Photography and Human Sight: How We See

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 Why do certain photographs appeal to us so much while others do little to spark our interest? Sometimes it has to do with our emotional connection to the subject matter, but more often it has to do with human evolution and the way that we see.


Our visual system evolved over many years and how our eyes perceive and respond to the world is hard wired deep in our brains. For example, along the way, it became highly beneficial for humans to recognize and differentiate colors. In fact, as a species, we’re drawn to color, and throughout our history, we’ve not only relied on our color recognition for safety and survival, we have integrated it into our culture and traditions.

Think about it. Our ears and noses aren’t as sensitive as those of most animals, but our eyes are finely tuned to see color, whereas many animals are colorblind. Seeing color allows us to pick out the food that we know we like and the decorations that help us attract mates, and it protects us from certain dangers like fire, predators and poisonous foods. Think about how your eyes actually respond to colors like red, blue and yellow, and how effective these colors are when used in either small or large portions in an image.

Our brains are also geared towards pattern recognition, which helps us navigate and survive in complex environments. As we constantly scan our surroundings, our visual system looks for easily discernible patterns and simple shapes that help us identify and process the information in the world around us.

So what does all this have to do with photography? Simple: our brain responds to photographs in the same ways that it responds to the rest of the world. By studying color relationships and color contrast, which is something that graphic designers all do, you can learn to use color more effectively in your imagery and increase the visual impact of your photography.

When it comes to subject placement, tuning in to our instinctual pattern recognition abilities can also help us create more powerful compositions. 

As I mentioned, the human visual system is geared toward finding order in the world. However, in photography, we rarely go for perfect order. Instead, we strive to create images that create visual tension that actually engages the brain and holds the attention of our viewers as their eyes wander about the frame and explore the different subject elements that we’ve used. 

This is why we are taught not to place subjects in the center of the frame. It’s too perfect. It’s easy on our eyes. When we see this, we quickly recognize the order and move on. We certainly don’t want that, instead we want our viewers to engage their brains and spend some serious time looking at our imagery.

Many people pick up cameras and start shooting photos without taking the time to study some of the timeless artistic and visual concepts that illustrators, painters and graphic artists learn during their education. Adding this knowledge to your repertoire will only increase your creative skill and compositional eye and make you a better photographer. 

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Dan Bailey is a professional adventure, location and travel photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska. He just published his latest eBook, Making the Image- A Conceptual Guide For Creating Stronger Photographs, in which he explores the visual concepts of light, color, form, balance and other compositional techniques. Read his blog for more photography insight, become a fan of his Facebook Page to see daily articles and new imagery, and follow him on Twitter @Danbaileyphoto.