The vast majority of people in western culture perceive visual information from left to right, generally because that’s how our written language is displayed. Confronted with a new scene, we usually look to the left first and scan to the right. Research has also shown that we have a lower vs. higher bias – we tend to look downward before looking upward. Knowing these biases exist reveals a little about the “power points” discussed in photography.
An image with the main subject in the middle of the composition is usually perceived as being static rather than dynamic, a documentary recording of what was in the scene at the time. Photography instruction emphasizes compositions that are more dynamic, that imply motion in the scene or tension among the elements. Applying the above biases, you can see where a subject that is toward the left and below the centerline of a scene will be perceived first in an image, standing out initially from the rest of the scene.
This image obeys those biases. The milkweed pod is indeed below the centerline and to the left of the image. Yet it feels not that interesting, not as dynamic as it could be. I’ve made many images that followed these two rules and still disappoint.
There’s another aspect of certain subjects and that’s how they guide our eyes through an image. A symmetrical subject will encourage our eye to stay focused on it but a subject with any directionality to it (a point, a bulge, a curve) tends to lead our eye along the asymmetrical part. In the image above, the pods curve into a point, and that point is – well – pointing to the left. Our eye wants to follow that point and does so right out of the image. In order for the viewer to look at the right side of the image they have to re-enter the image.
Essentially the same scene but here the milkweed pod is more on the right side of the composition while still below the center line. The “point” on the pod leads the eye to the area of the composition where the majority of the space is located, giving the eye plenty of room to explore within the image and return to the subject without leaving the frame.
Does it seem silly that a small bias like this might influence how we view images? Does it seem annoying that visual artists exploit such biases to control how we enjoy their work? Does it mean all I need do in order to create a “masterpiece” is to follow placement biases?
Well, artists work to show the world as they see it, sharing that vision with us but not compelling us to buy into it. Great visual art has more subtlety about it than simply obeying (or breaking) conventional rules and I feel most viewers acknowledge that, perhaps even subconsciously, when they look and enjoy.
It’s important to understand that we have these internal biases and fun to know or speculate on how they evolved. As a starting point in visual creation be aware of them but rigidly following them usually doesn’t reveal the artist’s real view of the scene. For that one has to incorporate some form of expression – what is the scene saying to you, how does the scene make you feel, what compelled you to look at the scene and what compels you to continue looking at it? Incorporate those expressions in visual art, working the known biases in favor of maximum function, and your images will start standing out from your prior efforts and those of others.