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.

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


    Very thought provoking article which stimulates the creative process. I love the idea of brimging the viewer to question, “what is it?” Or to travel through an image in wonder. Thanks! 🙂

    Psychobabble! When you write “studies show,” you need to cite them. An educated mind recoils from “studies show” when you don’t show the studies.

    La m̩moire et un sourire.

    et comme
    le chant d’une
    pens̩e, le
    tendre oiseau
    retrouve le
    sourire de

    Francesco Sinibaldi

    I have to say I disagree with most of what you’ve said. Also, man has existed barely 4 million years on earth not”…hundreds of millions.”

    I disagree with virtually all of what you’ve said. Also, man has existed on earth around 4 million not “…hundreds of millions of years.”

    Lew, while humans have only been around for a few million years, the sense of sight we inherited from our non-human ancestors has been evolving for hundreds of millions of years.

    Some of the concepts proposed, I have to disagree with, starting with the very first pictures. The original shot appears to be moving from upper midfield (nearly centered) down towards the right, whereas the flipped image looks to me to be rising from top mid left up towards upper center. The 2 sharply defined highlights at the top grab the attention before the lower, softer curve does.
    This perception of direction of movement for us is because here in the West we read from left to right, whereas in Asia they read from upper right down and then back up to the left and then down again. This is cultural, not genetic.
    What attracts attention is contrast, whether of color (as in these examples of complimentary colors), shape (gestalt), size, direction of linear components, etc.

    En la silla.

    El sonido
    perpetuo de
    la noche
    una dulce
    poes?_a, el llanto,
    el ardor, la
    nueva emoci?_n
    que candida

    Francesco Sinibaldi

    It is reasonable to think that cultures that read from left-to-right respond differently to visual effects in photos than cultures that read right to left. But has this been scientifically tested and reported? I’d love to hear more about this.

    Can you please provide the references for the brain studies? I am particularly interested in the oft-quoted statement than “images are read left-to-right”. Have the studies compared viewers from cultures that read text left-to-right with cultures that read right-to-left?

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