Creating Images that Captivate Audiences

nickcharles · March 11, 2006 12:00 am

As creators of visual media - we all strive to create compelling imagery that captures the attention of our intended audience. This article is intended to provide some insights into my thoughts on creating imagery that not only captures the attention of a viewer, but sparks their imagination as well.

There are a great many factors involved in creating memorable images. While there are many books that talk about everything from auto-exposure to zoom (and other related technical issues), few such books include any information discussing any aspect of human psychology and/or related abstracts, and their importance in creating a truly memorable visual experience.


While I am not a psychologist by profession, I have spent many years studying the subject, toward aiding me in my responsibilities and capacities as a media producer and project director, and feel that it is crucial in taking (or making, in the case of illustration) memorable images.

These aspects of creating visual imagery are key (in my humble opinion) to connecting with a viewer/audience, and giving them an experience that holds their attention, as well as leaving them with a lasting impression.

I'll begin with some things that I always consider, first and foremost, toward any intention of creating compelling imagery, before briefly discussing any technical aspects I employ toward this goal.

Creating engaging imagery begins with giving the viewer something meaningful to them in some way, ideally on a most personal level. Every image contains elements that any sighted person has seen, or at least can imagine (visualize) in some way, whether the scene contains a landscape, objects, or whatever. Of course, every scene will have some level of meaning to a viewer. This abstract is referred to as "place meaning" and is at the very core of four distinct abstracts: orientation, identification, wholeness, and possession.


To make imagery that holds the attention of a viewer, an image should have an excellent balance between these four abstracts to make the complete "whole" that gives the place somemeaning to the viewer.

Every image contains elements that are part of a larger whole. As most every visual artist knows - the elements contained within a smaller subset of a whole scene is called "composition" in visual art speak. As a psychological abstract, for the purposes of establishing the concept of "place meaning," composition will be abstracted to "orientation".

Orientation is a process in which we perceive and acknowledge the things around us. It is what gives us any sense of order or structure, and ultimately assists us in defining not only an environment, but indeed our own place within it. Orientation defines our sense of being within time and space. Once one has defined both a structure or order and their place within it, one has become oriented, and can feel some sense of connectedness to most, if not all of the elements within that environment. Once orientation has been established, one can begin to abstract their own identity within a place, giving it some meaning to them. Without orientation, it is difficult, if not impossible, to have any sense of participation or connectivity within a scene. Therefore, orientation (composition) is crucial to establishing any real "place meaning." The better the orientation of a scene, the more readily a viewer can identify with it.
Identification refers to the process of actually having recognized that which has been experienced (through orientation) and connecting with it in some way. Identification is what gives anything any meaning to us at all. Otherwise, we would simply not identify (connect) with a given subject. This is why establishing a solid sense of orientation is so important in making a real impact on the viewer. Orientation and the incidental identification of an image can be the difference between a glance and a serious ponder.
Wholeness refers to a scene having a sense of completeness to a viewer. Since images are always a small part of a larger whole (after all, there is a larger world outside of the frame), it is critical to provide a sense of completeness to a composition (orientation) if one wishes the viewer to completely identify with the scene at the deepest level possible. As with any composition, there is a fine line between too much and too little within a scene. That statement, of course, is always subject to conjecture. I always try to compose scenes that have just the right amount of elements (orientation) to provide a solid experience (identification), through giving a viewer just enough to not feel any sense of there being something missing (in other words, giving them some sense of wholeness to the scene), without giving them too much. If that can be achieved, one is well on their way to providing a viewer with an image that they can relate to, identify with, find satisfaction in, and ultimately embrace. This brings us to the last major component of establishing "place meaning."
Possession refers to a viewers sense of belonging to (or at least finding some sense of place within) a scene. Possession enables a viewer to relate to a scene on a very deep, personal, and emotional level. It is the feeling of being a part of a scene, as that scene is a part of the viewer (a mutual empathy, if you will). It is through possession that we accommodate our feelings upon personifying our emotions. Successful establishment of possession, gives the viewer a sense that the image was created just for them, that it is theirs.
With a good balance between orientation, identification, wholeness, and possession, a place meaning can be found that actually stamps an indelible impression into the mind of a viewer/audience, leaving them totally satisfied, in a way that will leave them wanting more and more, as often as they can get it!
Aside from the abstracts I've presented here, there are some technical considerations I always keep in mind in creating visual media, as they are just as important toward creating an unforgettable (or at least engaging) visual experience.

This refers to adjusting the brightness level of an image. I always try varying levels of it, keeping the setting most pleasing to the eyes.

Auto-exposure (photography):
I use it almost exclusively! The only time I don't is when I intend to underexpose or overexpose a capture, for whatever reason.

Adjusting the hue and saturation level of an image is something I always play with. I usually accept the most dramatic, yet natural look to an image, but that, of course, depends on if it's working for me.

I almost always use it, just enough to provide better definition between elements within a scene. When used, I use it sparingly, as it can easily ruin an otherwise excellent image!

While I always try to get the perfect composition in a frame, it doesn't always work out that way. When that's the case, I never hesitate to crop an image. I've captured many an image with the usual 4:3 aspect ratio, when I only really wanted an 8:3 aspect ratio (for example). Cropping is great for removing elements of a scene that simply are not needed in providing a complete picture. I use cropping to balance elements between the lower part of a scene (the foreground) and the upper region (usually a background of some type) against the subject (usually in the middle to upper portion of a frame).

This refers to adjusting and/or smoothing the overall tone of an image to improve its quality. I always play with this too, but like contrast, it's easy to ruin an image if not used properly. I only use it in a non-destructive editing environment, otherwise it's applied automatically and irreparable!

This refers to redistributing the brightness values of the pixels within an image. Danger, danger! While it can produce interesting results with some images, it usually gives an image a real unnatural appearance. I use it only for dramatic special effects, with otherwise "throw away" captures. However, it does have its uses. Again, I recommend it is only played with in a "non-destructive" image editor.

I always prefer "manual" over "auto" focus, as auto-focus tends to be slower than my patience permits, but that all depends on one's preference and/or patience-level, as well as their camera. With manual focus, I can ensure that the elements within the scene I want to be in focus, are indeed as such.

This refers to setting the highlights and shadows of an image, by plotting the darkest and lightest pixels to black and white. I invariably try various levels of it on an image, to see if it enhances it in any way. If it does, I'll use it, but always sparingly.


While there are a lot of other aspects of image manipulation (i.e. Posterize, Threshold, etc.), they are not germane to the subject of "place meaning", and are not things I typically use to create compelling imagery.

Well, there you have it! Some food for thought while on your next photo op and/or illustration project.

Happy visual media creation all!

Troy Mathisen (tmathise)
All supporting images are copyright, and cannot be
copied, printed, or reproduced in any manner without written permission from the artist.

Message2613791.jpgSpecial thanks to guest columnist, artist, Troy Mathisen [tmathise], for taking time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts, experience, and photographic techniques with us.

We invite you to view tmathise' Renderosity gallery.
March 13, 2006

Article Comments

LillianH ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 14 March 2006

Very helpful article. Thanks for the tips Troy :-) Lillian

mommavelvet9999 ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 14 March 2006

Awesome article, Troy! About the focusing....Can you manually focus a digital? Sony Cybershot. But don't remember seeing anything about that in the The rest is a help too, but my auto focus on this thing doesn't really take "too" long, but sometimes that split second shot of a bird or squirrel never happens "just right". If my Cybershot doesn't, the only thing I know is 'chance'. Thanks though! So glad to see you're keeping busy and seemingly happy!!!! Have a great day! Velvet.

Richardphotos ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 14 March 2006

all worthwhile information Troy and excellent advice

Skip1871 ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 14 March 2006

All information is valauable, and thank you for sharing your insights - anything that aids the impact of a image is always appreciated.

Sabra ( posted at 12:00AM Tue, 14 March 2006

Super article Troy, thank you so much for sharing it! You are one of those artists who always CAPTURE me with your images, so like no other you know what you're talking about. All the things you mentioned (like exposure, hue, cropping etc...) should be considered by ANY artist before posting, because it determines your style, the way you distiguish your work from the mass. I recognise some images from the galleries (and they are cluttered with all kinds of stuff) just by the lighting, tone or athmosphere that is so characteristic. So amen to your words, you are a true master and I thank you for sharing your knowledge! - Take care, Sabra

NekhbetSun ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 15 March 2006

Great article Troy! There were quite a few tips I picked up that I hadn't known before. Thanks for contributing ! ~Mina

YARDOBE ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 15 March 2006

This is great advice for 3D artists as well,and ya,I understood the overall message about creation...good stuff!

cynlee ( posted at 12:00AM Wed, 15 March 2006

hi Troy.. well written article! impressed.. yes, composition & captivating imagery are so important.. besides just technique.. should catch the viewer's eye as they cruise by.. (besides nudity :) as it was sung in "Gypsy Rose Lee", "You Gotta Have a Gimmick" ~your name & article "caught my eye"~ :0)))))))

idiot_sphinx ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 16 March 2006

I think you have a good point on focus . Wonderful article and well worth the read !!

Darthmagus ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 16 March 2006

Very convincing work! Thanks for sharing!

danob ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 16 March 2006

Well done Troy it is a very well written article of great interest to me with a Psychology background and as a Photographer

jcv2 ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 16 March 2006

Did just print the article to read it more carefully! I like the POV and it's certainly a valuable addition! Thank you, Troy! :)

ERMITA ( posted at 12:00AM Thu, 16 March 2006

Thanks for sharing, my big hearted fella, Troy! I prefer to do macros and I'll try to use your experience. Your captation are fabulous and on your work we can feel "the empaty". Thanks pal!

dodgeart ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 17 March 2006

Certainly well thought out and presented. It is good to point out that ALL images can awaken certain emotions in anyone that veiws something created by an image maker. Since most of us live within cultures that are over-saturated with images (good and bad) it is a challenge to create something compelling and maybe remind people in some way that our often taken for granted eyes are meant for something much deeper than passively watching TV commercials or keeping one's car within the lines on the road.

soulofharmony ( posted at 12:00AM Fri, 17 March 2006

superbly written.. troy ,fantastic article very interesting and factual, seems we share 3 common links.. media..broadcasting through my husband, and me photography and a level of psychology through few years a councillors and fascination of the subject.. superb.. Troy.. going to read again... !!!! wtg !!! Nikki:)

Traligill ( posted at 12:00AM Mon, 20 March 2006

interesting and informative, very welldone:)!!

GiMi53 ( posted at 12:00AM Sat, 25 March 2006

Now I understand better some of your (photo)choices, Troy. You are not only a great photographer but also an excellent writer... :~)

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