Lew Lorton Photography | Semiotics of Images - why some images are more comfortable than others -Part 2

Semiotics of Images - why some images are more comfortable than others -Part 2

November 21, 2012  •  Leave a Comment



Content is king. Whatever else people 'get' from an image, how they relate to the subject either intellectually or emotionally will influence or even overwhelm every other kind of judgment. I always remember asking a commenter who had posted over-the-top praise for a totally mediocre picture of a dog what she liked about the picture. She said that she just loved dogs and especially that breed. The reality of the picture disappeared and was replaced by that particular woman's strong attachment and emotional involvement in the content.

Thus a picture of a favorite or beloved subject, no matter its technical or compositional faults, will enrapture relatives or parents or other fans and we can't do anything about that; people are what they are and their lack of objectivity is uncontrollable.

So let's put that issue aside for the moment and talk about the influencing factors that occur on a different level of consciousness.


"I don't know art but I know what I like"

We've all heard that and we've seen how people like things that are understandable within their own frame of reference and experience and reject other things.

Why do people have these basic, even while untutored, reactions?

Subject matter aside, why do people like some images more than others?

Why are some images more acceptable, more comfortable than others?

It is my belief that all viewers, no matter their level of sophistication in photography, get at least some subliminal cues from images about how to understand them and the message the photographer is sending.

And understanding an image, understanding what the photographer is trying to show us, is crucial to the impact and success of any image.

The photographer knows what is important in the scene as his mind strains out all the irrelevant parts in the frame but when the information is presented without explanation, in two dimensions, to the viewer, the viewer must figure out from the visual cues, using his/her own experiences, what to look at and where.

If the frame includes irrelevant information presented in ways that the viewer is used to seeing as important, then the viewer, consciously or not, tries to parse out what is important.

An obvious example is a simple portrait with an in-focus, busy background. It is uncomfortable to the viewer because, even though the viewer knows that the subject is the important object, the viewer's eyes constantly are drawn to the unimportant objects in the background.

In short - people see everything, although they might not be conscious of it or realize the impact but the photographers must compose the frame and manage the content to make the audience see what the photographer wants.

Once you realize how people see and interpret visual cues things then you can use that as a lever on people's seeing to surprise them and interest them.


Example: Look at this picture.

What do you know about the people in the foreground?

Are they important?  Virtually everyone who looks at this picture would say, 'No.'

Even though the figures are large and close to the camera, the viewer sees  that they are cut off, out of focus, incomplete - and thus infers that these figures are probably not important. That is what I mean by the cues that people get and can interpret even though they, the viewers, have no education.

A_BKK_2007_00202 Now, knowing what inferences viewers will draw initially, can you understand how you could, by placing an important item in an unusual place and treating it in an unusual way, create a tension between expectations and actuality that adds to the drama of a photo?

I'll show a couple of examples of this later on in the section on centers of interest.


Why do people respond this way?

I have no idea.

Some influence is almost certainly cultural – so many of our responses are due to our cultural traditions.

The Western world reads from left to right and, in my experience, Western viewers enter an image, scanning from left to right. That 'habit' may be different for those from a different culture. We are used to seeing pictures in a certain aspect ratio and when pictures stray to far from these 'normal' aspect ratios, the viewer starts to become aware of the shape of the picture and that shape influences how we think of the image; an panorama, for example.

Some of our responses are probably built into our limbic system, like our tendency to be distracted and look at the brightest and most colorful areas of an image. Some are almost certainly learned, either in formal training or by experience.

It is clear however, that while many of these cues, this visual shorthand, are common to even unsophisticated viewers, certain of the language of images is only understood when the viewer has some experience or education.  When images get more complex and don't have these standard cues of bright colors or agreeable content, then people without special expertise won't generate an opinion; they don't know how to see what the picture is saying. Witness the reaction of most people to a great deal of street photography, a niche, like wine, that often requires some degree of knowledge to appreciate.

More Sophisticated Viewers

Enlarge people's frame of reference with ideas and names that people can use to categorize ideas and identify other elements in pictures. then, all of a sudden, people's range of things they like and appreciate gets larger. That kind of deeper understanding is what lets people understand the subtleties of art, wine, food - all that are formerly unreachable without names being put to ideas and concepts.

(This is one reason why looking at photos, reading critiques, trying to critique and self-examination are as important as getting the technical skills down.)

But, even a sophisticated audience will be distracted by misplaced cues that stir up innate reactions, so we must take peoples' natural responses into account when creating our own images.

Here is a typical example;

We all respond to bright lights, bright colors and detail; we will automatically look at them. Although any viewer knows absolutely that the center of interest in this picture is the young woman and we should be looking only at her, leaving the rest of the image as harmless kerfluffle, yet the busy-ness and brightness of the background in the upper left corner pulls our eye. The picture is less pleasing than it might be; there is a dissonance between what we know to be important and what our natural responses is almost forcing our eyes  to look at.

(this image was posted on the web and is used under the Fair Use clauses of the US Copyright Law)

In the next post, I will get away from these generalities and finally talk about specific issues that you can/must consider when creating images.

Next post  Creating an image---the-important things-and a start on composition


No comments posted.

Subscribe to Lew Lorton Photography: Blog by Email

(For some odd reason the option to subscribe by email is given above and the option to subscribe using an RSS reader is below the following text. you figure that out.)


January February March April May June July August September (2) October November December (1)
January February March April May (1) June July August September October November (1) December
January February March April (2) May June July August September (1) October November December
January February March April (1) May June July August (1) September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December
January February March April May June July August September October November December