[Related Reading: Defining Leading Lines in Photography (with 12 Examples!)]

Let’s say you’re scrolling down your Instagram feed. One of those thumbnails will succeed in pulling your attention away from… all of the others. But why did that specific image stay in your memory? What was special about that one image?

You barely had time to see them all, let alone evaluate each photo against your personal interests. And we’re also talking about tiny thumbnail images here – just a few dozen pixels wide – which makes it hard to decipher many of the details.

How is your mind choosing that one image?

Well, your brain processes information in a progressive manner. That’s similar to how some websites load up images. The website will quickly show a low-res image while the high-res one loads in the background. The reasoning behind both of these processes is similar: to give an early indication to the viewer of what’s happening.

low high res charro figure ground relationship

The low-res image that loads up is a barely recognizable reduction of itself. You can make out some vague shapes and differences of contrast. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough for your subconscious mind to evaluate the scene and, importantly, decide whether it needs to react to any potential threats.

The reason I’m dipping into the science is to demonstrate that we “see” a scene twice. Our subconscious first and then our conscious mind. Becoming fluent in visual language gives you the ability to capitalize on both these views.

[Related Reading: Learning The Rules Then Breaking Them | Guidelines to Composition]

A lot of this science is new, but the effects of good composition have been known and capitalized on by artists for half a millennia. Longer even. The old masters – Caravaggio, Rubens – were all taught how to deliberately design their compositions to appeal to the subconscious.

IG Feed

They understood what made something visually interesting. That’s why classical work, like this one by Rubens, will pull at your attention. It has been carefully crafted to work on two levels. Its underlying design contains geometric shapes hidden in plain sight. These appeal to our subconscious mind. While the details in the narrative composition speak to our conscious mind.