There’s a lot more to the placement of subjects in a frame than many photographers know. Considering left and right can impact how impressive your photos appear to others, and the flip horizontal is a more powerful creative tool than most people give credit to.
Have you ever found that there are times when a photo doesn’t feel quite right? You then flip it horizontally and, as if by magic, the photo works? There are several good reasons for this.
Scroll between the two versions of the same image below. Which do you prefer?
If you were brought up in Western culture and read from left to right, then you are more likely to prefer the stick leaning from left and pointing to the right-hand side and the distant island.
However, if you were brought up in a culture where reading is right to leave, then the opposite may be true. You probably preferred the second image, where the subject is on the right and moving your eye into the space on the left.
If you Google search for Chinese or Japanese art, the dominant orientation of people being depicted is with them looking to the left. Similarly, if there are moving subjects, they are more likely to be moving from right to left.
Take, for example, the famous woodblock ukiyo-e print, “The Great Wave of Kanagawa,” by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. At first glance, you might think that the wave is moving from left to right, proving me wrong. However, look more closely, you will see three boats are moving from right to left, into the wave. It’s a powerful piece of art, as one cannot help but contemplate the fate of the people on the boats.
That picture is from the collection of 36 prints by Hokusai depicting Mount Fuji — the mountain is in the background of “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” — and, arguably the most highly considered work of the collection, “Fine Wind, Clear Morning,” is dominated by Mount Fuji sitting on the right of the frame. That placement can feel strange to the Western eye.
I am not being prescriptive when making this observation, saying that in the West, we should put dominant subjects on the left of the frame and in the East on the right. Just because certain cultures traditionally prefer certain orientations in images doesn’t mean you should stick with shooting images that most easily please the eyes of your society. But it is beneficial to be aware of this preference.
It may be appropriate to go out of our way to challenge the conventions of our culture. Many great photographers don’t always stick to their cultural norms. Look at the work of the fantastic photographer Wang Fuchun, who died earlier this year. His collection “Chinese People on a Train” is dominated by right to left movement. But there are exceptions in his work where direction or placement is the other way around.
Now, browse the Ansel Adams gallery, and you will see images that mostly cohere with the left-to-the-right aesthetic, but some, like Siesta Lake, draw the eye from the bottom right to top left. Equally, although many of Dorothea Lange’s photographs have many of the subjects looking to the right, although not all do.
I wonder whether globalization and the resulting exposure of different cultures to each other have an impact on this. Is the Western eye becoming more comfortable with images that, traditionally, were more appealing to the East, and vice versa? Are we now more likely to shoot photographs that cohere less with the dominant orientation of our culture? Over time, will our preferences become reduced, so the art of other cultures becomes less jarring?
Scientists call these preferences Spatial Agency Bias. It’s a phenomenon that goes beyond our comfort with how images appear, it impacts how we perceive our subjects’ personalities too. Research by Simone Schnall, director of the Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory and published on Edge.org demonstrates that photos of people who look towards the right are considered more powerful than those who look to the left. Perhaps that is why the woman in Dorothea Lang’s fabulous photograph, “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California,” seems to have an air of submission and acceptance for the poverty she finds herself in; she is looking to the left.
Like the differences in directional movement depicted art from different cultures, Dr. Schnall also observed that this preference is reversed in Arabic and Hebrew speakers, where reading is right to left. They consider people looking to the left to be more powerful.
Left and right placement aren’t just cultural.
How you lay your photos out on a page with text will also have an impact. According to research carried out by Elena Gorbunova and Maria Falikman at the Higher School of Economics university and published in the journal “Advances in Cognitive Psychology,” the human brain comprehends words that are placed on the right of a screen faster than those placed on the left. This is a generalization, but it is also accepted that images are usually processed by the right side of the brain, so situating photographs on the left of the text works better for comprehending pictures too.
So, when laying out photos and words together on a page, wall display, or website, it is far better to have the image on the left and the text on the right. It’s a consideration I make using two screens; I read and write on the right and view images on the left.
Of course, humans are all different. We don’t all fit into this mold. A minority of people have brain mirrored brain functions, working the other way around.
There’s another reason to flip right and left.
The way we see ourselves in images is affected by how we perceive ourselves in everyday life. Looking at our portraits can take us back: that’s not how I look, is it? The reason being, of course, is that we are used to seeing our reflections. Just like not being comfortable with the sound of our voice, we are not accustomed to the way we look to others.
According to research by Francis O’Neill and Sofia Palazzo Corner, the artist Rembrandt projected the likeness of his subjects onto the paper using mirrors. The technique is similar to that employed by Johannes Vermeer who, it is suggested, used a camera obscura, to project an image that he traced. Although considered cheating by many, this not only allowed Rembrandt to very accurately paint his subjects, but the resulting reverse images would have been more pleasing to his sitters.
If you are a portrait photographer, then you may find that flipping the image horizontally, thus creating a mirror image, might please your subject more than showing them how they look. I have tried this. I gave someone a print of a picture I took of them, and they were not pleased with it. So, I took it away and printed a mirror image. When I handed that version to them, they were happy.
Do you consider left and right when you shoot photos? Do you have a preference for seeing movement in a particular direction? If you grew up in a culture that reads from right to left, are your preferences different from those who read and write in the opposite direction?
If cultural diversity changes our appreciation for composition, such as making right to left equally appealing as left to right, do you see that as something to celebrate? Or do you consider it to be a watering down of cultures?