Rules of vision – part II

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Upside down, or?

Continued from part I – hopefully the first part has had time to settle and digest; let us press on…

We draw temporal inferences from direction of shadows
The length and direction of shadows also suggests time of day: this is one of the indelible subconscious rules dating back to the very beginning. It is a consequence of observing sunrises and sunsets and being able to judge approaching darkness accordingly, by both overall luminance of a scene and the shadows cast by the sun. Sadly, for a lot of us, this is somewhat academic as there are far too many offices with hours that extend beyond daylight and further have no natural light whatsoever…

We have a general sense of color
This is a very vague statement, but most people have some aesthetic preferences for color combinations – complimentary colors tend to be more attractive simply because they are naturally balanced (they cancel out to neutral when combined additively). We seem to be naturally drawn to images that use these color combinations for reasons I’ve not been able to find an explanation for; I suspect it has something to do with not leaving some sort of overall imbalance within the composition.
Photographic implication: Dominant colors that are complimentary can be attractive at an immediately subconscious level.

We interpret color temperature as an indicator of mood
This is probably a consequence of the color temperature difference between firelight (warm), twilight (cool) and unfamiliar tints that are not part of the natural repertoire (green-magenta) and thus make us feel somewhat uncomfortable. Combined with luminance, dominant colors create an overall mood or feel to the image – much the same as one might decorate a room.
Photographic implication: The inexact science of color and emotion

We interpret directional blur as motion
Persistence of vision is the trick used by our eyes to create continuity and smoothness in motion; it’s the same thing used for video when the frame rate is fixed (I don’t believe it is fixed for our eyes, but I do believe that scenes of low motion, or when we stare at something, have much lower fluidity than high-action high-adrenaline scenes where time seems to slow down). It also means that when we are caught unaware by a moving object, it appears to streak through our vision without ever becoming defined since we never focus or fix on it. However, our brains are still registering the background, which means that there is still a ‘sharp’ visual anchor present – motion blur by one element in one direction therefore looks like deliberate movement; motion blur of every element in one or more directions just seems, well, sloppy.
Photographic implication: Avoid motion blur in multiple directions and/or by multiple objects. Use motion blur to create the impression of a subject, but without fully defining it (together with the specificities and limitations that implies) – much the same way in which we can identify something is a human from a silhouette, but not the specific expression or emotion of that person.

We are all at risk of tunnel vision thanks to our biases
Think of this as an extension to the recognition of familiar objects: very familiar objects which we encounter and regularly interact with will have further emotional attachment to us than a mere generic object of that type; we are therefore more biased than the typical observer of the resulting image. This can result in our fixating on one object in particular and ignoring the rest of the elements – potentially in a way that results in us missing distracting elements that weaken the composition. It is a dangerous thing for two reasons: firstly, the image is then at risk of becoming meaningful to a very limited audience, which is fine so long as exhibition is limited to only that audience; however, we often do not realise this and land up committing the sin of poor curation. Images that are intended to have a wide appeal must move beyond this.
Photographic implication: Don’t get fixated: try to see every subject and element as an arrangement of shapes, colors and luminance – nothing more, nothing less.

We make quick judgements
The human visual sense is the one with the fastest reaction time, partially due to the underlying biology and physics of it, and partially because it has always been our primary warning system to prevent physical harm. However, this also means that the time which we take to evaluate anything visually is almost always quite limited, and frequently not enough to take in all of the details in a scene or photograph. Our job as photographers is to observe more, distill faster, and output a resulting composition that should be immediately attractive and hold attention for long enough to invite further evaluation to appreciate the nuances and details in the image. This means that the image itself must be different enough to break pattern from what is normally casually observed and thus in itself stand out as a whole, but coherent enough to stand up to further scrutiny.

Note that the list becomes increasingly more conceptual or abstract – I tend to think of these as behavioural rather than autonomous, because to some degree we can condition ourselves not to respond in that way – but you can’t ignore something bright red on a black background, no matter how hard you try. None of these are hard and fast rules that must be obeyed with every composition (or risk a crappy picture) – they’re simply empirical observations on the way human vision works. If you can detach your rational mind from your subconscious one, you’ll quickly see that the way you interpret the world as an unconscious observer (i.e. not on the lookout for anything specific) is very much in line with the list above. Being a conscious observer is somewhat different, because here we know we are actively evaluating every element in the scene in front of us for something – be it interest or suitability or differentiation from the norm – and we therefore have both our overall sense of observation heightened and somewhat objectified. We notice the small details because we are consciously trying to; sometimes to the point of ignoring the big things.

I think the ideal state of things for a photographer is somewhere between detailed, rational observer and casual audience: this way we don’t get caught out by the elephant in the room thanks to our tunnel vision, nor do we miss details that might break the story on closer inspection. The idea is to notice enough to be able to integrate a second and even third layer of detail into a scene to add nuance to a story and reward the audience who has the patience to study your image longer, but at the same time be able to make an image with a gross structure that is still interesting enough to attract and hold attention at a casual and fast glance. MT


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  1. Fred Thomas says:

    Another wonderfully thought out discussion on the elements of composition combined with the photographers ability to observe and create an image that has universal emotion, meaning and thus appeal for a broader audience. In stark contrast to a “Perfectly Good Picture” = in focus + proper exposure + appropriate DOF of the subject BUT lacking any identifiable emotion. Which I believe is the hook we should be looking for. The foundational elements of composition: Light, Line, Shape, Form, Color and Depth will be present in an image in varying amounts creating a recipe that hopefully creates an interesting visual and emotional meal depending on how we combine what we have to work with. Within this mix of compositional elements we are not able to perfectly decide what will be there and what will not. It is more of our ability to manage what we have to work with to deliver a visual feast. As a former military pilot I was trained to Observe, Orient, Decide and Act – all of which had to be done in a matter of seconds. As a photographer I am not being subjected to serious threats, but we can still use OODA and STOP RUSHING, calm our conscience mind and allow ourselves the leisure to explore our subject and let the scene soak in and see how it makes us feel and then communicate that to our audience. Ming I appreciate how your writing forced me to consider the above. Thank you!

  2. Thanks Ming. A thought provoking article. It begs the question is what we actually see what is really there? Looking back at your well made points perhaps we subconsciously miss a great deal going on around us!

    Will this help me take better images? Only if I can remember them…perhaps I should challenge myself to focus on each (e.g. patterns, lines &c) in turn.

    Once again, thank you for considering more than a surface ’10 steps to great photos’ approach. Understanding photography is the first step towards mastery.

    • Arguably, the whole world is electrical stimuli and therefore a construct, but that’s too much red pill and deep into the matrix 🙂

      I think good photographers have to be extremely good observers, too; most of the time an interesting image is not a case of a special perspective, but just something nobody else noticed.

      I don’t think there can be a ’10 steps’ approach, because subjective interpretation (and sometimes luck) are what really makes the difference. All we can do is be aware of the tools and opportunities presented and be ready to use them…

  3. Jaap Veldman says:

    Hi Ming,

    As commented here, obeying the Rules of Vision can still bring dull photographs.
    Maybe this Quest should be called The Rules of Visual Impact.

    Maybe we are only capable of describing the ingredients and general rules at the outside of a spiral at the centre of which Maximal or maybe better, Optimal Impact can be found.
    The more central part of this spiral being different for every individual.
    This however might be a good thing.
    There will never be a Great Photographic Unification Theory.
    Impact / Art can be created by following the rules, breaking the rules, creating your own rules or by not even thinking about rules.
    And every way has it’s own caveats.
    Anyway, your articles are good stuff tor my brains again Ming!

    • If I could make a formula for an image that wasn’t dull, had soul, and was art – that process would be consistently repeatable by all by rote leaning. Such images would no longer satisfy the main criteria for impact: uniqueness. On top of that, it would probably be bad business practice to share it. Since it’s impossible, I can merely raise awareness; practice is still required.

  4. Lucy March says:

    Alas, as a psychologist, I an can attest to the fact that understanding sensory perception is insufficient to create works of art. But harness it with practice, practice, practice, and maybe there’s hope for the rest of us to produce compelling images no matter what our level of innate talent. Or at least that’s what I tell myself:)

  5. Carlos Polk says:

    This is a truly excellent article. Definitely book-worthy. You have a unique insight into many elements of photography that I don’t find anywhere else. And your ability to explain simply and clearly to people like me, not quite as gifted, is a marvel. As always, many thanks for what you do.

  6. hi sifu, is this textbook stuff which we can adopt/internalise like a scientific approach, and produce compelling work akin to yours; or do you think there is something more to it required, something deeper, like innate talent and an eye for image making. your thoughts much appreciated. thanks. ken.

    • Of course there is, which is the point of the other discussions / thoughts /essays here. However, if you could make it formulaic…then it wouldn’t be art anymore 🙂

      • i thought so too, sifu, but thought i ask just the same to confirm. i suppose even if one were to be able to grasp all that is shared within these couple of ‘rules of vision’ post and adopt a formulaic approach, the personal interpretation and execution of it would still make it a unique output = art, would you agree? i forgot to mention earlier, these two rules of vision posts is great stuff, godsend, sifu, goes a long way in explaining to me why i perceive and conclude images as i do. many thanks. ken.

        • Absolutely. There’s still a lot of latitude for interpretation depending on one’s own personal preferences/ biases etc. If we all saw the same thing or worked to the same rules, then there’d be no such thing as art – and only one possible interpretation of any scene or subject.

  7. Rules of vision? Vision rules!


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