it would be a very boring world, wouldn’t it?

      Seriously though, line length here is a tradeoff between page width/ image size/ font size etc. This is the best balance of the three I could find.

      I think I should probably have put in more paragraph breaks though.

      • Yep. One is certain of outright denial out here in the interweb. People get used to all kinds of nonsense. I’m right, you’re wrong and that’s about all there is to it really. This isn’t my personal opinion – it’s been known for literally centuries. You know better. Of course.

  5. randomesquephoto says:

    I love your work. And these past two articles very much.

    but. With regards to the last photo. And you referencing it twice. In my opinion. The man on the left drives my nuts and I wish, one, wasn’t there, or two, wasn’t looking the way he was. The woman is so interesting and captivating. But this guy in a baseball cap looking like a confounded doldrum distracts and bothers me.

    maybe it’s just me. But I’ve looked at the image multiple times. And it gives me a feeling that’s very underwhelming. And I’ve also framed it in my head differently so he wasn’t there. And enjoyed it. But with that fellow. I don’t care for it.

    • Thank you. As for the last image – I think it’s a matter of personal preference. Everything needs a point of reference; without that clueless man, the other two characters aren’t as well defined and lack context.

  6. Yet another thought provoking article, which is rare amongst the photography blogger sites, so thank you! Just to answer out loud your question about the two umbrella pictures, and to help me think through this …

    The woman in the first one looks like a woman out of place. The city isn’t where she usually is, and she’s uncomfortable and wants to get out of there. The people looking at her, her facial expression, and the jumble of stuff all around her all reinforce this feeling for me. The centeredness of the subject also makes it seem like everything is pressing in on her from all sides, perhaps a reflection of the oppressiveness of her environment.

    The second picture also makes me think the people want to get out of there. It’s wet, dreary, and late. There’s some business that both people want finished so they can get out of there because they’re tired. The darkness and body language (both figures hunched over), along with the rain, all say this to me.

    It’s interesting that the people are composed off-center and smaller in the second picture with the background context being much larger and prominent. The first picture feels like a representation of the internal dialogue of the woman, while the 2nd feels like a 3rd party observation of an event, and maybe that’s why the first picture feels more powerful to me.

    BTW, to balance this artistic jibber-jabber with gearlust, I just got notice that my E-M1 has finally shipped!

    • One more thought: do you know those shots in movies where the camera zooms in while the operator moves the camera back so the main subject is kept the same size? The first umbrella shot looks like it could be a still from such a sequence, perhaps because of the MF DOF rendering. Again, it adds to the feeling of unease.

      • Yes; I have no idea what they’re called, though. They’re either to add context or to remove it and make the audience focus entirely on the subject. But yes, they tend to give me the feeling that the subject has just checked out from reality and has trouble just maintaining existence.

    • I find that I’m personally attracted to things and people that are out of place; it must be the whole pattern-breaking thing; whether that pattern is a visual one or an established sociological one. Some of the feel is lost in the second image due to the display medium – at a larger size, the mood feels much like being there – the ‘wetness’ comes through, which is hidden at web sizes.

      I’m picking up my E-M1s and 12-40s today 🙂

  7. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Ming, you have said a lot. I might not agree with every bit of it, but there are some fantastic tips in this two part article, like avoiding n empty foreground in a wide angle photo. Offhand, I believe only live performances are a two way medium, and only certain ones, usually in a small venue. A ballet or symphony orchestra is not two way, but four musicians playing in a bar can easily become a two way conversation. A junior college art instructor tells me the formula is what (subject), why (content) and how (arrangement). Bjorn Rorslett says it is what, why and when with how flowing from when. I think these short guides are useful because as a street photographer I have to do things fast, very fast.

    • There’s definitely a heavy reliance on reflex/ instinct and reflective conditioning in any sort of documentary photography, or situations where you have moving subjects and no control over them; all I can say is the more you practice, the more likely you are to be able to successfully anticipate the shot. I think this applies as much to the compositional/ subjective aspects as it does to the technical ones.

      If it were a conversation…think of it as the right timing to say the right thing: miss the moment, and it’s gone. 🙂

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        That last sentence is worth remembering.

        • Haha, I’m secretly hoping somebody might start quoting me eventually if I say enough intelligent one-liners…

          • Ron Scubadiver says:

            You must be doing something right, your rank on Alexa is 115K. Mine is 362K, Steve McCurry, 280K. It amazes me that a relatively unknown guy like me who has never sold a print and earns no income from photography is ranked that high.

            • The bigger question is how other ‘popular’ bloggers with nothing much worth reading or looking at rank even higher…

              • Ron Scubadiver says:

                I had not thought about that, hopefully I have something to look at. I get a lot of nice comments. Ming, it’s a good thing am not trying to make a living off photography.

                At one time I had a flickr account that was getting 9,000 hits per day. By the standards I have now, it was nothing special. It just happened to be something people were looking for and it kind of went viral.

                I don’t know if you look at my stuff at all or if you think I am for real. Sometimes I feel like a moron with a camera who might get lucky and be promoted to an idiot with a camera.

                • Sorry, wasn’t implying that was the case with you at all. I admit though that I don’t have time to look at everybody’s images…if I did, I’d never be able to make any of my own!

                  Practice and a little guidance can shortcut that promotion process quickly – beats stumbling around in the dark like me for twelve years! 🙂

                  • Ron Scubadiver says:

                    You don’t have to apologize because you did not do anything that requires it. You don’t have to look, I have lots of lookers. I seem to manage with the promotion aspect, but ultimately it is because I have something that someone wants to view, the conversation as you describe it. The audience three years ago was a bunch of nuts, today it is a mix of photographers and other visual artists, people with true creative instincts, and they are really nice.

                    Being free from the commercial aspects is nice, but I would like to sell a couple of prints just to say that I did it.

                    • One can never be too sure online; most of the nuance of conversation is gone when text-only.

                      Now I have to go look…

                      …a rather interesting mix of stuff. I suspect most came for the girls in bikinis, but I personally like the abstract stuff a lot…

                    • Ron Scubadiver says:

                      I started with the abstracts big time this summer. A few date back, but somehow abstracts really grabbed me. As for girls in bikinis, whatever,

      • “If it were a conversation…think of it as the right timing to say the right thing: miss the moment, and it’s gone”.

        The French have the most wonderful expression for this: “l’esprit de l’escalier” 🙂 One of those expressions which is going to take a lot more words to render in just about any other language.

        We could say that Cartier-Bresson and Doisneau were masters of that “moment”. And the real proof of their greatness: they did it time and time and time again.

        • Sadly, there’s no really accurate translation for that.

          I suppose ‘the decisive moment’ will have to do. That said, Doisneau did pose some of his images – I don’t think that counts as timing per se, but I suppose in the end, if you can’t tell the difference…

          • I have to come out of retirement for this one thing:

            It’s “the spirit of the stairs” and it is actually bona fide English, as is.

            I first came across the phrase when I began to learn copywriting (i.e., quite a bit ago); a lexicographer at Merriam Webster had featured it in her blog. “The spirit of the stairs” is for those people who stomp out the bedroom in an argument, slam the door and rumble down the stairs. Then five minutes later they’re back up the stairs again, through the door, just to say “and another thing!”

            It’s for people who miss their timing, not meet it. The indecisive moment, if it’s anything.

            /goes back to his cameras

            • So the indecisive moment – or the captured indecision perhaps – is that one thing?

              • Tom Liles says:

                It’s missing the moment completely, then coming back twenty minutes later… Doubly *bad* timing. The moment has gone, life has moved on—it’s the wrong place and the wrong time. But they stubbornly (inartly) have their say.

                I’m not sure the spirit of the stairs fits so well with photography or any expression of good timing or deft skill.

                Decisive moment is a good phrase, perfect for photography.
                [And totally unrelated to the phrase “spirit of the stairs,” as far as I know. Put the other way –> how would we get “spirit of the stairs” to mean “perfect timing”? How would we explain the stairs reference, for a start? I can see no connection or route to one, and that’s my twisting turning brain we’re talking about. Only a rhetorical point, anyway: the stairs reference alludes to the scene I painted above, and the connotation. I’m sure of it, a lexicographer told me!]

  8. Wonderful piece with some really well thought out and well-made points. I am a massive fan of your work both photography and writing. I would also like to congratulate you on your structured arguments – not many photography blogs (I feel) are so structured.

  9. As always, insightful. I might comment that sometimes the lack of order in a work of art will command considerable attention. Indeed, if items are out of place the viewer’s unease might evoke an entirely different emotional response Ming.



  10. Wonderful Read Ming! Enjoyed it much!

    Best Wishes – Eric

    • William Rounds says:

      Was the world more photogenic in the 30s and 40s? Whenever I look at photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Doisneau I am amazed at their ability to see the visual irony in an environment. It was just street photography but there is more revelation of society in their photographs than most of what I see today. Somehow I think they were less concerned with the technical aspects than we are today and it would be good thing if we got that back. Google either and look at that amazing photography.

      • I think it’s a consequence of editing. If we threw away all the visual diarrhoea that’s produced now, the sheer volume of photographers would undoubtedly produce some very, very interesting results. The problem is that the masses have been equipped with the ability to hit the button – but not the discernment to know when not to show the resultant output.

  11. What you write here is undoubtedly true, but I think it is something that would occur to a very small percentage of photographers, at least to the depth you go into it. To be able to process all that in the instant before hitting the shutter is pretty tough, although the resulting picture is usually strong enough to justify the effort put in.

    It’s similar to what is written in a great book I have on learning Japanese: you should balance the pleasure of reading a text in Japanese (for the sheer pleasure of reading it) with the concerted effort to analyse what’s going on in semantic terms (so you can learn). Too much of one or too much of the other and you don’t get to appreciate the text to the fullest.

    Phrased in a photographic context: if someone likes your picture, then does it matter a great deal if they can’t give a detailed reason why? (Somewhat rhetorical question). I’ve found that the more I shoot, the more I can understand why I do or don’t like a picture. What I don’t know yet is whether that knowledge allows me to appreciate the picture “more” than would a person with no idea why they like it. A bit like a magician watching another magician: does knowledge of how the trick is done ruin the experience, enhance it, or neither? (Again, somewhat rhetorical question).

    Similarly, while shooting: analysing a scene is of course important to get a good shot, but overanalysing a scene may cause you to go crazy because there are so many (potential) variables to consider.

    This is why one of my favourite photographers is Jay Maisel. He trained in art at Yale, so he clearly knows his stuff in that regard. However, from having watched him on video and read many interviews with him, he basically reduces a photo down to “light, colour and gesture and don’t have anything in the frame that shouldn’t be there”. That’s it. From looking at Jay’s stuff I get this kind of punch-in-the-gut, “Oh my God, look at that” effect but it rarely occurs to me to try and look at the picture with the analytical approach that you’ve outlined in this article. Now that could be because we notice the light / colour / gesture which he was aiming at, because he transmitted it perfectly when he took the shot. Or it could be because I (and, I would hazard, many photographers) just don’t look at it in such a way as you’ve outlined here.

    That being said, I intend to pick up another of your video lessons soon because the two I’ve used so far have been great!

  12. Mark Ortega says:

    Great article as usual Ming! I always look forward to and enjoy reading your intellectual musings.


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