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Jerry Interval


The Psychological Approach to Photographic Design

The Psychological Approach to Photographic DesignPhotography, given its existence through the happy marriage of science and art, is, without a doubt, the most powerful, universal means of visual communication in the world today. With these resources, the photographer, ever aspiring, ever committed, follows a path that presents a challenge to his heart much sooner than the demands it places upon his technological legs.

Communicatively, the main objective of the photographer, or any artist, should be the ability to convey an idea or concept through the manipulation of technique based on effective design or composition elements and viewer psychology—better known as Emotional Appeal. For the photographer, this psycho-technical message manifests itself as the finished print.

The finished print, of itself, is meaningless, yet it inspires meaning. It is flat, yet it inspires dimension. It is a distortion of reality, yet it inspires a realistic image in the looking glass of existence. And even more important, it lacks feeling or emotional appeal, yet it inspires both of these. The finished print is a meaningless, flat distortion of reality and is without purpose when it lacks effective compositional elements and emotional appeal.

The principles of composition expressed in this writing are by no means new. One difference is the fact that the directions for applying these principles are more explicit. The second difference in treatment is the core relationship between the principles of composition and viewer psychology through the use of specified emotional appeals. This double-pronged viewpoint is a very functional one. It has been in practice by the advertising and movie industries for years. However, the usual method still in practice is that of treating composition and psychology as separate studies, leaving the student with a disjointed impression. The separation, in effect, causes the emphasis towards composition, leaving the psychology part for “later study.” But more often than not, there is no later study, and the student of the art is forever destined to view the finished print as an end in itself.

The psychological approach to composition, then, is designed to create an awareness, which, with some knowledge and practical application of emotional appeals, the pictorial elements become alive and take on a purposeful meaning. We have a language that is not only universal, but also a colorful persuasive vehicle for stirring the imagination more vividly than the most scholarly descriptions in writing. Here is one method, among several, in which the photographer may prime himself in the knowledge and application of The Psychological Approach to Composition, which is really nothing more than the pragmatic use of the basic everyday human appeals. To that objective, I would like to propose a simple formula, if you will, that can speed up the understanding and effective application of the technique. I am not trying, in the use of formula, to favor one approach over another, as there can be as many viewpoints as there are photographers applying it. But rather, my objective is to introduce you to a process that can spark a deeper interest and, in turn, will reap greater pictorial benefits.

This is a three “A” formula stated as follows:

  1. ATTENTION (Visual Impact)
  2. APPEAL (Emotional Motivation)
  3. ARRANGEMENT (Pictorial Order, Unity and Balance)

If this formula seems new, rest assured it is very old and time-honored and in constant use by the advertising, sales, marketing, movie and TV industries, just to skim the surface. In the business world, there is in use a more complex five-step formula, where verbal embellishments are needed. I will state them here for reference purposes only: Attention, Emotional Need, Satisfaction, Visualization and Action. This is an especially effective formula as an outline for speakers, or for magazine ads requiring a photo and copy line. We open a magazine and our attention is arrested by an ad showing a close-up head shot of a little boy sporting a missing front tooth. Nest, the Emotional Appeal selected is fear. Fear of losing our teeth or having diseased gums has sold enough toothpaste to cover the globe! This is followed by need. “You need fluoride toothpaste to fight cavities and give you a healthy smile...” Action: “Buy Ajax toothpaste NOW!” But as artists, the three-formula approach stated in the heading above is our tool in hand—the same tool used by such great producers/directors such as Cecil B. DeMille and Frank Capra, who created box-office sellouts. Again, this powerful formula manifests itself at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the photographs of such notable masters as Stieglitz, Stiechen, Strand, Henri Cartier-Bresson are archival. The formula is ever-present in the works of successful contemporaries as Jay Stock, Al Gilbert, Frank Cricchio, Don Busath and Duane Sauro, just to name a few.

1. ATTENTION (Visual Impact): This element is listed first and foremost among twelve elements of composition by the Photographic Exhibitions Committee (PPA) headed by Harold Bovee and Roland Laramie. While space does not permit us to duplicate this valuable compilation here, I strongly recommend that any photographer in serious pursuit of the art try to obtain this valuable addition to his portfolio. Or better yet, spend a precious week with Bovee and Laramie at the Winona School, in a course they created, titled, “Producing the Merit Print.”

William Mortensen presents this clear delineation about attention:

    “A picture exercises its demand on our attention before we know what it is about and before we know whether it pleases us. Our first impression of a picture is a visual one...devoid of rational meaning or aesthetic import...In pictorial art, the climax must arrive first...thus impact is a beginning and an end at one and the same time.” (1)

Generally, initial impact is created with eye-arresting visual attention patterns. The strongest attention lines are the Diagonal and the “S” Curve. We live in a world of leveled horizontal and plum verticals so that anything with a slant or curve triggers our subconscious alarm and/or curiosity response with immediate priority. In portraiture, we relate the diagonal to the masculine line and the “S” Curve to the feminine line.

The triangle, graphic experts and psychologists agree, is the strongest shape in composition. It is equally the most contradictory shape. On the one hand, its sharp points arouse our alarm system to the emotion of fear and immediate curiosity. On the other hand, the triangle symbolizes security, permanence and unity. Its three points also lay out the base for the circle, the symbol of eternity. The circle is also formed as a circular observation pattern within the picture plane.

In every composition there should always be something Dominant and something Subordinate and overlapped in unity. The larger the dominant image, the smaller and more subordinate the remaining negative space is. The larger the dominant image, the more attention it attracts, but not always so, because the size alone does not guarantee dominance. A tiny object in a large blank picture area is attention arresting. This type of dominance is one of: A. Uniqueness (different from everything else) and B. Isolation (by itself). More on this later. Other attention devices, not less important than the ones already proposed, would be dramatic lighting with chiseled highlights and strong, yet lucid, shadows as well as contrasting lines, shapes, sizes, colors and textures. These follow the same principle in our quest for attention in every work of art; namely, there should always be:

  • Something Dominant
  • Something Subordinate
  • They Are Overlapping

The size and proportion of what is dominant and what is subordinate, and how much they overlap, follows the Golden Mean ratios (explained later) and have consequently much to do with a print standing as a work of art. (2)

2. APPEAL (Emotional Motivation): In the early 1960s, I acquired a book titled, The Magic Power of Emotional Appeal, by Roy Garn, published by Prentice Hall. News media across the country hailed this book, which describes the techniques of Emotional Appeal as the most powerful key to personal goal attainment and business success that had ever been written—a number-one bestseller! EMOTIONAL APPEAL, “...the art of getting through to other people with your product, your personality and your interest.” (3)

Appeal Wheel. Click to enlarge.
Appeal Wheel. Click to enlarge.

Emotional Appeals, also known as motives, instincts and feelings, are powerful urges and tendencies that all people possess and that control all human behavior. Selection and use of specific EMOTIONAL APPEALS is known as EMOTIONAL MOTIVATION. Herein is a copy of my APPEAL WHEEL™ (Diagram 1), which will assist in this selection of the proper appeal for this formula. You will note that the Appeal Wheel follows the same format as that of the color wheel. Also note at the hub of all emotion is curiosity, the intelligent motive. Curiosity is popular with all steps of the formula and, as with all appeals, can be used by itself or in conjunction with other appeals. The appeal of love and its sub-love appeals are perhaps the strongest and the most utilized one. Sex and its sub-appeals place a high second. The Pleasant-Excitement segment, which includes laughter, also ranks high. It would be extremely worthwhile to familiarize yourself with the emotions outlined in the Appeal Wheel as you would the colors in the color wheel. It will start your creative juices flowing. Make a practice of looking through magazines and picking out the emotional appeal or appeals used in the ads to sell products; they are brimming with self-preservation, love and tender emotion, acquisition, etc. Observe TV commercials and movies with the same purpose. Frank Capra and Cecil B. DeMille used tender emotion, sex, laughter and religion, as well as curiosity as if they had a lease on them! Why? Because, as DeMille once confessed, “these were the most direct, and the reactions most predictable.”

Finally, armed with your knowledge of the appeals, visit the winning photo exhibits, such as the annual loan and general print exhibits of the Professional Photographers of America, to identify the emotional appeal behind each motif. This will add a new perspective to your observations of the photographic prints and, in general, all other works of the world of art.

3. ARRANGEMENT (Pictorial Order, Unity and Balance): An entire main branch of the philosophic sciences is devoted to the study of Aesthetics, the study of beauty. The most philosophic definition of beauty in its original Latin vernacular is Splendor Ordinis, literally translated as Splendor of Order. Upon this definition rests the nucleus of the entire body of artistic phenomena. Order requires Unity, which, in turn, requires Balance, the main thrust of Pictorial Composition. This includes harmonious arrangements and effective use of color within the picture plane. Subject matter must be instantly recognizable. Subject matter that cannot be dated is more pictorial and lasting than subject matter that betrays a dateline. Generally, subjects in a state of rest are more pictorial than if they are shown in motion. A photograph is more effective if it appears as if there was no photographer present (e.g., commonplace snapshot of subject grinning for the camera).

PICTORIAL ORDER: Within the picture plane, the eye follows the path of least resistance. Generally , when the picture is mostly light, the eye is drawn to the dark elements; when it is mostly dark, the eye is drawn to the light elements. Now looking at a blank piece of paper, the eye psychologically moves across it from left to right and from bottom to top. Henry Peach Robinson, renowned for his wedge-type composition in scenics, often introduced a dark object in the lower left corner of a picture that was dominantly light, and a light object in the same corner of a picture that was dominantly dark. This led the eye further into the dominant area of the picture and on into the subordinate areas with stronger reference.

According to Henry Rankin Poore, “In every composition, the eye should cross the central division at least once. If something is there to receive it, the balance which the eye seeks is gratified. If it finds nothing, the artist must then create something.” (4) After the viewer’s eye has roamed about and has seen everything, it should, where applicable, come upon an exit as naturally as it entered the picture plane. If there is more than one exit, or if the exit is greater in size than the picture objects, it becomes a trap. A trap is a common occurrence in poor composition. Dynamic Symmetry, Unity and Balance are the controls needed to further guide this eyeball in the journey through the picture plane.

Diagrams 2–12. Click to enlarge.
Click for Diagrams 2–12.

DYNAMIC SYMMETRY: This geometric method of finding the ideal locations for subject mater in the picture goes back many centuries when the ancient Greeks and Egyptians used Dynamic Symmetry to lay out their temples, pyramids, courts and other key designs, all without the sophisticated types of equipment we have available to us today—a heritage forever ours! Location of the ideal spots requires drawing a diagonal line from corner to corner within the picture frame in both directions and dropping a perpendicular from each of the four corners to form an intersection with each of the diagonals that were brought from corner (Diagram 2). This is combined with the natural psychological eye path (left to right/bottom to top) primary focal points 1, 2, 3 and 4 accordingly (Diagram 3). It can further be described that each spot occupies its own quadrant, namely, quadrants 1, 2, 3 and 4. Note that each of the spots are about one-third up and down and one-third across the picture plane. This follows the natural division of the Golden Mean. The Golden Mean is so named because its proportions follow structures in nature, living and nonliving. The Golden Mean, or 1.618, is the approximate constant factor in the Fibonacci Series...viz. 3, 5, 8, 11, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144...ad infinitum. (5)

UNITY AND BALANCE: Dr. Saul Rosenzweig, famed philosopher and author, associates Unity, the fundamental principal of Universal Order, with the human emotion of self-preservation or Organic Unity. Maitland Graves, in his book, The Art of Color and Design, elaborates upon Dr. Rosenzweig’s theorem. Validity, the principles of Aesthetic Order, namely, Unity, Conflict and Dominance, is based on their psychological and sociological origin in the fundamental pattern of human behavior. Preservation of its unity is the base vital necessity of every living organism from microbe to man. On all planes, man is constantly alert to resist the dangers that threaten his stability, be it biological, such as an invisible virus and bacteria, psychological, such as his ego-defense adjustments that guard the stability and integrity of his personality, or sociological, such as the related units: familial, racial, religious, social fraternal and political units. The ancient axioms “In unity there is strength” and “United we stand, divided we fall” are valid on all planes, including the aesthetic. (6)

In the visual arts, this unity is expressed by the relationships of the pictorial elements, namely, repetition, harmony and contrast (conflict). These elements are essentially identical with the art forms of music, poetry, literature and ballet, produced amazingly enough by similar combinations. The difference lies in the medium in which they are materialized and in the time element. In art, the form is visual and is perceived instantaneously; in music, the form is aural and the time element is prolonged; in ballet, the two arts combine to make visual music. The essential difference, therefore, lies in the nature of the intervals. Now there are only three ways in which things may be combined. As identified above, they may be identical (repetition) or similar (harmony) or totally different (conflict, discord). The difference among these three fundamental forms of relationship is one of degree of interval and the kind and number of intervals involved. (7)

Using interval spot patterns, let us now demonstrate unity with the three possible arrangements of the elements; the spots representing the pictorial elements, and the intervals representing the degree, kind and number of negative space elements. The concept of balance is often illustrated by weights and a bean, as we will do here. But these illustrations are intended only as abstract or schematic devices that are not to be interpreted literally as a mass, weight or gravity. Balance, like Unity, is equally valid in music, poetry, literature, drama and ballet.

FORMAL BALANCE is the balancing of the opposite sides of the center of the picture frame of one or more elements by identical or very similar elements. Formal Balance produces a stately, dignified and serene effect (Diagram 4).

INFORMAL BALANCE is the balancing of the opposite sides of the center of the picture frame of one or more elements identical in shape (repetition), but dissimilar in size (variety of size). Informal Balance is always definitely asymmetrical, less peaceful, and less obvious—more interesting than Formal Balance (Diagram 5).

DOMINANCE: Unity requires that conflict between competing visual forces (i.e., contrasting shapes) be resolved by Dominance. Therefore, the opposing visual elements must be organized to form a unit that dominates its subordinate and conflicting parts. This is accomplished by making one of the competing units larger, stronger in contrast value, color intensity and/or repetition (Diagram 6). A single dominant mass within the picture frame commands attention. The larger the mass, the more attention it receives, but not always, as we shall see (Diagram 7).

Here is a case in point. We can have a tiny image surrounded by a large supporting negative space (a little something surrounded by a lot of nothing). With two pictorial elements (negative space is a pictorial element) in conflict, namely, a tiny pictorial element versus a large negative space, by placing the tiny element (motif) in spot 4, or the fourth quadrant for example, this causes the degree of interval to increase and accents the subject, therefore causing it to be dominant and therefore resulting in unity and balance. Let me add, the eye is always attracted to the smallest object in the picture plane, good or bad. When I swept and mopped the floor years ago for movie money, my mother would usually compliment me for doing such a neat job. However, on one occasion, I missed a tiny spot in about quadrant 4 on the floor. My mother explained to me, “I don’t see a nice clean floor this time...all I see is that tiny spot that you missed.” That may have been my very first lesson in unity and balance—a lesson I still relate to in many other aspects of my life, and a lesson I will never forget.

It is the trifles that make for perfection, and perfection is no trifle. Those tiny four spots (primary focal points 1, 2, 3 and 4 as seen in Diagram 8) that we covered earlier under Dynamic Symmetry have, singly or in combination, been responsible for a host of prints in the winners category. Robert McKee, a contemporary filmmaker of fame, travels the world giving seminars to aspiring filmmakers. In the movie-composition part of the seminar, he thrives on spot 4, among much other information of notable value to the still photographer. The Hollywood Reporter advises of his roving seminar plus state-of-the-art updates on filmmaking—a fine publication.

INFORMAL BALANCE IN DEPTH: Here is a tool that the master painters of old used unsparingly. It easily found its way into the photographs of the masters of photography, past and present. This is the only device in which unity of image can be viewed in depth. It has no priority to any particular branch of photography, but rather to all of them.

Basic Informal Balance in Depth involves the placement of two elements, or objects, namely a primary object (the larger object) and a secondary object (the smaller object) diagonally from each other. The terms primary and secondary refer only to the size of the objects and make no reference to the main object or motif whatsoever. (For example, the secondary object could easily be the main object with the primary object serving as a subordinate support; the principal subject theme might involve both the primary and secondary in combination and, of course, the primary object could be the main object.) The primary and secondary can occupy spots 1 and 3, or 2 and 4, vertically, horizontally: any diagonal combination, large opposed to the small, small opposed to the large, diagonally (Diagram 9).

Extensive research on Informal Balance in Depth has placed me face to face with many of the paintings and photographs of masters of the craft, past and present. I would like to share with you some variations of this valuable instrument that came to light. This is based on what we covered earlier regarding unity of the visual arts through the relationship of the pictorial elements, and that the elements could be combined three different ways: by repetition, harmony and contrast. The essential differences among them being the nature, degree and kind/number of intervals involved.

  1. The first variation is an interval spot pattern of one primary object opposed to or supporting two or more secondaries (Diagram 10).
  2. The second variation is an interval spot pattern of one secondary object opposed to or supporting two or more primaries (Diagram 11).
  3. The third variation is an interval spot pattern of the primary object and secondary object, combining and overlapping to become an independent object: primary and secondary combined. For easy identification, I have coined this element a DYNAMIC FOCAL POINT™ (Diagram 12).

DYNAMIC FOCAL POINT, like a fine diamond, has many facets. The variations are beautiful and endless. It can take on the role of a primary object and motif at the same time; or a secondary with the same result; a primary and a secondary as one unit or a supporting unit; a main dynamic focal point supported by many dynamic focal points in a subordinated pattern of repetition, harmony or contrast, and on and on. One of my favorite applications is that of a single dynamic focal point playing its role as the motif and placed into one of the four quadrants. My favorite spot is spot 4. The dynamic focal point and spot 4, combined with a fitting theme, chime in agreement like bells.

The psychological approach to photographic design presented here will not show anyone how to be emotional or feel a reaction. However, it does show what to do with an emotion or reaction after it has been experienced. It does show how to articulate it so that others seeing the finished work will feel the same emotion that went into its making.

Emotions are volatile; they escape precise definition; they are as changeable and as interpretive and as fluctuating as the moods of the person experiencing them. With emotions, the master becomes a student, and the student a master; where masters disagree, and the student is free.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with this thought: Photography is the visual expression of emotional appeal, the eye of human emotion!


(1) William Mortensen. The Command To Look (Laguna Beach, CA: Jacques de Langre, 1967) pp. 22–23.

(2) Maitland Graves. The Art of Color and Design. (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1951) p. 237.

(3) Roy Garn. The Magic Power of Emotional Appeal (NY: Prentice Hall, 1964) front cover.

(4) Henry Rankin Poore. Composition in Art (NY: Dover Publications, 1961) p. 10.

(5) Maitland Graves. p. 237.

(6) Maitland Graves. p. 80.

(7) Maitland Graves. pp. 17–18.


Aquinas, Thomas St. Summa Theological, My Way of Life. New York: Confraternity of the Precious Blood, 1952.

Baker, Dr. Douglas. Esoteric Psychology: The Seven Pillars of Ancient Wisdom. Herta, England, 1975.

Baker, Stephen. Visual Persuasion. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.

Garn, Roy. The Magic Power of Emotional Appeal. New York: Prentice Hall, 1960.

Graves, Maitland. The Art of Color and Design. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1951.

Gumbrich, E.H. Art and Illusion: Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1960.

Itten, Johannes. The Art of Color. New York: Von Nostrand Reinhold, 1961.

Mortensen, William. The Command to Look. California: Jacques de Langre, 1967.

Poore, Henry Rankin. Composition in Art. New York: Dover Publications, 1967.

Robinson, Henry Peach. Pictorial Effect in Photography. Vermont: Helios, 1971.

Rosenzweig, Saul. An Outline of Frustration Theory. New York: Ronald Press Co., 1944. Also Chapter 11. Personality and Behavior Disorders. J. McV. Hunt Ed.

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