There’s a lot more to the placement of subjects in a frame than many photographers know. Considering left and right can impact how impressive your photos appear to others, and the flip horizontal is a more powerful creative tool than most people give credit to.
Have you ever found that there are times when a photo doesn’t feel quite right? You then flip it horizontally and, as if by magic, the photo works? There are several good reasons for this.
Scroll between the two versions of the same image below. Which do you prefer?
If you were brought up in Western culture and read from left to right, then you are more likely to prefer the stick leaning from left and pointing to the right-hand side and the distant island.
However, if you were brought up in a culture where reading is right to leave, then the opposite may be true. You probably preferred the second image, where the subject is on the right and moving your eye into the space on the left.
If you Google search for Chinese or Japanese art, the dominant orientation of people being depicted is with them looking to the left. Similarly, if there are moving subjects, they are more likely to be moving from right to left.
Take, for example, the famous woodblock ukiyo-e print, “The Great Wave of Kanagawa,” by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. At first glance, you might think that the wave is moving from left to right, proving me wrong. However, look more closely, you will see three boats are moving from right to left, into the wave. It’s a powerful piece of art, as one cannot help but contemplate the fate of the people on the boats.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The boats travel from left to right into the giant wave. Mount Fuji is in the background.
That picture is from the collection of 36 prints by Hokusai depicting Mount Fuji — the mountain is in the background of “The Great Wave of Kanagawa” — and, arguably the most highly considered work of the collection, “Fine Wind, Clear Morning,” is dominated by Mount Fuji sitting on the right of the frame. That placement can feel strange to the Western eye.
I am not being prescriptive when making this observation, saying that in the West, we should put dominant subjects on the left of the frame and in the East on the right. Just because certain cultures traditionally prefer certain orientations in images doesn’t mean you should stick with shooting images that most easily please the eyes of your society. But it is beneficial to be aware of this preference.
Fine Wind, Clear Morning, sometimes called South Wind, Clear Sky, by Japanese artist Hokusai (1760–1849). Mount Fuji is on the right of the picture, which can sit uncomfortably to the Western eye.
It may be appropriate to go out of our way to challenge the conventions of our culture. Many great photographers don’t always stick to their cultural norms. Look at the work of the fantastic photographer Wang Fuchun, who died earlier this year. His collection “Chinese People on a Train” is dominated by right to left movement. But there are exceptions in his work where direction or placement is the other way around.
Now, browse the Ansel Adams gallery, and you will see images that mostly cohere with the left-to-the-right aesthetic, but some, like Siesta Lake, draw the eye from the bottom right to top left. Equally, although many of Dorothea Lange’s photographs have many of the subjects looking to the right, although not all do.
I wonder whether globalization and the resulting exposure of different cultures to each other have an impact on this. Is the Western eye becoming more comfortable with images that, traditionally, were more appealing to the East, and vice versa? Are we now more likely to shoot photographs that cohere less with the dominant orientation of our culture? Over time, will our preferences become reduced, so the art of other cultures becomes less jarring?
Scientists call these preferences Spatial Agency Bias. It’s a phenomenon that goes beyond our comfort with how images appear, it impacts how we perceive our subjects’ personalities too. Research by Simone Schnall, director of the Cambridge Embodied Cognition and Emotion Laboratory and published on Edge.org demonstrates that photos of people who look towards the right are considered more powerful than those who look to the left. Perhaps that is why the woman in Dorothea Lang’s fabulous photograph, “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California,” seems to have an air of submission and acceptance for the poverty she finds herself in; she is looking to the left.
Like the differences in directional movement depicted art from different cultures, Dr. Schnall also observed that this preference is reversed in Arabic and Hebrew speakers, where reading is right to left. They consider people looking to the left to be more powerful.
Left and right placement aren’t just cultural.
How you lay your photos out on a page with text will also have an impact. According to research carried out by Elena Gorbunova and Maria Falikman at the Higher School of Economics university and published in the journal “Advances in Cognitive Psychology,” the human brain comprehends words that are placed on the right of a screen faster than those placed on the left. This is a generalization, but it is also accepted that images are usually processed by the right side of the brain, so situating photographs on the left of the text works better for comprehending pictures too.
So, when laying out photos and words together on a page, wall display, or website, it is far better to have the image on the left and the text on the right. It’s a consideration I make using two screens; I read and write on the right and view images on the left.
Of course, humans are all different. We don’t all fit into this mold. A minority of people have brain mirrored brain functions, working the other way around.
There’s another reason to flip right and left.
The way we see ourselves in images is affected by how we perceive ourselves in everyday life. Looking at our portraits can take us back: that’s not how I look, is it? The reason being, of course, is that we are used to seeing our reflections. Just like not being comfortable with the sound of our voice, we are not accustomed to the way we look to others.
According to research by Francis O’Neill and Sofia Palazzo Corner, the artist Rembrandt projected the likeness of his subjects onto the paper using mirrors. The technique is similar to that employed by Johannes Vermeer who, it is suggested, used a camera obscura, to project an image that he traced. Although considered cheating by many, this not only allowed Rembrandt to very accurately paint his subjects, but the resulting reverse images would have been more pleasing to his sitters.
The Milkmaid (c. 1658) by Johannes Vermeer who is said to have used a camera obscura to trace his images from real life.
If you are a portrait photographer, then you may find that flipping the image horizontally, thus creating a mirror image, might please your subject more than showing them how they look. I have tried this. I gave someone a print of a picture I took of them, and they were not pleased with it. So, I took it away and printed a mirror image. When I handed that version to them, they were happy.
Do you consider left and right when you shoot photos? Do you have a preference for seeing movement in a particular direction? If you grew up in a culture that reads from right to left, are your preferences different from those who read and write in the opposite direction?
If cultural diversity changes our appreciation for composition, such as making right to left equally appealing as left to right, do you see that as something to celebrate? Or do you consider it to be a watering down of cultures?
Ivor Rackham earns a living as a photographer, website developer and copywriter, currently based in the North East of England. Much of his photography work is training others; helping people become better photographers. He has a special interest in supporting people with their mental wellbeing through photography.
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It is unclear why you think Hokusai’s fishing skiffs are moving left to right. They are not. In Japanese fishing boats of the era, the oarsmen sat at the back, and the stern of the boat is basically flat, perpendicular to the sides. The bow is pointed, and would be draped as shown at the left side of the boats in The Great Wave. If you simply look at a few other of Hokusai’s woodblocks, you would quickly understand your error.
I think you may have misread what I wrote. “However, look more closely, you will see three boats are moving from right to left, into the wave.” I don’t say they are moving from left to right.
The wave is moving from left to right, but that is not the main subject, the boats are.
Interestingly I put up a street photograph for editing tips at my local camera club here in the UK, where the subject is on a flight of steps. In real life the steps flowed down from top left to bottom right (the main subject being on the top left third point). The concensus was that as the stairs flowed in the direction we read, the eye was being led out of the picture. The main subject then being on the top right third point.
Every club member considered the flipped picture to be much better, the steps were then rising from bottom left to top right, so drew the eye into the picture.
So I would suggest it’s not necessarily a placing of a subject on the left or right preference, but a reverse direction flow to the normal written word reading flow, which slows the eye down and increases the time spent reading the picture. The increased reading time forces concious reading, rather than the semi-automatic speed reading that occurs with words.
If you can create more circular flows inside the picture you also hold the viewer for longer.
Yes, Malcolm. There is clearly a lot more to this than I can include in a short article, and it is not meant to be prescriptive, but just raising awareness of the data that shows there are cultural differences. There are an infinite number of compositions too, and exceptions are inevitable. Breaking away from the most comfortable view is sometimes a creative option too; I’m all for not choosing the most obvious option,
It’s great to hear that your club considers such topics.
I don’t know if I’m paying attention, but I’m neither left-handed nor right-handed, but both with a tendency to left. So in none of the examples above did I know which side really suited me better. I almost prefer the branch to the left. Your explanation is culture and science oriented. Just recently Ali wrote about Roland Barthes’ book “Camera Lucida” (“La chambre claire”). He gives a link in the comments:
I think this might be of interest to you if you don’t already know it. A cultural background is also included there as (part of) the explanation.
Ali’s article. I think it is better to read the original text to get the whole picture of the idea.
Thank you, Jan.
That’s interesting. I hadn’t seen Ali’s article (he’s a super writer and seems a really nice guy when we chat behind the scenes), and it makes a fascinating read. That’s good of you pointing me towards it. I’ve been too busy tidying up damage after Storm Arwen to take time out to read for the last few days, so appreciate the recommendation. There’s always more to learn about photography, isn’t there?
My son is also neither truly left nor right-handed. He is left eyed. I would give my left arm to be ambidextrous. Sorry, it’s an old joke.
When you search through your back catalog, can you see a preference for one direction over the other, or are there equal numbers of both left and right dominant images?
I often flip images horizontally to see which I prefer. Sometimes, the less obvious orientation grows on me over time.
One has to know who the good content comes from. – I am left eyed as well. I play darts with my left arm but squash with my right. I’ve been browsing through my catalog but I can’t tell which side I prefer. The second picture is the original orientation. I like it better than the mirrored version. What do you think?
I prefer picture number two, the original, with the beer bottles on the left. The table and it’s contents are what I end up looking at first and then over to the men, hence agreeing with my left to right reading. If the face in the foreground was in focus my interpretation might change. Great picture!
Thank you. Interesting, my eyes follow the opposite path.
I am stunned at the level of research and thought that you put into this article. Excellent work!
As for me, flipping many of my images can lead to problems that I would rather not face. I photograph horned and antlered game animals that a lot of other wildlife photographers also photograph. Trust me, these other photographers know every little bit of antler and horn detail. They know if there are little nubs at the base of a deer’s left antler, or if a Bighorn ram has a little more worn off of the tip of his right horn than the left horn.
If I would flip an image of a known animal, I would get all kinds of messages and comments crying “foul”! For of course it is understood that in many types of nature photography, one is to leave the image largely unedited and “true to life” … at least to some extent.
But with other kinds of photos, those that do not feature individual animals that everyone knows intimately, I can, and do, often flip them. Not necessarily because I think they look better one way over the other, but rather because I don’t want too many images to be in one direction.
For example, on my Instagram profile, almost every image for the last 8 or 10 posts has been facing from right to left. That looks a bit odd, so I flipped a photo of a Bison last month, just to give a bit of visual relief from the odd looking “everything facing the same way” thing that was inadvertently going on. I did the same thing for a calendar that I just made for 2022.