|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.
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.
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.