John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Psychological Lines in Photography

transitional implied psychological lines

This image is a good candidate for the “Squint Test.” Yes, that’s right. Squint, even fairly tightly, so that all you see are the most obvious visual elements. You’ll probably notice the circle of my head, the lines of my shoulders and right arm, the vertical lines of the blinds behind me, my right hand and other objects in front of me that form a somewhat circular, actually almost pentagonal, shape. Let’s call that the visual plane of the image. It has some very clear lines. But there is a lot more going on here than the visual plane.

The Psychological (versus visual) Plane

There is also a psychological plane, containing psychological lines. Some people call them “transitional lines” or "implied lines." These lines don’t exist in any concrete visual sense, but rather are created by the mind’s eye according to our mental assumptions and expectations about how people and the world work, which is why I like to call these lines "psychologicial." Such lines interact with those in the visual plane and therefore play an important role in composition.

Lines of Sight

One type of psychological line, and a powerful one too, is created by eyes and line of sight. Humans and many animals are extremely sensitive to the eyes of others and where they are looking. Research on infants shows that we are drawn, even at birth, to search for faces and eyes. In this image I’m looking off to your right. Buddha is looking to the left.  What are we looking at? Inquiring minds want to know and therefore create horizontal psychological lines that encourage us to shoot right out of the frame. However, you know that I’m alive while the statue of Buddha is not. So the sense of direction created by my line of sight overpowers that of the Enlightened One. Of course your eye also goes to my head first, before Buddha’s, because it’s bigger – bigger literally, but also figuratively because he’s enlightened and I’m not.

If a subject is looking at some object in the scene of a photograph, we cannot help but sense a psychological line between them.  If a person is looking at another person, that line is even stronger because human contact is an incredibly powerful experience for us. If people are looking at each other, that line is so strong that it could easily overpower almost any line in the visual plane, no matter how long, thick, or colorful it is.  If the subject is looking at the camera and therefore at both the photographer and us… well, then we emotionally enter the scene via an invisible but very powerful line that extends right out of the world of the image and into our own.

Implied Motion

There are many other types of psychological lines. Body language can create them, like a finger pointing or a head turned. Anything in an image that implies motion has taken place or will take place could create one. A rock perched precariously on the edge of a cliff. A fist pulled back ready for a punch. A bird in flight and a pitcher about to pour.

Senders and Receivers

Similar to people looking at each other,  these other types of psychological lines tend to be more powerful when there is both a sender and receiver of the action.  We know that the milk will soon come straight down from that pitcher into my bowl of cereal, but the fact that my mini-me will be liquefied in the process makes that psychological line even more powerful. The exception to this rule could occur when great mystery or wonder is attached to a psychological line, despite the fact that there is no visible receiver in the scene. What is that businessman in mid-air diving into? Who is throwing a ball with that child? When a subject is looking out of the frame of an image, we can't help but wonder who or what they are looking at. We search their face for possible clues to this little mystery. We might even sense a triangulated psychological line of connection between us, the subject we're looking at, and the unseen presence that exists outside the image, just as we do.

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Here are some other articles in Photographic Psychology that are related to this topic:

The Line
bullet Eye to Eye
Body language in photography

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche