How to Read a Photograph

A picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes. But what are the elements of the image that keep you looking at it. More specifically what path do your eyes travel when you examine the picture. In every image - photo or painting - the artist tries to create a visual path for the viewer to follow. This is also known as "leading the eye".

Mechelen, Belgium

Mechelen, Belgium

What is the first thing you fix on? Why?
What do you look at next? Why?
Do you go back to the original subject, or do you get take out of the frame?

More-or-less in order of priority, we will first be attracted to a human face, then the human form, then other mammals, animals and plants, bright light or high contrast, vibrant colours, recognisable shapes and lines, and so on. Small, high contrast elements have as much impact as larger, duller elements.

Let's practice on a few photos.

Durban, South Africa

Durban, South Africa

For me, it is quite an obvious lead in down the pier.  But then I quickly move off the splashing wave to the two guys on the beach. They have more contrast, and of course they are human figures.  But they aren't doing anything captivating, so I then look at the ships, but nothing going on there and I am lead along the horizon back to the wave.  After exploring the wave and the fishermen for a few seconds I come back down the pier and out of the frame.  While there is potential for this to be a great photo, it is actually very average because it doesn't keep the viewer engaged.
 

Jokulsarlon, Iceland

Jokulsarlon, Iceland

The first thing I look at is the slanty dark hole in the upper right of the ice.  Then I am taken down and to the left into the dark hole underneath and directly to the curved shape of the foreground.  While in the foreground and seeing the image as a whole, I can see the monster's face.  The curve of the ice (the monster's jaw) brings me back around to the right and up, following the pointy bits, back to the eye.  And the loop starts again.  I am strangely drawn into the mysterious monster. 
 

Kruger National Park, South Africa

Kruger National Park, South Africa

In this family portrait, I usually start with Mum in the top right, probably because her face is best defined.  While I am aware of Junior, I tend to then check out ominous Dad next, and then up to Junior and back around the triangle to Mum.  I love getting stuck in the loop around this photo because it gives me the chance to anthropomorphize their expressions and moods.  

When lining up the composition, what can we do to move ourselves, or our subject, so that we can lead the viewer around the photo, and so keep them exploring the image for longer?

Having three points of interest will create a triangular path for the viewer and keep them within the frame.
What about four or more arranged around the frame?
Converging lines will lead the eye to a point.
Don't forget the classic 'S' of a road (or river or ribbon) leading you through the image.
And some lines will even take the viewer out of the frame completely, but be careful of these.  
(Watch this space: More about lines in a future episode.)

We can use this knowledge to our advantage to make better photos that engage the viewer and keeps them exploring our photos for longer than average.

Your Challenge

Take a photo with converging lines that lead to your subject. These could be branches of a tree, rows of flowers, the lines on the palm of your hand, a road, a fence, even streaky clouds.