When we look at an image, we unconsciously look at them the same way, nearly every single time.
How do we do this?
Our eyes start in the top left corner and then move diagonally towards the bottom right corner.
We don’t even know we’re doing it, but that is exactly what happens.
Why is this important to know? – Because you can use this knowledge to compose your image in ways that work with the way your viewers will look at your images.
IMAGES ARE PRESENTED AS EXAMPLES OF TECHNIQUE ONLY. THE ACCOMPANYING TEXT IS INTENDED TO EXPLAIN TECHNIQUE AND IS INTENDED AS COMMENTARY OF THE IMAGES USED.
Image by Piglet
Any line within your image that follows the natural diagonal movement of our eyes, will create pleasant emotions [positive feelings] for your viewer. The image “flows” with our eyes and somehow feels good.
However, a diagonal line that crosses [goes from bottom left to top right] the natural way we look at an image, will create tension for your viewer [negative feelings].
Image by Jahina
This type of line “breaks” the flow of our eyes, it interrupts our vision, and forces us to notice it.
Both of these diagonal lines are completely valid compositional tools, you can use them to manipulate your viewer’s emotions and create long term interest in your image. Best of all – your viewer’s will have no idea why they feel the way they do about your images.
These diagonal lines could be a road going into the distance, a train track, a beam of light, the wires on a fence, a row of clouds… absolutely anything at all.
Subject in TOP LEFT Corner
Image by Jo Wienert
This is a good position to place your subject when you want to create feelings of loneliness, isolation and empty space.
This is generally confronting and will cause tension [negative feelings] in your viewer.
Why? – Because it is the subject is the first thing we see. There it is, in your face. We haven’t had a chance to ease into the image yet. Then we are presented with a vast open area. The last thing we see [and therefore the last thing we “remember”] is empty space – hence the associated feelings of isolation and loneliness.
This can also be a difficult position to place your subject in, because after the “excitement” of seeing your subject straight away, the following Negative Space [the empty area of the image] contains nothing for us. Our eyes continue to move diagonally down to the bottom right corner… and there is nothing there to see!
This enhances the feelings of isolation in your viewer, and is a very effective technique.
Subject in BOTTOM RIGHT Corner
Image by Bensound
Placing your subject in this position is more “exciting” for your viewer because we have had a build-up of anticipation before we encounter the subject.
This is generally not confronting [positive feelings] for your viewer.
We start looking from the top left corner…. Negative Space, more Negative Space… then “hooray!” we discover our subject. Its almost exciting, like a reward.
Then we go back and check out the Negative Space… and then come back to our subject.
Subject in BOTTOM LEFT Corner
Image by Adrian Donoghue
Subjects in this position will generally seem insignificant within the frame because they are below the diagonal line our eyes follow when we look at an image. This is a subordinate position for your subject.
Subjects in this position tend to be neutral in regards to creating positive or negative feelings, and can almost feel like a surprise because we don’t expect them to be there.
Generally, our eyes will continue along the natural diagonal movement un-interrupted and then notice the subject in the bottom left corner, but [depending on their size] subjects in this position can potentially break the natural movement of our eyes.
Subject in TOP RIGHT Corner
Subjects in this position will seem surprising and a little confronting because they are “above” the natural diagonal movement of our eyes.
This is a dominant, but less confronting position for your subject [as opposed to the top left position] but it will tend to break the natural movement of our eyes.
Subject facing left to right
Image by Kristina Fekhtman
If your subject is facing in the same direction as the natural flow of our eyes, [we “encounter” the back of the subject’s head, and then their face] this will create positive feelings in your viewer. This is a non-confronting orientation, and will make the subject feel “approachable”.
Traditional Portrait photography often has female subjects looking downwards from top left to bottom right.
Subject facing right to left
This orientation creates feelings of opposition and strength because your subject is facing into or against the natural flow of our eyes so the first thing we encounter is their face.
This orientation is confronting and can create feelings of tension in your viewer.
So guess which way males are often positioned in traditional portraiture?
Yep, you got it … males are often positioned facing against the natural movement of our eyes.
Image by Von McKnelly
These orientations apply to people, animals, cars, flowers… anything that has a “front” we normally look at, and a “back” that we normally don’t look at.