Directing the Eye

Directing the eye is a hot topic with photographers and workshop leaders. Even some psychology researchers. It involves understanding the psychology of how viewers look at an image and techniques to encourage them to look at it the way we want.


There are certain principles of perception that seem to have a lot of agreement. By understanding the principles, we can use them as tools to increase the probability that people will spend the time to look at our images.

Understand that these are characteristics common to a lot of people, not hard and fast rules. 2 + 2 = 4 is a rule. Not every individual in every situation follows a principle like “the eye is drawn to the brightest region”. Usually, but not always. So while learning and applying these understandings we increase the chance of people relating to our work, we can’t guarantee it.

Brightness and contrast

We are drawn to bright areas and we are drawn to areas of high contrast. Use this to draw people to the area of your image you are particularly interested in them seeing.

Since we tend to look more at light areas and less at dark ones, that is why vignetting is commonly used to “push” the eye away from the edges of an image and into the interior.

The lighting wasn’t right to give the effect you wanted at capture time? So what? That is what post-processing is for. Don’t be afraid to change the lighting and contrasts for the effect you want. If you do it skillfully, no one will know. If you don’t… well, it’s a learning experience.

Color and saturation

Color also effects how we look at an image. Highly saturated colors attract us. Even normally saturated colors are seen differently. Warm tones seem to advance. Cool tones seem to recede. Placing warm tones next to cool tones gives a subtle 3D effect. This is why at concerts or plays you often see warm light on one side of a performer and cool light on the other. It gives them more shape.

Spots of color attract the eye, too. If a scene has fairly even pastel or monochrome tones with a few small areas of a brighter color, we are drawn to those colorful areas.


Our eye is a marvelous pattern matching engine. We try to make connections whenever we can. Check out Gestalt Psychology for much more information. So lines, especially diagonal ones, tend to lead the eye to find something interesting the line is leading to. We are actually disappointed when we are fooled and the line didn’t mean anything.

Wide angle lenses are sometimes used to accentuate this effect by exaggerating diagonal lines and bending them. It is difficult to shoot some scenes wide without introducing diagonals. Make sure to not disappoint the viewer. Provide a target to reward them for following the diagonal.

Faces and words

Human figures, especially faces have a high visual weight. We are designed to recognize faces and we have a high interest in them. If there is a face, or part of a face, or even an eye in an image that will be one of the first things a viewer is drawn to. A face trumps most other elements of a picture.

Likewise with words. We recognize words as information. We’re conditioned to read them. I think it is fascinating that we are drawn to them even if we do not understand the language. Besides, by it’s nature, characters making up words are fairly sharp edged and high contrast. We have already seen that viewers are drawn to high contrast areas.

Since faces and words are so powerful, we have to be careful with them. Having a person walking through the background or a sign off to the side can destroy your composition intent. Or they can make it if you use them well. The point is, you have to be very aware of them and what they will do to your image.

Depth of Field

A simple attention focusing technique is to use a shallow depth of field ( a small aperture number such as f/2.8). We are drawn to sharp areas and tend to ignore blurry ones. A shallow depth of field tells the viewer to pay attention to the slice of the image that is sharp.

This is a excellent trick to eliminate the complexity of busy scenes.


These eye catching techniques are means we can use to help make the viewer look at our image the way we want. Many photographers seem to obsess about eye paths through an image.

Eye tracking studies have been done, where subjects are instrumented with devices that can determine what their eyes are looking at at any moment. These studies produce maps, sometimes called “heat maps’, of the viewing patterns.

This used to be done a lot for web sites. After all, companies spend a lot of money producing their sites and they want to know if customers are seeing what they want them to see. Eye tracking has also been used to instrument image viewing. Researchers are interested in the order in which viewers see things, what they spend the most time on, and what path they use to scan over the image. Much of the information I presented above comes from studies like these.

This says that techniques can be used to direct viewers to parts of the image we want them to see. Maybe we can even encourage them to scan the image in a certain order.

Why direct the eye?

We’ve looked at some of the principles and techniques that can be used to direct viewer’s eyes. But why are some of us keen to do this? There must be a reason.

A photograph captures everything in the field of view of the camera when the frame was exposed. This can lead to a complex, even chaotic image. There can be many things competing for the viewer’s attention.

Sometimes the photographer feels the need to help out by saying “here is what I want you to pay the most attention to.” Eye directing techniques are good for this. This is a good use of the techniques.

Something else I see, though, I feel is unfortunate. We live in a short attention span world and we tend to accept that as a universal truth. It is said that people only glance at an image for less than a second online, unless it really grabs them. So photographers think they better use all the tricks they can to let their potential viewers grasp the image in 1 second.

Therefore there is a belief by many that we must make our images absolutely clear and unambiguous and immediately graspable. After all, if we only have 1 second, we better package the information clearly. Maybe that is the case if your world revolves around the ephemeral whims of social media.

I fear this makes images shallow and boring and is a self fulfilling prophecy. Images have less depth so viewers dismiss them more quickly.

Introducing mystery

I follow a different path. Most of my work is intended to be viewed as prints. The relationship between prints and the viewer is a little different. If someone is walking through a gallery viewing prints, they are likely to spend a little more time contemplating each one.

While I occasionally do work that is very clear and unambiguous, even minimalist, I often do the opposite. Sometimes I enjoy presenting images that are rich in content, that I want viewers to spend time looking at and discovering new things.

I occasionally even misdirect attention from a subtle interest I hope the viewer discovers. Not to be mean or devious, but to reward viewers, to give them a joy of discovery for exploring more carefully.

The image with this post is an extreme example. The eye is immediately drawn to the lower left side. That is where the brightest area is and the presence of the high contrast branch silhouette insures it. There is interest there and I hope people like it. But after you’ve explored that and you follow the cascade up to the top right corner you might discover there is a plaintive, maybe melancholy figure under the water. It is not a face, but you see it as a face. There is a moment of recognition that reignites interest and it raises questions, I hope.

What do you think?

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