John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche
Originating in the world of film, the term “two-shot” refers to a shot of two people. Directors use it to portray something about their relationship – how they think, feel, and interact with each other at that particular moment in time.
Here in Photographic Psychology we might also refer to it as a “dyad shot.” As the smallest possible size for a group of people, the dyad can be the most intimate, emotional, and powerful of all groups. Think about husband and wife, parent and child, siblings, best friends, and lovers. For this reason, the dyad shot plays a very special role in both film and photography.
I would include as a dyad shot any photo that depicts two people, regardless of their distance from each other and the camera angle. That definition might differ from the traditional filmmaker’s definition of a two-shot, which is usually a close-up depiction of the people. I’ll discuss some other variations on the two-shot later in this article.
If they are next to each other, there must be a relationship
According to the Gestalt Psychology principle of “proximity,” we assume two things next to each other must somehow be related simply because they appear together. For this reason, any shot of any two people – including strangers walking past each other on the street - makes us imagine some kind of connection between them, even if our rational mind tells us otherwise. The question then becomes, “What exactly is this photo saying about the relationship between these two people?” In some respects the photo might accurately capture the reality of their interaction. In other cases it might create an impression of their relationship. In many cases, it’s both.
Take a look at the black-and-white photo of the two women on a city street. Most likely they do not know each other. However, because they are in proximity and their paths will cross, our mind might search for the ways in which they are connected, as in their gender, mobility, urban lifestyle, and symbolically in how they might represent each other in different developmental stages of life.
Cues about their relationship
In the article Interpreting People Pics within another section of this book, I discuss a variety of factors that influence our perception of people in photographs:
- their apparent culture and customs
- the period of time in history when the photo was taken
- the surrounding environment and objects in it
- whether the shots are posed or spontaneous
- the dress, body language, facial expressions, and activity of the subjects
All of these factors also apply to two-shots. However, here in this article I’d like to focus on some aspects of composition that determine what the image tells us about the dyad.
Who is the center of attention?
Some dyad shots draw our attention more strongly to one of the two people. As a result of dominating the scene in a strictly visual sense, that subject also tends to have more psychological impact on the viewer and in the perceived relationship with the other person in the shot. Our eyes will go first, and more often return to, the subject who possesses one or more of the following characteristics:
- in better focus
- in motion
- more colorful
- facing the camera
- physically higher in the scene
- lit better or more dramatically
- closer to the camera (and therefore bigger in size)
- occupying an unusual position in the scene (e.g., near the edges)
- very different in size relative to the other person and the environment
- showing greater or more unusual emotion, facial expression, and body language
Consider the photo of the two women talking, with one of them having her back to us. Apply these characteristics to the shot. Who commands the scene? When subjects possesses many of the above qualities, they will dominate the photo both visually and psychologically.
Foreground and background status
When one subject is substantially closer to the camera than the other in a two-shot, we introduce the dynamics of a figure/ground relationship. Our eye will most likely go first to the subject in the foreground. Borrowing a term from theater, that subject is “upstaging” the other person. He or she might seem physically and psychologically closer to us, the viewers, and perhaps more dominant and influential in the relationship. Because that subject is near us, we are likely to take that person’s point of view. In the street photo of the two women whose paths will cross, we’re more likely to focus on the younger one in the foreground.
However, if the variables described above lean in favor of the background subject – for example, that person is more in focus, better lit, and facing the camera, as in the black and white photo of the standing woman and seated man – a tension between foreground and background emerges. Our attention shifts more, back and forth, between the two, which intensifies the psychological energy of their relationship and the perceived interaction between them.
The "over the shoulder" shot
Another variation of this foreground/background scenario is what filmmakers call the “over the shoulder shot.” The photo of the two women talking is a classic example. Although more common in film and video, such shots do occur in event and street photography. As illustrated in the photo of two women talking, the subject in the foreground is closer to the camera, but she has her back to us. From our standpoint, we are literally looking over her shoulder towards the other woman in the background. Due to our visual closeness to the foreground person, we tend to identify with her as a psychological recipient of the facial expression and body language of the woman in the background, whom we can clearly see. Because we can’t see the face of the foreground person in this kind of two-shot, we have limited cues as to her emotional response to the other subject, which means we are more likely to project our own reactions into her. That’s why filmmakers consider the over-the-shoulder shot to be a subjective camera angle: it encourages us to take the perspective of the person in the foreground.
Their relative position in the frame
Is one person higher or lower than the other in the shot? We associate all sorts of psychological characteristics to the person in a higher spatial position: powerful, dominant, influential, elevated in status, rising upward, surviving. So too we project all sorts of qualities into someone in a lower position: weak, inferior, vulnerable, injured, falling, submissive. In the black and white shot of the man and woman, consider how his seated position and her standing (but leaning) one affect the psychological aspects of their encounter.
Where are the people relative to each other and the borders of the image? Any subject near the frame will seem to be either entering or leaving the scene, while anyone near the middle will appear centered and rooted in this environment. Given that one person might be coming into or exiting the occupied space of the other person, or that they both might be entering, leaving, or staying in that shared space, what might this say about their relationship? In the street photo of the two women whose paths will cross, the young woman has entered the frame from the left and will soon bike out the right side, while the older women has and will continue walking towards us. Does that affect your interpretation of their relationship to each other?
Where are we, the viewers of the photo, relative to the subjects in it? Are we above, below, near, or far from one of them or both of them, and how does this affect our perception of them? For example, if they are both close to us, then we might feel we are participating in their encounter, or perhaps intruding on it. If we are above or far away from the dyad, we might feel like a distant, objective observer. Look at the aerial photo of the man and woman talking in a parking lot. How does your position far above shape your reaction to them?
The space around and between them
The space between and around the subjects, or a lack thereof, can have a dramatic effect on how we perceive their relationship. Think of the distance between subjects as analogous to emotional distance. Psychologists talk about “personal space” as the imaginary zone of intimacy around your body, a zone that only people close to you can enter without your feeling uncomfortable or intruded upon. That feeling of closeness or encroachment will be activated in a photo where the two people are immersed into each other’s personal spaces, especially if it’s a tight shot. When they are close to each other, surrounded by lots of space, they might seem isolated together in their own separate world, as in the aerial view of the couple in the parking lot. The emotional distance between them seems to shrink by comparison to all the space around them.
The further away the subjects are, the more emotionally detached or pushed apart they might seem, especially if there are no visual or psychological connections between them. If the size of subjects is small relative to the entire image, with lots of space between and around them, they might both appear to be floating separately in their own private worlds, in which case they paradoxically have something in common.
Rather than being “nothing,” negative space might actually appear to be a force acting upon the dyad. When there is lots of space between them, it pushes them away from each other. When there is lots of space around them, or on the side, top, or bottom of them, it pushes them together or towards the edge of the frame.
In terms of space, compare the black and white photo of the man and woman to the color shot of the two women talking. Notice the difference in the space between them. Does that affect how you perceive their relationships?
Color and tones shape the relationship
Of course colors and tones will have a dramatic effect on how we perceive a two-shot. Generally speaking, colors = emotions. The more there are and the brighter they are, the more supercharged with feelings the dyad will seem. Because we attach meanings to particular colors – like blue suggesting sadness or coolness, and red anger or passion – introducing them into the image adds an emotional flavor to how the subjects are interacting with each other. Black-and-white treatments might lead us into a rational, matter-of-fact, seriousness, subdued, or somber interpretation of the dyad.
A high contrast in tones adds power and edginess to the dyad. Subdued colors and tones introduce more gentle and nuanced feelings. While high key photos suggest lighter and uplifting moods, low keys evoke more somber and serious ones.
In terms of color, again compare the black and white photo of the man and woman to the color shot of the two women talking. Does color and the lack thereof make a difference in how we perceive their relationships? Now examine the street shot of the woman in a red dress. Does the (somewhat heavy-handed) selective color affect your interpretation of her relationship to the man accompanying her?
Psychological lines and the presence of others
Psychological lines aren’t actual visible lines in the composition, but rather paths created by such elements as body language and line of sight. Our mind reacts to these elements by creating a sense of direction or movement. If the subjects are gesturing with their body, or looking at something, those psychological paths will add obvious or subtle qualities to our perception of the relationship.
Because eyes are so powerful in human interactions, pay particular attention to where the subjects are looking. Are they gazing at each other? How and at what part of the body? Are they both looking at something else? Is one subject looking at the other who is looking at something else? If so, what is that person looking at? All of these different variations of psychological lines could reveal something interesting about them.
If one or both of the subjects seem focused on something outside the frame of the photo, what might it be? Could it be another person? If so, the mysterious presence of that invisible third subject might change our perception of the dyad.
Consider the photo of the woman in the red dress. Where are she and her companion looking? Does that say anything about them indivivdually and their relatioinship? Look also at the b/w shot of the man and woman. He’s looking at her, but she’s looking at someone or something outside the frame. Might that be significant?
We humans love to anthropomorphize, so any animal or object, inside or outside the frame, could acquire it’s own personality and presence in the dyad, especially when some kind of psychological line points to it, as in something the subjects are holding or looking at. In the aerial view of the man and woman talking in a parking lot, the van and the handicap figure might become a third party in this relationship. Statues and portraits of people easily become part of a dyad photo. The photo of the women in a green dress clearly illustrates this fact.
People, animals, or objects in the distant background of a dyad shot might acquire significant presence, but only if some element of the composition draws attention to them, as in strong leading or psychological lines. Sometimes there might be lots of people or parts of people in a dyad shot, yet it remains a dyad shot and not a group shot because all of the other people mostly serve as context or background. In the street shot of the two women whose paths will cross, the rather indiscriminant people in the background don’t seem to affect the connection between them. Or, imagine a two-shot of a kissing couple sitting in a crowded grandstand. The arms, legs, heads, and torsos of the people around them probably won’t change our impression of their romance, other than the fact that they are willing to embrace in public.
We could argue that a dyad shot is never really a true dyad because a third person implicitly or explicitly is always present – namely, you, the viewer of the photo. If neither of the subjects is looking into the camera, then your presence might seem unknown to them. Your being distant and detached might make their connection seem stronger, as in the aerial photo of the man and woman talking in a parking lot. When one of the subjects is looking at you, that person might be revealing a stronger psychological connection to you than to the other subject in the shot. When both subjects are looking at you, you have reached an even fuller participation in the photo and in their relationship. If the woman in the green dress was looking into the camera rather than at the statue, consider how dramatically that would change the photo. Would it even be a dyad shot any more?
Two’s company, three’s a crowd, the adage tells us. If that’s the case, then any ambiguity about the presence of a third person in a two-shot might automatically default to the idea that the photo is just about the dyad. After all, we humans do love our dyads. On the other hand, lots of emotionally powerful things happen in the socially dynamic group of three, with Freud’s Oedipal Drama being one example. No doubt our minds will search out these triadic themes in a dyad photo that pulls for one, even just a little.
When dyads get complex
When we look at a two-shot, we might first consider the basic nature of the relationship by classifying it according to our familiar social categories. Are these people friends, family, peers, lovers, strangers? What about the photo tells you that? From there, we explore the more subtle, complex, and possibly incongruous aspects of how they might think and feel about each other. Closeness, distance, tension, conflict, attachment, rebellion, possessiveness, indifference, anger, love, jealously, protectiveness. How many of these things do we sense in the photo? What about the construction of it led us to these impressions?
The various elements of composition in a two-shot that I discussed in this article shot can be aligned so that they together reinforce a specific idea or feeling about the people. The selective coloring and centered position of the woman in the red dress is a good example. Although this strategy will very clearly drive home a specific point, a more compelling image might mix and match the different elements to add levels of complexity, nuance, and mystery to the psychological quality of the relationship between the people, as in the aerial photo of the couple in the parking lot.
Being the most potentially intimate, emotional, and powerful of all groups, a good dyad photo can embody much of what we humans think and feel about each other, including all of the intricacies, ambiguities, and contradictions in thought and emotion.
If you found this article interesting in Photographic Psychology, you might also enjoy these:
Interpreting People Pics
Body Language in Photography