Opinion, Photography Techniques

“Reading” and Image Orientation

01.19.12 | 7 Comments

It is commonly known that the direction in which a culture reads can affect how people in that culture view photographs. Here in the U.S. (or more broadly the “West” in geopolitical terms), we read from left to right, and top to bottom, or more precisely, from the top left corner to the bottom right corner.

When we look at a photograph, especially one without a commanding visual center or dominant element, we will typically scan it from left to right, based on our style of reading.

A short time ago I posted a photograph on photo.net, my favorite on-line photography discussion site. The photograph is shown below, and it consists of a series of lines of new crop vegetation on a sweeping hill that intersects visually with other hills in the background.

Gardena Hills, Sweeping Down. Hasselblad H4D-40, 210mm f/4 HC lens.

I received a very helpful comment on this photograph. The person who commented said it made his eyes work “harder” than they should have to. The natural tendency is to follow the lines of the foreground hill downward from left to right (“reading” the image), at which point the eyes reach the right-hand edge and leave the frame. To get back to the photograph, the eyes must “pick themselves up” and re-enter the frame at the top, move back to the left, and follow the upward sweep of the hills in the background.

By flipping the photograph horizontally, the eyes would take a different path. With this new orientation, the eyes would naturally “read” the photograph by following the lines upward from left to right. But this time, instead of running out of the frame, they would first encounter the intersecting hills that are coming down to meet the foreground hill. From that point, they would more easily shift and “zag” in the opposite direction to the background to take in the remainder of the photograph.

Garden Hills, Sweeping Up. Hasselblad H4D-40, 210mm f/4 lens.

This simple change enhanced the overall image, IMO, simply by making it easier to read, based on the way that our culture scans and reads text.

Making the horizontal flip was easy to do technically, but it was harder for me to do as a landscape photographer. The second photograph, the one that is easier to read, does not exist in real life. One cannot drive from Walla Walla to Lowden on US-12, turn south on the Lowden-Gardena road, and eventually find what I have shown in the second photograph. Instead, one would find what I have shown in the first photograph.

This bothers me somewhat, and it gets to the heart of what is sometimes debated with great passion among landscape photographers: Are we documenting the wonders that we see in our travels, or are we presenting artistic interpretations of the wonders that we see in our travels?

The answer to this varies widely among landscape photographers, with many nuances along the way. Personally, I tend to want my photographs to be based on the experiences I’ve had, not on the way that I wish the landscape had presented itself.

On the other hand, I’ve never experienced a black-and-white landscape, yet I enjoy sharing those photographs. My wide-angle lenses and telephoto lenses both distort the landscape in ways that I’ve never seen with my eyes, yet I enjoy sharing those photographs as well. I’ve never seen a silky smooth waterfall, nor have I seen a perfectly crisp waterfall with individual drops visible, yet I can create those by adjusting the shutter speed of my camera, and I enjoy sharing those photographs.

While the camera seldom records reality, it can come closer than any other art form with which I’m familiar. But how far are we willing to take a landscape photograph from what we’ve seen to our artistic interpretation of what we’ve seen, especially in this day of the computer when digital manipulation is so easy? Every photographer has his or her own answer to that question, and our responses usually evolve over time as we create, share, and discuss photographs.


  • On 01.20.12 John A wrote these words:

    Hey Stephen, nice post but I have to admit that I actually prefer your original photo to the one that has been flopped–I don’t agree with the comment you received. There is nothing wrong with a little bit of tension in an image and while either is probably fine, I just gravitate to your original version. It actually feels much more natural to me than the other. I would guess that you would not have made it if it hadn’t caught your eye as it was and maybe the flop is just the result of over thinking.

  • On 01.20.12 Stephen Penland wrote these words:

    John, thanks for the comment. I think the logic that was suggested to me as to why the alternate might work better is basically sound, this might not have been the best example to illustrate that logic — I’m really not sure. I can also appreciate what you say about the benefit of having some tension within the image, but then at other times I may be feeling lazy and would like my eyes to flow more easily through the frame.

    My main point, though, is even if I wanted to go with the version that seems to flow more easily, I’m still uncertain that I would for the very simple reason that this is not what I saw. To put the choice in more extreme terms, I don’t know if I want to be a journalist or an impressionist with my photography.

    So I could ask you: if the original photograph had been the second one (with the foreground slope moving up from left to right), might you suggest that I flip it horizontally in order to create a bit more desirable tension within the frame?

  • On 01.20.12 John A wrote these words:

    Maybe a better question is “would I (you) have made it the other way?” This gets back to the fact that you responded to it as it is. Maybe you have shots that are the reverse of this and I know those would not be hard to find. But at this moment, you chose this view.

    I think we respond to what we respond to and we need to trust that up to a point. And certainly, we should be making images that are failures, that is the result of pushing ourselves creatively or just the willingness to respond to what catches our eye. But I think a decision to flip or flop an image to maybe save it is a pretty personal one. For instance, I know that I rarely crop unless I saw the crop when I shot the image. I don’t have any issue with cropping, but I also know that I can compose most things in the format I am shooting and don’t need to save it later with a crop. I have seen an advantage to a crop later, but it is really pretty rare. Maybe that would be similar here, if you thought it might be better flopped when shooting it, then maybe that would answer the question for you.

    I have never really bought into the idea of the cultural nature of reading as affecting how an image should be composed. The image here has a nice flow to it and it could also be read left to right as an image that expands if one were so inclined. As a libra, I can see the rationale that was put forward, but intellectually I just think it is nonsense. An image either works or it doesn’t and I am sure there are many great images that don’t ascribe to this line of thought.

  • On 01.20.12 Stephen Penland wrote these words:

    Thanks again, John. I made it as I found it (no surprise there!), and it wasn’t possible to get shots that are the reverse of this. I probably have photos of intersecting hills somewhere that are better examples of the “cultural reading direction.” When I posted this, I was also thinking of a potentially better example of this idea, that being the photograph in this website of a single set of tire tracks crossing the playa in the Alvord desert of Oregon. I’ve reversed those tracks; they initially went from the right corner out to the left. Personally, I think this photo works better with the tracks as shown going from the left corner out to the right, and I’ve attributed my preference to the direction in which we read. I’m wondering if you might agree with this example.

  • On 01.20.12 John A wrote these words:

    I would have to see it, but I have a lot of images where things come out of the lower left corner. But I do think images are ambidextrous.

    By the way, consider some of the important photography out of the east, like Eikoh Hosoe or Hiroshi Sugimoto. There doesn’t seem to be a language barrier to making great images.

  • On 01.20.12 John A wrote these words:

    I meant lower right corner in the post above.

  • On 08.03.14 Luciano Vranich wrote these words:

    I came across your weblog researching reading images especially as claimed in Western culture from left to right. You have not supported your opinion with any academic research. Opinion needs to an informed opinion based on evidence. Papers on wikipedia dealing with reading and writing make it clear that there is no connection between reading, writing and photography. You might like to research rapid eye movement and the psychology of perception. Also check out Gelstalt theory and semiotics.