Back to Blog

How the Brain Understands Your Photo’s Story

undeveloped photographer Jul 05, 2021



Join the Photo Mentor Academy

“Every language has rules and elements allowing us to communicate and understand each other. But if you don't know the elements for this visual language, how will your images connect with your audience?” asks Lee Love as he continues on the journey to help you discover your artistic eye for photos that tell a story. 

Lee is on a mission to help students of photography understand why you need to develop an artistic eye to create the most powerful images. The secret, and most essential part for growing and developing your photography skills, is taking a purposeful approach to shooting your idea to convey meaning to others convincingly.

Can you create meaningful communications others understand via your photography? 

Of course, like all art, photos are subjective. 

However, the human brain works in understandable ways, giving you the ability to leverage an underlying meaning through a visual story.

Like any language, there are some rules! Or perhaps, better to call it guidelines, to help you arrange elements in a way that ultimately conveys meaning. 

The exciting thing about using techniques to signal meaning in the brain is that you can control things to lead the eye, strike a spark of emotion, or create a “feel” or tone by thoughtfully combining key elements in your photos. 

Remember, Lee evaluates photos by 3 criteria. And he strongly suggests you learn to SEE like an artist by using these 3 key components:

  • Technical/Lighting 
  • Composition 
  • Story

Honing in on composition in this video, Lee explains how the design of a photo is about a whole lot more than simply understanding the rule of thirds or other often-discussed visual setting techniques. 

Photo Composition Speaks

Typically there are 7 elements in the language of art and design to understand and study for composition. However, Lee mentions that sometimes, “perspective” is considered an eighth. The perspective, you see, plays an essential role in the discussion— on many levels—and runs amok in all 7 elements Lee identifies and discusses. 

CONTENT WARNING ⚠️ ⛔️ ‼️ The oddest thing happens when you are aware of and pay attention to the design elements Lee talks about and describes. 

Photo Composition is a glorious mix and mingle of just the right blend of the elements, plus lighting, meaning, and story. But, being aware of them, individually or in groupings, allows you to SEE and notice them everywhere. You can then think about them and how to make relational connections to achieve desired results. 

Your photographic art then adopts an intentional flavor, allowing you to create whatever you have in mind. 

You won’t be an accidental photographer anymore, but rather a skilled photo artist. Your “eye” or perspective becomes part of your brand and why people hire YOU rather than anyone else. 

Decomposing Photo Composition 

It’s a matter of taking the subject matter and creating meaning. But, then, manipulating the elements in a knowledge-driven way allows you to conjure a story that people can interpret. 

For example, light automatically draws the human brain and makes the focal point a point of light. Therefore, lighting in conjunction with any of the elements Lee identifies becomes a source of story design. 

Check out these PhotoMentorTv videos on lighting to learn more:

Some may call this function “highlighting,” but the use of lights, shadows, and directional specifications are all factors. More so in combination with the other elements and the mixed layers you create. 

Once you understand the science of lighting, all the other elements will seem like your A, B, C’s! But what are they? 

The 7 elements of composition to learn the language of art, or 8 with “perspective,” are:

  • Lines
  • Shapes
  • Form
  • Space
  • Texture
  • Value
  • Color

The most important thing about using the elements, Lee reminds, is finding a meaningful story and a way to communicate it to others.

Elemental Elements

Lines.   While straight lines, curvy lines, horizontal or vertical lines, diagonal lines, or zigzag lines draw the eye along, lines also add meaning. It's perfectly natural for lines to draw you to a direction, indicate a flow, or show distance. But artful use of lines also conveys meanings such as strength, stability, and height. Using lines to create a feeling of diminishing space or endless continuation adds mood and thoughtfulness to a visual story. Lines go every which way, but how will you use them to tell a story?

Shapes.  Unlike lines, shapes are often closed, like a circle, triangle, square, or rectangle, but they often convey a symbolic or synthetic feeling. Shapes with acute angles or sharp points construe perceptions in the brain, like danger, starkness, or strength. Also, shapes bring out contrast, add depth, and help convey a 3-dimensional world in a 2-dimensional medium. Some shapes are smooth and round, and others are chaotic. Rectangular shapes denote dependability and structurally sound, while more curvy shapes are seen as adaptable and pliable. 

Form.  Dimensionality defines form giving objects volume using height, weight, and depth. A mix of lines, shapes, lighting, shadows, even colors, and textures are all parts to illustrate form as a visual technique. Form helps create angles, depth of field, texture, and contrast. Strong use of form as an element of art can be the central focus and carry a photo's story effectively on its own.

The Photo Mentor Academy helps you hone in on, find, and nurture your unique gifts and skills. Your development is what matters, and Lee Love's professional career experience gives you the guidance you need to get where you want to go with your photography. Get updates here.

The Elements of Art Composition

Space.  The distance between things demonstrates space. In photography, it works with foreground and background to establish depth and proportion. Starkness or desolation are relayed using negative or white space in photo design. Space indicates loneliness or crowdedness. Cropping is one way to manipulate space to better tell your story. You can evoke feelings of solitude, emptiness, or the anxiety of being lost—all with conscious use of space in your photography.  

Texture.  Bring your photos to life using texture. Texture reveals details and adds character to your photo design. Often, defining textures adds a more realistic look to things you photograph, allowing them to appear 3-dimensional on an otherwise flat medium. Lighting is a crucial tool to guide the eye and achieve shadow effects, lines, detail, contrast, and depth, aka texture. Like form, texture also adds dimensions to your work for a more compelling story.

NOTE: Product and food photography artists need to master texture, an essential element of the language of art!

Value. Perceived tones going from black to white represent value.  Based on Ansel Adams’ "zone system," using light reading to scale for value, contrast, etc., selected value creates a rich depth even in black and white photo creations. Value is seen in shades of gray and tones along the scale you're able to capture in a photo. Is something moody, or muddy? Value is also the contrast you create by using exposure correctly.

Color for Pizzazz

Color.  One of Lee's favorite elements, color, consists of hues representing a color spectrum that help set a mood. Colors have three properties:

  • hues
  • chroma
  • intensity

These properties factor into how you use colors to craft a story or add to one. Color offers another way to showcase contrast in a photo, tickles interest, stirs emotions, and conjures a mood. Vibrant colors add drama. Setting a scene with color results in a theme that conveys a feeling via "color temperatures." 

Based on the Kelvin temperature color scale, color temperature is used to measure (within a range) a light bulb's color temperature. The higher the Kelvin rating, the whiter the light source. The chart below, from Westinghouse Lighting, explains more about these measurements and some characteristics of Kelvin as follows:

  • At the lower end of the scale, from 2000K to 3000K, the light produced is called “warm white” and ranges from orange to yellow-white in appearance.
  • Color temperatures between 3100K and 4500K are referred to as “cool white” or “bright white.” Light bulbs within this range will emit a more neutral white light and may even have a slightly blue tint.
  • Above 4500K brings us into the “daylight” color temperature of light. Light bulbs with color temperatures of 4500K and above will give off a blue-white light that mimics daylight.

The element of color in art and photography requires deeper exploration and further discussion for sure. But for now, experiment using color temperature to convey a story; try colors to ignite feelings or help create a scenic mood to highlight, enhance, contrast, and test.  

Color's impact is limitless. It can be subtle or bold, whispering its influence or taking center stage. But, the essential thing is that you notice not only color but all the elements at your disposal to learn the language of art for more powerful images. 

Learning to SEE like an artist means learning to observe, learning to understand and use the elements, and discovering how to communicate the story you want to tell in your photography.

Sure, there are technical and equipment aspects for photographers to work on, lighting to study, and processing techniques to learn. But offering a unique perspective only you can offer, makes you valuable and desirable to clients. 

Developing an artistic eye helps you stand out. Learning the elements of art to tug at the subconscious mind, and understanding how to use them in your photos, allows you to draw people in and understand your work in the way you want. 

by Sue-Ann Bubacz

NOTE: John Mahoney, host of The Streaming Alchemy Show, will interview Lee Love LIVE on July 16th, at 2p EDT if you want to check it out.