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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
Many studies in visual perception attempt to understand gestalt, or how our brains form meaning from disparate visual clues. Things become more interesting when you consider that the brain needs to not only recognize what we're looking at, but also decide how we should feel about, and respond to it. In other words, visual elements can translate not only into recognizable objects, but also into emotions and actions.

A simple example is that of diagonal lines. Studies show that for most people, images unfold from left to right, meaning, for example, that a line rising from left to right is perceived as pointing "up," whereas a line descending from left to right is pointing "down." Up and down, in turn, are relative to the bottom edge of the frame, giving it the visual equivalent of the force of gravity that we may associate with the physical ground we walk on. Anything that overcomes this gravity, such as lines rising from left to right, is intuitively associated with force and positive emotions, while anything that yields to it, such as lines descending from left to right, often is associated with subtlety, calmness or even a sense of melancholy.

LEFT: Given the visual gravity associated with the bottom edge, placing the butte at the top of the frame and slightly off-center creates tension, as the brain needs to resolve the visual forces pulling it in various directions. Items placed high in the frame also are associated with force, overcoming gravity and making them more visually important.
RIGHT: In this image of the famous Subway in Zion National Park, photographed on a very cold winter day, tension is accomplished using a mix of strong diagonal lines pointing in opposite directions. Less obvious is the fact that the motion of the water, which we intuitively know flows downward, actually seems to defy gravity by flowing up from left to right. All these elements combine to create a visual puzzle for the brain. While our conscious mind may quickly realize what we're looking at and how we should feel about it, it's the unconscious process of deciphering the image that creates tension and interest.

Now, consider an image where some lines rise from left to right while others descend. When it's not immediately clear whether the image as a whole is rising or descending, forceful or calm, positive or negative, the brain must take a little longer and pay a little more attention to decide. In other words, the simple mixing of opposing diagonal lines can create visual tension.

Studies also show that areas of visual gravity exist at the center of the frame and around each corner. These specific spots act as visual magnets, pulling on elements near them. An item placed close to the center or to one of the corners will be perceived as moving toward it. In contrast, an item placed right at the center of the frame will be perceived as static, held in place, having no direction or motion, prompting the brain to decide that it may not be worth attention. Similarly, items placed too close to the corners will be perceived as being pulled away from the center, leading the viewer toward the edge of the frame. It's likely you've heard that placing your main subject off-center is good practice, or that visual elements need "breathing room," and shouldn't be placed too close to the edges. Placing visual elements anywhere between the points of gravity prompts the brain to resolve the balance of forces at play, creating visual tension. This is one reason why the Rule of Thirds, for example, is a good idea.

The more you know about visual tension, the more you'll be able to utilize it in your images and prompt your viewers to spend more of their attention on them.

Guy Tal is a longtime contributor to Outdoor Photographer. You can see more of his photography, read his blog, and learn about his books and workshops at guytal.com.


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