Sunday, December 21, 2008


How people look at images is of fundamental
importance to painters, photographers,
and anyone else who creates those images. The
premise of this book is that the way you compose
a photograph will influence the way in which
someone else looks at it. While this is tacitly
accepted throughout the visual arts, pinpointing
the how and the why of visual attention has been
hampered by lack of information. Traditionally,
art and photography critics have used their
own experience and empathy to divine what
a viewer might or should get out of a picture,
but it is only in the last few decades that this
has been researched. Eye-tracking provides the
experimental evidence for how people look at
a scene or an image, and the groundbreaking
study was by A. L. Yarbus in 1967. In looking
at any scene or image, the eye scans it in fast
jumps, moving from one point of interest to
another. These movements of both eyes together
are known as saccades. One reason for them
is that only the central part of the retina, the
fovea, has high resolution, and a succession of
saccades allows the brain to assemble a total view
in the short-term memory. The eye’s saccadic
movements can be tracked, and the so-called
“scanpath” recorded. If then superimposed on
the view—such as a photograph—it shows how
and in what order a viewer scanned the image.
All of this happens so quickly (saccades last
between 20 and 200 milliseconds) that most
people are unaware of their pattern of looking.
Research, however, shows that there are different
types of looking, depending on what the viewer
expects to get from the experience. There is
spontaneous looking, in which the viewer is “just
looking,” without any particular thing in mind.
The gaze pattern is influenced by such factors as
novelty, complexity, and incongruity. In the case
of a photograph, the eye is attracted to things
that are of interest and to parts of the picture that
contain information useful for making sense out
of it. Visual weight, as we saw on the previous
pages, plays an important role; this is because
spontaneous looking is also influenced by “stored
knowledge,” which includes, among other things,
knowing that eyes and lips tell a great deal about
other people’s moods and attitudes.
A second type of looking is task-relevant
looking, in which the viewer sets out to look for
something or gain specific information from
an image or scene. In looking at a photograph,
we can assume that the viewer is doing this
by choice, and probably for some kind of
pleasure or entertainment (or in the hope that
the photograph will deliver this). This is an
important starting condition. Next come the
viewer’s expectations. For instance, if he or
she sees at first glance that there is something
unusual or unexplained about the image, this is
likely to cause a gaze pattern that is searching for
information that will explain the circumstances.
The classic study was by Yarbus in 1967, in which
a picture of a visitor arriving in a living room
was shown first without any instructions, and
then with six different prior questions, including
estimating the ages of the people in the image.
The very different scanpaths showed how the
task influenced the looking.
Other research in this area shows that most
people tend to agree on what are the most
informative parts of a picture, but that this is always
tempered by individual experience (personal stored
knowledge makes scanpaths idiosyncratic). Also,
most painters and photographers believe that they
can in some way control the way that other people
view their work (this is, after all, the entire theme of
this book), and research backs this up, in particular
an experiment (Hansen & Støvring, 1988) in
which an artist explained how he intended viewers
to look at the work and subsequent eye-tracking
proved him largely correct. Another experiment
with interesting potential is that the scanpath that
emerges at first viewing occupies about 30% of the
viewing time, and that most viewers then repeat
it—re-scanning the same way rather than using
the time to explore other parts of the picture. In
other words, most people decide quite quickly
what they think is important and/or interesting
in an image, and go on looking at those parts.

1 comment:

maximilianpaul said...

Hi !
Thank you for the article and all your site, I really like it and had a nice time reading everything :)