The following is by Adam Crawford. It was originally published in Precise Moment.
What the eye sees in a photograph, and how our mind perceives it, is affected by the composition and positioning of the elements in a frame. Overwhelming the eye with too much visual information runs the risk of alienating our viewers. By creating visual tension in our photographs we can make better images.
Visual tension is the way of framing subjects in a dynamic way with elements to create photographs that draw the viewer in.
What is Visual Tension?
The eye automatically looks for signs or indicators to better understand what we are seeing. Our eyes works as a visual filter that notices things that seem important, for instance: to look out for danger, to understand social cues, to better understand our surroundings, etc.
When composing images we aren’t literally creating elements in a frame (leave the for painters), instead we are consciously observing the world and deciding how to place our cameras and bodies in the optimal position to create an effective photograph.
What separates the wheat from the chaff is visual tension, something photography has borrowed from artists throughout time who have used tension to create their masterpieces.
Visual tension is a compositional technique that uses a variety of framing approaches to create dynamic elements in a photograph to draw and provoke the viewer’s eyes, i.e., we try to make photographic compositions that our own eyes would be drawn to, and use this as a basis to create a good photograph.
How to Create Visual Tension
When the focus of an image is in the center of the frame with no more than a foreground and other non-unifying elements, the brain perceives it as static, i.e., no visual tension.
When we take away the boring focal point from the center of the frame to the edges we can create visual tension in our photographs. So instead of having an anchor in the middle that creates a sort of dull visual for our viewers, capturing elements on the edges of the frame, complimented by other dynamic elements, we can effectively create tension for our audience that draws in their eyes.
Creating visual tension uses various techniques to achieve results, and below are the paths to creating photographs with visual tension.
Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds serves as a great template for understanding how subjects should be captured in an effective way. When we look at an image using the rule of thirds, we see that the visual tension is in the left or right edges of the frame. By creating a new anchor, or focal point, we are aiding the eyes in searching for context and meaning in something visual, much like the brain does when observing the world.
Having elements that are split in multiples of three often adds more dynamic elements in our frame that complements our focal point.
Strong Focal Point
Creating a strong focal point draws in the viewer. When framing an image of a person doing something unique, or something interesting, we will create a perfect anchor to draw attention.
Usually composing them on the edges of the frame works best, but making the foreground in the middle with a strong focal point works well too. The strong focal point is the essential ingredient of your image, and is the place your want your viewer’s to look first.
Using strong/directional lines is one of the most basic ways to draw the attention of the viewer, and is used by most photographers to provide a path for the eye to follow.
Leading lines are usually diagonal or vertical pathways that direct our viewers to the important elements of our photographs. By leading the viewer’s eyes in our composition we will be able to create a better photograph. Leading lines also give the focal point/area of visual tension more of a draw.
An effective photograph that has visual tension will have leading lines that first draw our eyes to a focal point and then leads them to other elements within the frame, but ultimately we want to be able to have those lines reverse back to our strong focal point.
By eliminating too many elements in a composition you will find that your photos will become stronger. Isolation, or selective framing is one of the most important considerations when making a good photograph.
That’s why we use leading lines and the rule of thirds to find one great focal point to create visual tension. So by using this sort of template for making in our photographs, we will be able to eliminate things that junk up our frame. Filtering out elements that would only counterbalance our image and lead to more confusing focal points will make the viewer uninterested in what we've created.
Having too much visual information confuses the eyes instead of drawing them in. Photography is about creating a photograph that people are intrigued by, which makes them think, and that gives them less information to try to parse through, in order to draw them in.
To isolate images we can use the rule of thirds, a strong focal point, and leading lines to draw our viewer’s eye, and to get rid of things that people will find distracting.
Putting it Together
The most loved photographs in history all have some sort of visual tension. Visual tension is and tried and true method that everyone from Leonardo Da Vinci to Henri Cartier-Bresson have used to create their masterpieces.
We often hear about the rule of thirds, leading lines, strong focal points, visual tension, but we hardly ever absorb that by combining all of these elements we will be able to make better and more effective photographs.
With photography we are trying to create something that will be of interest to our viewers. With any kind of art we are trying to understand how the mind works, and how we can use these techniques to become more than technically proficient image makers, but instead to make photographs with meaning.
People are drawn to certain photographs because they've found a connection, a truth, or thought that resonated with them in some way. Photographs are powerful when they have meaning, and by creating visual tension in your photographs you are well on your way to making better images.