Ever take notice as to how your eyes scan a photograph? To what element do they go first and how long do they stay there? What’s the next stop and where do they go from there? Knowing the “path” of all of this has as much to do with the message you receive as the viewer of a particular image, as it does with how you compose the next photograph you yourself make.
Randomly arranged “snap-shots” aside, “Photographs” possess intentional elements of design. Subject, background and the way elements within a photograph are positioned, equate to just how successful a photo will be. A great or at least "successful" photograph grabs the viewer's attention and communicates its message in a way that the audience stays longer and even comes back for a second and third exploring look.
To better understand all this, the National Press Photographer’s Association (NPPA) commissioned a research team schooled in the application of digital eye-tracking technology to exam just what “roadmap” the human eye follows when looking at a photograph.
Findings of the investigators were consistent for men and women and throughout age categories, as well. In photographs featuring people, viewers were first drawn to faces. They were also interested in the relationships between people in the picture, often looking back and forth between faces, in search of telling expressions, emotions and interactions.
“It’s the people’s faces and their reactions,” a 57-year-old woman in the study was quoted as saying. For her, the sympathy on their faces drew her into the photo and kept her eyes there for longer.
Emotions are what viewers said they were responding strongest to - happiness, sadness, frustration and anger, were among those viewers were most attuned to.
Another characteristic that made certain photographs compelling for viewers was “access.” Best captured near or in "private space" with a wide angle lens, study participants were most moved by such photos because it brought them “right there” where things were happening.
“Not everyone can be front-and-center and see the actual reaction on people’s faces,” said a 20-year-old female student who participated in the study. “I appreciate getting to see things that people don’t usually get to see up close and personal.”
Posed photos were reported by study participants to hold the least amount of interest. The context of the photo may be foreign and exotic, but if emotions and interactions of the subject were absent, these kinds of photographs rarely received a second look.
What these study results show is that viewers want to visit different “destinations” in a photograph and take possession of the content for themselves. Also, that they are naturally drawn to the most novel and compelling elements in photographs. Viewers weave these elements together with their own eyes and with their own brains, not only to verify and confirm an accompanying caption and context, but more importantly, to construct and take possession of their own, personal version of the photo.
Be they pro or amateur, experienced photographers come to know what makes a good photograph. And more often than not, their path to creating images that capture and compel the viewer, include just the kinds of things uncovered in the NPPA-initiated study.
Next time you compose your own photograph, try doing just that. Identify the subject. Is is interesting? Consider the background. Does it fit and support the subject in a thematically "logical" way? Next look at all the elements within the frame. Is the viewer's eye led from one to the other element via identifiable interactions? And finally, does the photo have impact? Does it through its design - what is included and what is left out of the frame - deliver the feeling and message that you as the photographer intended?
Want to learn more about creating powerful people photographs that communicate YOUR vision? Check out TCI's online and interactive course, People Photography, with award-winning photographer, David Bathgate.