DA3 (fliped), by ©Gonzalo Bénard

The Conspiracy of the Brain

Theory of Design in Photography

It’s not the first time here that I give some tips on composition in photography, like when I wrote “Flip the Compo!” or “The Conspiracy of the Triangle“, the two articles about Portrait: “A Brief History of” and especially the “How to Face It“.

Few days ago the photographer Frank Duncan, left a comment at “What Makes a Good Photograph? part II” referring the use of design in photography. I don’t know if Graphic Design influenced Photography or vice-versa. Most probably painting influenced both, and our brains and the way we write influenced painting itself. Now the way we write was influenced by graphic design too. Ok, let’s not complicate the things, forget the who’s and when’s in the chicken and its eggs.

I’m not a graphic designer, I did study it and even went to the 1st year of Design University, which I gave up as soon as I realised that was not for me, but I still remember those curious books by Bruno Munari that we had to read in theory of design.

One of the most important and basic elements in design is the way you read so it can lead you into the best reading in a progressive order so you can keep the whole important message in your brains with the less effort as possible. Imagine you’re driving and you see a placard with an ad on the side of the road: that poster must be able to send a message straight into your memory. It doesn’t matter if you don’t remember the object; the most important is that you keep the subject. Maybe the first impact was led by the gorgeous model that you recognized, who led you into that perfume bottle that the model was handling with the name of the brand. Enough for you to remember the perfume and associate it with “wild”, “hot”, blue or red. The feeling you had and the final message.

How is this done? Following the way our brain was tamed to read: in western/Latin languages, from left to right, from the top to the bottom. The way our brain reads is the most important for us to capture a message. In Chinese or in Arabic cultures the reading is different which also influenced their design. I was very curious on this since some time ago, so I couldn’t resist but asked to some people in arts from different cultures, including some art students from Iran Art Universities where my photography work as also being lectured.

The so famous Rule of Thirds in photography is an example. Let’s see what we can learn in Theory of Design.

Once we read from left to right and from the top to the bottom, the main spot is in the middle.
Just follow the arrows (and check the green/rule of thirds):

design photo 1 design photo 2

design photo 3design photo 4

And the result of the ad:

design photo 5

Imagine that the left part is your subconscious and you have the consciousness on the right, exactly like our brain works. The “we sell” remains in your subconscious. The “you” is half subconscious, half conscious. And “want” is already in the consciousness alert! And this is what makes you want, and forget the “sell”, not forgetting the brand, because the product is underneath the “want”. So what your conscious will keep is that you want that product. Your subconscious will keep the information needed for you to buy it.

Quite basic this graphic design trick, right? The same happens with a good composed photograph. It’s exactly that the Rule of Thirds. And that’s why sometimes works the “Flip the Compo“: to bring the main message to the consciousness… through the subconscious.

Our Subconscious is the most powerful tool, our bank of memories. So if a message in the conscious comes from our subconscious, even better. That’s what it should be done in a composition:

On the left side, the message to our subconscious, preparing the field for the most important part of the subject.
On the right side, the object of desire to our consciousness, so we keep it in mind.

That’s why when you do a portrait, like I explained in “Portrait: How to face it?“, you must put it on the right, turning the eyes/face to the left if you want the portrayed to face you straight, so you read it the way you look.

Now see how important is the placement of the object and subject in photography. On the first photo you see a guy focused on the screen of the computer. Our main attention goes to the computer, and I’m sure you’ll even try to check which webpage is open. Your subconscious knows that there’s someone there, but the consciousness is now focused on the main object. Right?

DA3, by ©Gonzalo Bénard
DA3, by ©Gonzalo Bénard

But if I flip the photo, you will focus much more on the guy, on his nakedness, on his being. After that, your subconscious brings you the information that he’s looking to the computer, so you look at the guy knowing that he might be lonely. Fragile.

DA3 (fliped), by ©Gonzalo Bénard
DA3 (flipped), by ©Gonzalo Bénard

Here you can see the play of objects and subjects, readings and messages.

On this great photograph by Jim Mortram, (“Small Town Inertia” / “Le Voyeur Social“), your focus goes straight to Stuart’s face/expression, but only after your subconscious keep the message behind.

Stuart, Market Town, by ©Jim Mortram
Stuart, Market Town, by ©Jim Mortram

However, if we flip it putting Stuart on the left side, our reading start getting distracted with all the stuff around that we didn’t even realise it was there, like the lamp for example. And Stuart’s expression, the main message of the photo, gets lost.

Stuart, Market Town, (flipped photo), by ©Jim Mortram
Stuart, Market Town, (flipped photo), by ©Jim Mortram

This doesn’t mean that you can’t put the main object on the left side, but if you do, make sure that the subject is powerful enough and the right side is empty/dead enough to keep the viewers on the left.
You can also make it going from left to right and right to left in dialogue, giving more power to the left so it can keep the balance, like in this one:

Un Pas de Deux, Paris 2012 by ©Gonzalo Bénard
Un Pas de Deux, Paris 2012 by ©Gonzalo Bénard

In graphic design, check this great advertisement, and locate the subconscious and consciousness in this:

Don't Drink and Drive (BMW)
Don’t Drink and Drive (BMW)

Now… Just do it!, and see the power of this image… what remains in your subconscious (left) and what your conscious will keep with this:

Just Do It!
Just Do It

And don’t forget: I Think, Therefore iMac.

I think, therefore iMac
I think, therefore iMac

ok, here is something “extra article” for you to see –  just opened tumblr and there was a home interior picture in which you can have different/opposite readings:

author unknown

In this version above, you have the sequence: the stairs brought you down, and you go around the round table through the right, to the kitchen. Right?

In the version bellow, your reading changes: you came from that place on the left, you looked at the armchair and the light on the table, and you finally start climbing up the stairs…

author unknown flipped

so you want to come down or to climb up?

Feel free to ask anything related or to leave a comment. If it happens you being educated in a different way of reading, like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, please let us know how is it for you.

text by ©Gonzalo Bénard for 2HeadS
March, 2013
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27 thoughts on “The Conspiracy of the Brain

  1. The subject/object distinction in photography is now becoming clearer… The final picture is one of your best examples yet.

    Don’t know which impressed me more, the composition theory & practice made easy (to understand) or the artist himself who knows the composition theory & practice & then writes it, making it easy to understand… In other words, do you have to be an artist to practice it? Or can you become an artist by practicing it? Or is this more chicken/egg bullshit?

    1. The most important here is to run like a chicken to keep the eggs so you can cook a tremendous tortilla, without the chicken over your head. That’s the secret of photography. The rest is bull shit and bull fights.

  2. This is great theory of art, very well presented. I am reminded yet again of the way we are all led about by images and their structure. All visual advertising uses these techniques and we are all open to their influence.
    As visual artists (photography is a branch of the visual arts) we can all use these things, either consciously or unconsciously, to put over what we are trying to say. The issue really is what are we trying to say?

  3. That’s interesting. I did not know. It made me think immediately about this image:

    I tried to flip it the other way, and it did not work for me. I guess it’s because the picture is about that space to the right of her, not about her. Very interesting.

  4. these are things I’ve picked up intuitively by practicing art and photography, and getting the psychology of why/how these rules work is just so interesting to me! The staircase was especially interesting as an example. I’m glad I found this blog.

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