Composition – Orientation Matters

Every image can be displayed in several orientations. In a typical image, only two of these orientations work – the original as it came from the camera and this same original flipped horizontally. A vertical flip, resulting in everything appearing upside down, is usually an option only with images that are on the abstract side.

In this post we are going display an abstract in four orientations and, hopefully, learn something about how viewers react to certain visual cues. This is an exercise often conducted at image critiques. The image is displayed in several orientations and the audience is asked which they prefer & why.

A clue for use with these examples – Visual “Cues” are important to the viewer’s perception of an image. In this case there are three depth oriented cues involved-

  1. Focus – objects in sharper focus are perceived to be nearer to us
  2. Overlap – objects that are overlapped by another object are perceived to be farther away than the overlapping object
  3. Color – Warm colors are perceived to be nearer to us than cool colors (warms advance & cools recede)

See if these three cues – all present in the examples – cause you to prefer some orientations over others. You may discover that some orientations send you mixed signals when coupled with our normal expectations for scenes around us – such as our assumption that nearer objects are usually at the bottom of the frame & farther ones are at the top (earth, sky for example).

Click images to enlarge.


Which of the following two images do you prefer? Can you say why?

Most viewers will prefer the lower one. The reason is that the bottom of an image is normally associated with the foreground and the top is viewed as being farther way. That said, we normally expect the foreground to be as sharp – usually sharper than the background. In this image (the same image just flipped vertically) the light area is sharper than the green area. In the upper image where the green (interpreted as foreground) isn’t as sharp as the perceived distant area, your mind is bothered by the mixed signals. The overlap of the four horizontal shapes also signals depth and your brain prefers nearer objects to be at the bottom (light overlaps pink overlaps green). We walk on the earth (bottom) and the see the distant hazy background (top) above where we are walking; our mind is used to this arrangement and is bothered when it’s reversed.

Two visual cues related to depth are reversed – focus and overlap. Actually there’s a 3rd. Recall the lesson on warm colors advancing and cool colors receding? This says that the warm yellowish shape will appear nearer than the cool green shape. Everything is begging for for the yellow shape to be at the bottom of the frame.


Same question – which do you prefer? Although the earth & sky analogy mentioned above doesn’t apply, the reasoning is similar. Most viewers would feel more comfortable with the left image rather than the right (which is the left flipped horizontally). Why? Because in our culture the left is the preferred side to begin viewing (scanning an image) – a parallel to the way that we read words and sentences. When the sharpest part of the image is at the right we’re not comfortable with what we see. We want (prefer) to begin at the left but at the same time the eye is naturally drawn to the sharpest, brightest (highest contrast) area of an image. If the eye is drawn to the right, the signals are mixed and we’re confused – the beginning of the “sentence” is on the wrong side of the page (in a western culture).


Same subject, but shot with a wide open aperture. The “background detail” is non-existent. Does this make a difference?

The image below is my favorite of the eight shown. Reminds me of a landscape with fields of golden grain with green hills beyond (haven’t decided yet what the pink is?).


What was the subject? This calla lily. Get up close – larger than life size – peer through the viewfinder, change your point of view while adjusting focus and you’ll be amazed at the sights that you see. The “path less traveled” took me to an area near the bottom, left of the calla as viewed in the image below.