John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Movement in Photographs

movement in photographs

Two people were arguing about a flag flapping in the wind. "It's the wind that’s moving," stated the first one. "No, it’s the flag that’s moving," contended the second. A Zen master, who happened to be walking by, overheard the debate and interrupted them. "Neither the flag nor the wind is moving. It is MIND that moves."

We don’t have to ponder the considerably complex philosophical ideas embedded in this classic Zen story, but its basic point rings true for our appreciation of photography. When we look at an image, we can experience motion because the human mind miraculously creates it even though it might not “objectively” be there. The mind perceives movement because the mind itself moves. Let’s explore the different ways this can happen in a photograph.

The Rhythm of Repeating Elements

When photographers talk about movement in an image, they often refer to the rhythmic effect of some visual element that repeats itself – for example, people standing in a line, a row of birds sitting on a tree branch, or the chairs curving around the stool in the photo on the right. Repeating patterns and motifs can have a similar rhythmic feeling. Recurring elements create a sense of momentum and continuation, much like notes on a page of music. Your eye flows from one, to another, to another. It’s a visual beat.

Because in many cultures people read from left to right, a repetition that moves in that direction will feel more natural than the opposite path from right to left, which might feel more tense and uneven. Try moving your eyes slowly from left to right, then right to left. You’ll notice that difference between smooth and jagged motion. Because we usually perceive movement laterally in our visual world, the eye also tends to notice horizontal beats more easily than vertical ones.

The borders of the photograph tend to limit the repetition, so we experience only one segment of the rhythm, one measure of beats. However, thanks to the Gestalt perceptual law known as “continuation,” we might sense that the repetition does indeed go beyond the frame of the image, into the unknown space outside its boundaries. Depending on the visual and symbolic qualities of the photo, we might even sense an everlasting, eternal beat.

According to traditional concepts in visual design, the sense of motion created by a recurring element might become boring when it repeats itself without change, or is in some way very predictable. Personally, I often enjoy such images for their soothing, hypnotic consistency, like a steady roll of waves in the ocean or the ticking of a clock – but I see the point made by the traditionalists. They would suggest breaking up the repetitive rhythm with some anomaly, as in a scene where a quarter appears in a seemingly endless array of pennies.

In her Color Workbook, Becky Koenig draws on ideas in music to describe different types of visual rhythm. Some are legato involving sustained, connected, and smoothly flowing elements along a visual path. A staccato rhythm is a broken, on-again-off-again configuration of disconnected repetitious parts. A progressive rhythm emanates or gradates from a given point in a radiating fashion, while an alternating rhythm involves a shift between two or more different types of rhythmic structures. To the list we might add syncopated rhythm where some elements occur off the previously established main beat of the visual pattern, during the down beat.

In designing a photograph it might help to actually visualize how sheet music looks. Try to sense the movement in the progression, rise and fall, and shape of the notes; in the lines of the staff, the sequence of measures, and the appearance of rest stops, legato lines, and staccato marks. Even for photographers who aren’t musicians, the visual rhythms of sheet music can be inspiring.

movement in photographs


Becky Koenig also talks about gradated changes that suggest movement – as in progressive changes of scale, shape, color, position, texture, tone, and complexity. Imagine a line of bottles similar in shape, but decreasing in size from one to the other; a bright foreground that transforms to grayscale in the background; or a complex pile of paper clips that gradually tapers to a single isolated paper clip.

Gradation implies motion because it simulates transition and the passage of time in a visual sequence of events. There is a metamorphosis taking place - a feeling of before, during, and after. The bottle shrinks, the scene fades, one paper clip extracts itself from the pile. The eye follows gradation through the coherent progression to its natural conclusion. The gradation might also lead to a focal point, which we perceive as the final resting place of the movement. In the photo on the right, the gradated change in color saturation enhances the feeling of the man's impending movement along the path towards the tunnel.

movement in photographs


With slower shutter speeds, a moving subject appears blurry. The more blur, the greater the perceived movement. In real life the eye naturally registers fast moving objects as blurry, but because we’re all accustomed to looking at photographs, we accept the blur of a person casually walking as an indication of movement, even though in real life we’d see the scene in perfect focus. Blur is photo-speak for “motion.”

Sometimes it’s the camera that’s moving rather than the subject – for example, when we shake, pan, or wave it during the shot, as in the photo in art gallery on the right, in which I panned the camera horizontally. These kinds of camera blur presents the viewer with some interesting perceptual options. The effect might be our sensing that the subject or scene is shaking, gliding, or sweeping. On the other hand, we might experience the photographer – and we, the viewers, who identify with the photographer – as shaking, gliding, or sweeping. What’s happening in the scene will tend to reinforce one perception or the other. If there’s any indication of something moving in the scene, like a person walking, then the sense of movement created by camera blur might supplement it. If the scene logically should be static, like a landscape, we might suspect we and the photographer are in motion, as when shooting out the window of a moving car. In some cases we may sense that both the photographer and something in the scene are in motion, as in the classic panning shot of a person, vehicle, or animal speeding by. We can see that the subjects are traveling while the blurry background tells us that we’re following along with our head and eyes.

Blur filters in Photoshop and other image editing programs come in handy for creating different types of movement sensations, with effects ranging from wildly extreme to so subtle that the viewer feels but cannot consciously verbalize it. Photoshop’s “motion blur” can be varied in strength and direction, which simulates panning when applied to the whole photo and subject movement when applied selectively to the subject. “Radial blur” comes in two flavors: “spin” for rotating sensations and “zoom” for the feeling of pushing in towards the subject, much like racking the lens during a shot. In fact, even a narrow depth of field, created either during the shot with a wide aperture or in post-processing using selectively applied blur, creates a sensation of movement – as if our eyes or the scene itself is snapping into focus at a specific spot, much like the pull-focus technique in cinematography. Any of these techniques combined and/or applied selectively to different areas of a photograph can create unusual, even surrealistic experiences of movement.

movement in photographs

Optical Effects

Op Art became famous for creating geometric patterns that play tricks on the eye. The optical illusions cause us to see the image as swelling, warping, flashing, or vibrating. For example, when patterns contain complementary colors that are close to each other, they seem to pulse, as if the colors are repelling one another. The effect is particularly strong with green and red.

In the photo on the right, the collection of strong complementary colors creates the feeling that the lights behind the glass tray are pulsing.

These optical vibrations are more difficult to achieve in photography than in art and graphic design because real world scenes containing these patterns are uncommon. However, some famous photographers, like László Moholy-Nagy, specialized in them. In our modern age of digital photography, post-processing gives us more control in creating these effects.

Optical effects also include the sense of movement created by different lenses, such as wide angles producing a feeling of “fanning out,” while telephoto lenses “zoom” us to a point of focus. Lens flare, camera leaks, and pinhole photographs immerse us into the streaking, swirling, and radiating movements of light.

movement in photography

Frozen and Implied Motion

Because we’ve been looking at photographs all our lives, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that they capture a moment frozen in time. Consciously or unconsciously, we assume there is a before and after that flow into and out of that moment, that this magically static instant points to the world we know is filled with movement.

High shutter speed shots that freeze people, animals, vehicles, rivers, balls, and other subjects in motion clearly let us know that the photo is extracted from a scene with action. The mind fills in the rest. We humans are so acutely aware of our own body language that almost any shot of people encourages us to read movement into their postures, even if they are sitting, lying, standing. If you look at the last three words in that previous sentence, they are all verbs suggesting action, albeit subtle action, what psychologists who work with the Rorschach inkblot test call “passive movement.” Even the direction in which people, animals, cameras, weapons, etc. are looking (“line of sight”), as well as someone or something facing a certain direction, imply movement in that direction. Any photo that reminds us of gravity, like a rock perched on the edge of a cliff, implies a force that says “going down."

In the photo on the right that captures the drummer between beats, we can't help but anticipate and even feel the next striking movement of his stick.

movement in photography

Eye Movement in Composition

Eye movement is intrinsic to vision. In order to see anything the eye must continually move around a scene. It never stops scanning, even in a situation where everything is at rest. Composition in photography is all about controlling how the viewer’s eye progresses through the image and the resulting subliminal experience of movement. It establishes the rhythm for how the eye scans. In the photo on the right, the arrangement of the hands, camera, and artwork on the wall together encourage the eye to circle around the image.

Because the eye tends to move along lines, different types of lines create different feelings of movement. This effect is sometimes referred to as “vectors” and “kinetics.” Verticals go up and down to cooperate with or defy gravity; horizontals shift from side to side; diagonals cut across the scene with force and unresolved tension; curved lines, which continually change direction, present graceful flow or quick acceleration depending on their degree of bend; s-lines and zig-zags oscillate back and forth in either predictable or unpredictable fashions. How do the lines diverge, converge, radiate, circle, zoom in, zoom out, focus the eye on something or open up the field of view? How do the various line movements interact with each other – by joining forces to enhance a particular sensation of motion; by modifying or competing with each other’s movement; by creating a dynamic tension such as going up versus going down, or going left versus going right?

A variety of other composition strategies can generate the ambiance of movement. Competition, contrast, or ambiguity between foreground and background, or between figure and ground, creates a back and forth shifting. Elements with visual weight placed near the bottom of the image suggest a settling or sinking feeling, while placing them near the top encourages a gravity-defying lift. A sense that the various parts of the photo are balanced or unbalanced reminds us of stable versus teetering things. Unusual objects and peculiar placing of objects keep drawing the eye back to them, while negative space creates an osmotic pull on the subject down the visual concentration gradient. Even a well-unified composition implies a hidden force that provides order and structure, as if the composition pulls together and binds the visual elements into a coherent structure. In fact, it’s our experience of that invisible force that makes such compositions beautiful.

movement in photographs

Do All Photos Move?

Of course some images possess more activity than others, and it would be silly to argue that movement in photographs is on par with what we see in movies. Nevertheless, I find it impossible to imagine a photo that doesn’t involve any kind of motion. By simply looking at it we immerse ourselves into the activity called seeing. On top of that, our imagination projects all sorts of movement into the photo. In the final analysis, do we conclude that all photos move? Not exactly. It's the mind that moves.

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche