When a photo holds a viewer’s attention for minutes, not seconds, you know there’s something magical happening.
More often than not, it’s the power of perception.
Look at any great work of art. A legendary photograph. An architectural marvel. Or a timeless painting.
They visually reel you in and refuse to let you go.
As genius as these artists were, this visual power did not happen by chance. Rather, the artist tapped into innate, instinctual psychological forces.
In fact, the forces that govern the power of perception are happening this very moment as you read this article. More on that shortly…
First we look to the core purpose of perception. For understanding this will make all the difference in your life as a photographer.
“Vision is simplest when it fulfills its function…It’s function is to help the observer cope with the environment.”
James Gibson, The Ecological Approach to the Perception of Pictures
As James Gibson states, vision is intended to help the observer navigate through the world they inhabit.
Photography is a means of expressing this vision.
As every person in the world has a slightly different experience of their environment, every person has a slightly different vision.
As much as I love photography, I didn’t start getting to know the subject until age 11. And the fact is that photography is really something nobody actually needs to survive.
If photography went extinct, we as humans would be OK.
Losing our sense of vision… now that’s another story.
Vision is a vital skill to our survival. Because of this, our ability to see is something we have developed to a high degree.
Picture yourself in a crowded public space looking for a friend in a sea of strangers. As you scan the area, your eyes allow you to isolate one face at a time.
Imagine if you didn’t have this ability. Imagine if you had to see everything around you all at once and in full clarity.
It would be a nightmare.
This is one of the main differences from how we perceive the world and how our camera does.
Sure, our camera can isolate a single subject with shallow depth of field. But that’s only if we tell our camera to use a specific aperture and focal length.
By doing this, we are telling our camera to create an experience similar to what our eyes naturally do.
And that’s just one basic example.
There are numerous other psychological processes that influence the way we see.
The better we are aware of how our eyes perceive the world around us, the better we can mimic these processes with our camera. Consequently, the more natural and powerful our photos will be received by viewers.
Coping With Our Environment
Anthropologist E.T. Hall noted that we have two types of receptors that influence how we perceive the world around us.
#1. Distance Receptors
To get from point A to B we use our eyes to pinpoint how much distance is needed to cover. Additionally, we can use our ears to tell how far away a certain sound or voice is.
Distance receptors help us gauge how far or close things are to us. These same receptors are also used when we look at a photograph.
They help us see how close the subject is to other subjects within the frame.
While the frame is a flat, two-dimensional surface, the use of composition techniques helps create the illusion of distance (or the lack of it).
We’ll get back to how lines and other devices can trigger these distance receptors shortly.
#2. Immediate Receptors
When objects get closer to us, we use our sense of touch, smell, and taste help us better understand things. These are referred to as immediate receptors.
While we cannot directly influence touch, sense and smell in photography, we can elicit memories from past experiences.
Harsh, direct light, for example, creates a harsh texture and a rugged visual experience. Soft, smooth textures do the opposite.
The Force of Lines
If someone were to see you right now, what would they assume? Likely that you’re reading or looking at something on the computer (or device).
Although there is nothing connecting your face to the computer screen, we have learned to connect an imaginary line from where a person’s face is directed towards.
This is not just a skill us humans have.
Your dog likely pays close attention to where you’re looking as well. More savvy dogs even know to follow a pointing finger’s imaginary line to see what’s on the other side.
A skilled artist knows the power that both imaginary and real lines have on vision.
Used with precision, lines help guide your viewer to the key areas of your image, moving them from out of the frame to within.
The stronger the lines used, the stronger the sense of direction and movement.
Combine several lines together and you create a more energetic shot than if you had a single line.
Conflicting, crossing lines can create chaos and confusion.
Think of two roads that fork together compared with two roads that run parallel to each other. Both have entirely different psychological reactions.
Take great care when framing an image to note the lines within.
Are they aligning with your vision for the shot?
For example, are you trying to shoot an image with high energy but using several strong horizontal lines? If so, it may be better to re-position yourself to accentuate vertical and diagonal lines while minimizing or removing horizontal lines.
There are always several ways you can compose an image. Experiment with the lines and see which position produces the right emotion.
As you play around with lines, you’ll also notice something happen when they combine together to form shapes.
The Power of Shape and Placement
Combine three lines together to create a triangle and the composition goes from frenzied to stable.
Balanced triangles create a strong, stable feeling to viewers. Turn that triangle to an angle and the tipped triangle will suddenly create tension. It’s as if the triangle wants to move but is stuck.
Same triangle, minor change.
Just as we feel at peace when standing on both feet and shaky when on one foot, shape and placement have strong psychological influences on viewers. They ultimately influence a viewer’s sense of visual balance.
Visual balance is affected in the same way as physical weight. If one object commands more weight, a similar object of equal weight (or several smaller objects) is needed to balance the frame.
In my lesson, The Beginners Guide to Balance, the topic of visual balance is more thoroughly covered.
Color also has impact on weight, as does size and placement (we naturally see things higher on the frame as lighter than things ‘grounded’).
Shapes have the power of eliciting responses and attention. A shape of a snake instills fear and immediate attention. Compare that with shape of common things we see and naturally learn to zone out.
Visual Rhythm and Making Motion Within the Frame
What happens when you see a dozen people huddled together for a group photograph? Likely you pay minimal attention to each individual person and instead treat the many people as a ‘group’.
To make life easier, when we see patterns or groupings, we summarize them all into one.
This creates a visual rhythm where the viewer anticipates for the pattern to continue.
You can take advantage of this motion and use it to guide your viewer to where you want them to go.
For example, you can use a visual rhythm to guide your subject to the main point of interest. Here you break the rhythm and introduce a change in tempo.
By changing the tempo, you startle the viewer and keep them engaged. Because the last thing you want is to have a predictable visual rhythm that viewers immediately understand.
The easier something is to digest, the quicker the viewer will move on to something else.
Always keep the viewer interested and engaged.
Visual Depth and Light
As mentioned earlier, a photograph is a two-dimensional form of art. Shadows and contrast help create the illusion of depth.
The most basic way to create depth is to create a line running through the Z axis of the image (the third dimension).
This line creates the illusion of depth by its very existence. It is a darker color than everything else. It breaks the canvas.
Brighten the lines light intensity and it will create less and less depth. Brighten it 100% and the depth will vanish.
As you are out shooting, pay careful attention to the shadows and lines. If they are harsh and strong, there will be greater depth.Think of sunny days with direct light.
Compare this to a cloudy day with even, flat light. On these days the depth will be greatly reduced, creating a softer effect.
Whether aware of it or not, depth will influence the way your viewer interacts with your image.
Knowing the type of lighting and depth present, you can adjust your composition style to either accentuate or diminish its effect.
When depth is strong, you can expose for the highlights, creating a stronger sense of depth and tension. Conversely, when depth is weak you can take advantage of the minimized lines and use this opportunity to focus more on the colors or shapes around you.
This use of depth and exposure to create a unique composition is what I refer to as treating exposure as composition in The Exposure Den. By making shadows stronger or weaker, you reinforce (or diminish) the power of perception.
Our Perception Stays Constant Unless There Is a Force of Change
The way we perceive the world has been conditioned from years of experience. Whether we know it or not, our daily lives are fully guided by these forces.
When someone’s eyes look one way, we naturally want to follow those imaginary lines.
When we’re walking down a sidewalk, we naturally want to continue following the lines of the street.
And as you read this text, everything else around you has naturally dimmed out of your conscious awareness. The words above and below this very text are even blurred – out of your awareness.
It truly is amazing the things our eyes do to make life easier.
But it’s one thing to allow these influences to make our lives easier and another to consciously recreate these effects with our cameras.
By taking time to understand what these forces are, we can go from blindly complying to consciously understanding the process.
When you see an object you want to photograph, don’t just take a picture.
Immerse yourself into the art of observation. Observe the lines, colors and light that surround the object. See how it could be isolated or dramatized.
Note the textures and how they can be either accentuated or diminished with your camera.
See the light and how it gradually dims from the source to the farthest source of illumination.
In essence, be aware of everything.
Then, when you’ve found what’s most important, isolate. Do everything possible to to reinforce that subject with the power of perception.