Psych 101

To help you make landscape photos that resonate, we deconstruct the psychological baggage humans bring to a scene
Turret Arch, Arches National Park, Utah.

One of the insights of modern psychology is how much our preferences and decisions are driven by unconscious processes. Often, our conscious mind merely provides rationalizations for decisions our unconscious mind has already reached. A study conducted by advertising researcher Bruce Hall using my images found that only one-third of the variation in sales of prints could be explained on the basis of the test subjects' stated preferences. In other words, roughly two-thirds of the decision-making process was driven by unconscious processes. In his book How Advertising (Sometimes) Works, Hall describes the study, then quotes legendary adman David Ogilvy, who once said, "Consumers do not behave as they say, they do not say what they think, and they do not think what they feel."

If the unconscious is a primary driver of preferences in landscape photography, where do those unconscious preferences come from? One plausible possibility is evolution.

We have a lot in common with other mammals. We need to find food and water. We need shelter from storms, severe cold and heat. We need refuge from predators and enemies. To find food, water and shelter, we need to explore our environment. Meeting these needs was crucial as we evolved on the plains of East Africa.

Nearly all animals have a preferred habitat. Many are adapted to only one type of habitat, in fact, and will die if that habitat disappears. Could it be that humans also have a preferred habitat?

At first blush, that seems absurd. Humans now live in almost every possible environment, from tropical South America to the South Pole. How can I argue that we have a preferred habitat?

Mount Powell, Taylor Peak, Otis Peak and Hallet Peak, with Flattop, Notchtop and Knobtop Mountains, reflected in Bierstadt Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Some researchers in the field argue that we still have a preferred habitat and that it hasn't been long enough, in an evolutionary sense, for those preferences to disappear. It has been only 250 generations since the Stone Age. The first creatures we can identify as hominids were ape-like creatures who descended from the trees and began living on the ground during the Pleistocene. We evolved for 80,000 generations on the plains of East Africa. The fact that we no longer need to hunt down dinner every day while simultaneously avoiding predators and enemies doesn't mean that all those instincts, tastes and needs have disappeared.

More than we care to admit, we're creatures of our evolutionary past. What does that mean in terms of our appreciation of landscapes, and by implication, landscape photographs?

Jay Appleton, a geographer at the University of Hull in England, has written a book called The Experience of Landscape, in which he laid out an evolutionary perspective on what types of landscapes we find pleasing. His ideas can be summarized in the form of three theories: habitat theory, prospect-refuge theory and the savanna hypothesis.

Habitat theory postulates that we take pleasure in landscapes that look like they could satisfy our biological needs. Prospect-refuge theory asserts that we like landscapes that offer a "prospect," to use Appleton's term: a long view, often from an elevated vantage point. But we also need to escape predators, hide from enemies and take shelter from severe weather, so we look with favor on landscapes that offer potential refuges. The savanna hypothesis asserts that we prefer landscapes that resemble the plains of East Africa, where we evolved during a time that was much wetter than today.

Black Canyon, Gunnison National Park, Colorado.

Gordon H. Orians, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington, lists the following characteristics of an idealized human habitat, which bears a striking resemblance to the savannas where we evolved:

  • Open spaces of low grasses interspersed with thickets of bushes and groupings of trees
  • The presence of water directly in view, or evidence of water nearby or in the distance
  • An opening up in at least one direction to an unimpeded view of the horizon
  • Evidence of animal and bird life
  • A diversity of greenery, including flowering and fruiting plants

We like undulating landscapes, where we can see opportunities to hike to the top of a hill and check out our surroundings, or, better yet, landscape photographs taken from elevated vantage points that directly reveal the lay of the land. Including the horizon helps us orient ourselves in space, which adds still more appeal. We also like landscapes that invite exploration, where we feel we could walk right into the frame and stroll along the grassy bank of a stream or lake, or follow a path around a bend. We prefer savannas that are green rather than ones that are brown and dry. Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, professors of psychology at the University of Michigan, have shown that the most desirable landscapes have a moderate degree of complexity. Extremely intricate landscapes, such as impenetrable forests and jungles, are just as unattractive as utterly simple landscapes, such as prairies.

If greenery is so popular, should we all stop shooting in the desert? One study of Phoenix residents' preferences in terms of landscaping around their homes found that they all said they liked desert landscapes, but if given a choice, money no object, most preferred a green lawn rather than xeriscaping. They liked creating a little oasis to live in. Many of the best desert shots show rare spring blooms or a little bit of water—scenes that certainly aren't typical of the desert's appearance for most of the year. Popular winter landscapes also usually depict atypical scenes. In my experience, winter images sell as prints only if they show warm light or a pristine, sunny day, preferably just after a snowstorm has cleared out. Why? Winter can be a harsh season, but we don't get cold and hungry merely looking at a photograph of a winter landscape. Perhaps that ancient memory of winter as the starving time makes winter landscapes generally unattractive.

According to Doctor of Psychology Denis Dutton, research has shown that women prefer their landscapes lush and green, with plenty of flowering and fruiting plants as evidence of the land's fertility, plus an ample supply of potential refuges. Men prefer landscapes that offer vast vistas, invite exploration and look like rich hunting grounds.

The Kaplans have also pointed out that we like our landscapes to have an element of mystery, which they define as a feeling that "one could acquire new information if one were to travel deeper into the scene." I think we like mystery for an additional reason: It allows us to imagine a story about the image. Suggesting a story is easiest to do with photographs of people, since we can imagine their trials and triumphs just by studying their faces and surroundings, but the same principle can work in landscapes that show peaks or canyons half-obscured by clouds or fog.

Prospect-refuge theory offers an intriguing way to think about why some images succeed and others fail. It may help explain the enduring appeal of frame-within-a-frame compositions, which place two foreground elements, such as trees or rock pillars, on either side of the frame, with a more distant view revealed in between. These framing elements partially conceal the viewer and help prevent discovery by potential enemies and predators, but still allow a view into the distance. Frame-within-a-frame compositions are even more attractive if they place the viewer at some height above the surroundings.

Lupines in West Maroon Pass, Gunnison County, Colorado.

As Dutton points out, "Human beings like a prospect from which they can survey a landscape, and at the same time they enjoy a sense of refuge. A cave on the side of a mountain, a child's tree house, a house on a hill, the king's castle, the penthouse apartment, and a room with a view are situations with appeal (in fact, with a few exceptions, higher-elevation real estate for housing is more expensive worldwide)." Dutton goes on, "In fact, most landscape representation in the history of painting places the implied viewer either at some desirable vantage point—a cliff edge, perhaps, typically looking down into a valley—or, if at ground level, at a somewhat greater height than what would be accurate for a six-foot human being."

Although an elevated vantage point is often desirable, photographers don't need to climb to the top of a peak to use a mountain as a prospect symbol. Simply including a mountain in the frame lets us imagine ourselves on the summit enjoying a view that seems to go on forever. The sensation of a prospect can be created in other ways, as well. Clear air, coupled with a distant horizon, also creates a long view—a long "fetch," to use Appleton's term—and encourages speculation about what may lay beyond the horizon. Such long views tend to draw the eye, which can be important in terms of guiding the viewer's gaze around the frame. Aerial photographs may give an extreme sensation of prospect, but at the cost of any sense of participation in the landscape below.

Refuge has no meaning without a hazard to take refuge from. People love the thrill of coming close to peril without really being in serious danger. For example, we love to be perched on the edge of a thundering waterfall. Photographs that show violent weather approaching, but that include something in the scene that indicates you can still find shelter, have perennial appeal. Cliffs, steep peaks, large breaking waves, powerful rapids and deep chasms are all reliable hazard symbols. Pair strong hazard symbols with powerful refuge symbols in a landscape image, and you may have a winner.

Research has shown a surprising degree of uniformity in the types of images preferred around the world. In 1993, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid received a grant to do a world-wide study of preferences in paintings. Dutton describes the results: "People in very different cultures around the world gravitate toward the same general type of pictorial representation: a landscape with trees and open areas, water, human figures, and animals. More remarkable still was the fact that people across the globe preferred landscapes of a fairly uniform type: Kenyans appeared to like landscapes that more resembled upstate New York than what we might think of as the present flora and terrain of Kenya."

Although some dismiss this as the influence of the worldwide calendar industry, Dutton sees the hand of evolution at work. He sums up habitat theory and its corollaries well: "In the
Pleistocene, habitat choice was another factor determinative of life and death, and emotional indifference to landscapes is as evolutionarily unlikely as indifference toward snakes, dangerous precipices, and poisonous foods, on the one hand, or sex, babies, and sweet and fatty foods, on the other."

These theories certainly don't explain all of our preferences in landscape photographs, but they do provide an intriguing new way of looking at images. Keep these ideas in mind the next time you're out shooting, and you may find a fresh way to add appeal to your work.

Glenn Randall is a wilderness landscape photographer whose primary subject is Colorado. He has been photographing every corner of the state since 1993 and recently completed a seven-year project to shoot sunrise from the summit of all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. Farcountry Press published those images in Sunrise from the Summit: First Light on Colorado’s Fourteeners. His most recent book, The Art, Science, and Craft of Great Landscape Photography, was published by Rocky Nook.

2 Comments

    Glenn Randall’s articles are consistently insightful and well-researched. I try to connect with viewers emotionally, and this article helps define the reasons why some of my efforts work or don’t. His own work resonates with those visceral connections, and he’s able to help the rest of us understand factors behind his success. I went to this article first in the current issue, and will search his out in coming issues.

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