Viewers are bombarded by images on a daily basis. Try these compositional techniques to capture their undivided attention.
Creating visual tension is a compositional technique that arranges elements and manipulates their relationship to one another to evoke a feeling of suspense and imbalance. This, in turn, captures the viewer’s attention by creating a sense of cognitive conflict, inviting the audience to spend more time analyzing visual elements within the photo to ascertain what they really mean.
To put it simply, visual tension creates visual interest.
To understand visual tension and how we can leverage it in photography, we must first address how we respond to visual information as viewers. 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. Why?
For hundreds of millions of years, our brains have created shortcuts by assigning attention to important details, such as threats, food, or interaction, while disregarding what it perceives as unimportant. These rules are built into our brains and steer our attention and how it’s distributed.
In a world where we’re bombarded with visual information, our photos compete for viewers’ attention. If the image doesn’t engage with the audience in a meaningful way, the viewer will likely disregard and divert their attention to something they see as more engaging. This is why visual tension is so important, as it prompts the viewer to look beyond and search for a deeper meaning.
We’ll discuss examples of visual tension and how we can identify visual tension by adopting a new perspective on everyday things.
Opposing diagonal lines can create visual tension in your images, and that tension is heightened when these lines intersect with other objects in the composition, creating points of interest (or focal points).
When a composition features several diagonal lines, it’s called a dynamic composition. Diagonals create visual tension and a sense of uncertainty. Meanwhile, static compositions, made up of horizontal and vertical lines, create a sense of security and safety.
Diagonal lines also imply movement or direction. They’re neither vertical nor horizontal, suggesting the element we’re looking at is moving or about to fall. As such, the visualization of diagonal lines adds an element of tension.
“Visual gravity” exists in the middle or at each corner of the frame—areas that act as magnets, drawing visual elements closer within the frame.
When visual elements are placed along any axis or in the center of the shot, they’re perceived as static, visually balanced, and more stable. Thus, they lack visual tension.
Conversely, placing visual elements anywhere between these areas of visual gravity—for example, off-center—implies the visual element is moving towards the center or to one of the corners of the frame.
The brain works to revolve the balance of forces at play, creating visual tension. This is why the (off-center) Rule of Thirds compositional approach is practiced and preached in photography.
Tilting your camera to capture diagonal lines, known as the Dutch Angle or Dutch Tilt, is a technique adopted by German Expressionist filmmakers to add an element of tension.
Take, for example, the photos below featuring a famous building in Paris known as the “sinking house.” When the shot is taken from a horizontal perspective, we see a building perched on a hill.
However, when we use the Dutch Tilt, the hill becomes a horizontal line, and the building is askew—appearing to be sinking into the ground. This technique produces a more dynamic photo, helping it to appear imbalanced while increasing the feeling of tension.
Try rotating your images for a more abstract approach to creating visual tension. Different angles produce varying degrees of tension, which can create more impact in the final image.
Cover image via Marco Introini.