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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Create Visual Tension

Compositional techniques from Guy Tal will help you to make dynamic images through the graphic design principles of gestalt

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The primary diagonals in the original image (above) are pointing upward, communicating force and uplift. Flipped around, the same image (below right) feels calmer and subtler.

As outdoor photographers, we witness some of the most sublime feats of natural beauty, as well as some of the most delicate nuances often missed by others. With each experience, we hope to portray in our photographic images some of the wonder, power and emotion we felt, though such attempts sometimes fall short. Similarly, when viewing photographs, some move us more profoundly than others, and we're faced with the question of why certain images work and others do not. While there's something to be said for compelling subject matter, dramatic light or bold color, very often what separates a successful image from an ordinary one is the elusive concept known to artists as visual tension.

To understand visual tension and how to leverage it in images, we should first consider the way the human brain responds to visual information. Our ability to see evolved so that we can be more aware of the world around us, paying particular attention to existential things such as threat, food or the potential for social interaction. Alas, attention is a very valuable and limited resource. For hundreds of millions of years, our brains became very good at assigning attention to important things and to not be distracted by others. We instinctively know that a pattern of stripes in the tall grass may be a predator, for example; that a distant human figure, even if dwarfed by a grand scene, deserves more attention than even a majestic mountain; or that red objects may indicate greater danger or reward than, say, blue ones. These rules are built into our brains and control the way our attention is distributed. In fact, we don't even need to positively identify something to determine that it deserves attention. Give us a couple of circles and a curve, and we recognize a face; give us an arrangement of simple lines, and we may recognize a person or an animal, etc. We can derive the whole from just a small subset of parts and assign meaning to it even without seeing all the pieces. This whole is also known as gestalt and is a key concept to understanding visual perception.

LEFT: In this example, the stream creates a downward-sloped diagonal, communicating calmness; the ladder forms an upward-pointing diagonal that commands attention, and also assigns a meaning to the main element—the ladder—as something positive and useful.
RIGHT: Other than the direction of lines and placement of elements in the frame, using recognizable elements in unexpected contexts also can be used to create visual tension. Consider the image of the aspen sapling growing out of the shallow edge of a placid lake. Despite the subject being centered, it's not immediately obvious whether we're looking up or down, at the sky or its reflection, or why the small tree is surrounded by clouds. Attention is needed beyond a casual glance to fully understand the image, again creating the desired visual tension.

With this understanding, we can see that in our images we're in fact competing for the scarce and precious attention of viewers. If an image doesn't engage their minds in a meaningful way, they will divert their attention to things they deem more worthy. This is where visual tension comes in. Tension is what prompts the viewer's brain to spend a little extra attention trying to understand an image. To do so, they should intuitively recognize that there's more in the frame than what may be obvious at first glance and that there's potential value in seeking a deeper meaning.


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