HOW WE "READ" IMAGES
an Interpretation

by Flo Deems
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Some researchers have concluded that viewers of images in Western cultures that use languages in which text is read from left to right and from top to bottom will also "read" images the same way. I am not aware of any research on subjects of other cultures who read their text from right to left and from bottom to top. Perhaps these viewers may also "read" images the same way they read their written languages. So what follows is how Western viewers theoretically "read" images.

The point in an image in which our eyes are most likely to start "reading," then, is the upper left corner. Anything placed in that quadrant of an image is what Western viewers' eyes will fall upon first, before exploring the rest of the image. So, many photographers will place their subject/point of interest in that upper left quadrant. They will often use the "Rule of Thirds" which divides the image rectangle into thirds, both horizontally and vertically.



Click image for larger

The vertical lines in the above image illustrate the "Rule of Thirds." Placing the subject along any of the lines will make a dynamic composition within a rectangular image shape, rather than placing the subject directly in the center. (Square images seem more suited to placing the subject in the center.) Also, where the lines cross are termed "power points" within the image borders. The power point with the most weight is the upper left intersection, followed by the lower left. From these intersections we derive the primary diagonal lines.

Lines: Horizontal & Vertical

Lines, no matter their orientation, can be very thin all the way to very thick. Horizontal lines are static. They are "at rest" in relation to earth's gravity. So rather than movement, they convey feelings of rest and safety. In very windy areas, the lower a building's profile, the safer it seems to be in relation to ordinary movements of air.

Vertical lines thrust upward, away from gravity, like towering redwood trees. They seem to indicate man's desire for height, to reach for the divine or for power. He who controls the highest area controls the lower elevations all around. Church and synagogue steeples and spires reflect man's desire to get closer to the divine. Skyscrapers convey a sense of power. The corporate controllers or the richest dwellers occupy the highest floors.

The combination of horizontal and vertical lines create rectilinear forms, which in our minds are stable in relation to gravity. They seem more permanent than diagonal or curved lines.

Lines: The Diagonals

Many photographers try to make use of primary and secondary diagonals to make their images appear more dynamic. Diagonal lines appear to us to be dynamic, because they are out-of-balance in relation to the earth's gravity. They can suggest movement and create an illusion of depth, perspective. They pull our eyes into and through the image.

The diagonal that starts in the upper left corner and goes to the lower right corner is visually the strongest diagonal. We'll call this diagonal Z1. The next strongest primary diagonal is from lower left to upper right - the Z2 diagonal.

Gravity, real and imagined, plays a visual role in how we "read" images. Gravity will pull anything, including our eyes, from the top to the bottom. So the diagonal that starts at or near the top left and proceeds down through the image to near or at the lower right will be stronger than other diagonals in other directions.

As we all have experienced, going against gravity is much harder than going with it. This seems to be true when we "read' images and is why going from lower left to upper right is visually harder than from upper left to lower right. Our visual momentum, in the case of Diagonal Z2, is helped because it starts at the left side, where our eyes have been trained to start on any page of text.

The other primary diagonals, in order of visual "weight" are Z3, from upper right to lower left, is the third strongest line. Starting at the top helps it as it runs against our tendencies to start "reading" from left to right. Finally, the least strong of the primary diagonals is Z4, which runs from lower right to upper left. Z4 pushes against both gravity and cultural tendencies. So, in order of visual weight and dynamic importance, the 4 primary diagonals are:

Z1 - upper left to lower right
Z2 - lower left to upper right
Z3 - upper right to lower left
Z4 - lower right to upper left

The shorter diagonals shown are secondary diagonals.
They do not go from corner to corner.

As you can see, it's somewhat confusing to tell the difference between Z2 vs Z3, and Z1 vs Z4. In a Z1 image, the subject - the red circle - is positioned in the upper left; while in a Z4 image, the subject/circle is placed in the lower right. In a Z2 image, the subject/circle is in the lower left; while in a Z3 image, the subject/circle is in the upper right. The direction our eyes will follow will start with the subject and follow the diagonal to the opposite corner.

Lines: The Curves

Curves can be either shallow or steep. Shallow curves give us feelings of safe and comfortable movement. When we are driving, we can negotiate gentle curves and feel safe. Shallow curves are sensual, too, as they may remind us of the curves of our own bodies.

Steep curves, on the other hand, suggest fast, exciting and even dangerous movement. They make us feel unsettled, like we're trying to negotiate the sharp curves of a mountain road's switchbacks.

When curved lines are oriented horizontally or vertically, they can create confusion. One common use is in reflections of trees and boats on water. Placing curved lines on the diagonals within a frame can be very powerful, visually. They can convey movement, danger, excitement. Again, the hierarchy of the diagonals works with curved lines placed on the diagonals.

Below is an image containing both diagonal and curved lines. The thin curved line coming out of the lower right corner echoes the straight diagonal Z4. The curve implied by the running ball player in red above the Z4 diagonal helps overcome the effect of "visual gravity" as the player appears to be running towards the upper left.

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Contrast

Complicating the above explanation, though, is where the area of greatest contrast is placed in an image. Contrast can be in the luminance - the junction of the edge of the brightest/lightest area immediately against the edge of the darkest area. Our eyes are immediately drawn to that point. So even if the subject is placed in one of the corners and a secondary subject or background objects draw the eyes along that diagonal, if there's a highlight against a very dark area in one of the other corners, our eyes may be drawn to the luminance contrast first, before they find the subject. Also, lighter, brighter areas seem to come forward, while darker, duller areas seem to recede.

The other type of contrast is color opposites: red/cyan; yellow/blue; green/magenta. Probably luminance contrast will supercede color contrast in visual importance.

Luminance Contrast
Highest contrast in
lower center
Highest contrast in right

We can apply all the principles discussed above to vary the impact of our images.

You may be interested in reading these two web articles: "Composition & Design" by Marvin Bartel and "Seven Elements of Visual Art" by Andy Goldsworthy.

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If you are interested, you can also read about The Golden Ratio, which is found in nature, art and architecture.

A Perfect World Image

Light: Quality & Direction

How We "Read" Images

How I Broke Out of the Box

A Few Examples of Breaking the Rules.

Using Props To Break the Ice

Great Photography Magazines

Photography Home Page

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