Images: A Force to Be Reckoned With

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Do you ever wonder why it bothers you so much if a picture frame on a wall is tilted, even in the slightest? It’s like you can spot a frame off center by one degree from a mile away but you don’t understand why or how. Luckily, Zettl’s discussion of image choices in “The Two Dimensional Field: Forces within the Screen” shed some light on this common problem.

Zettl explains that we immediately perceive tilted frames because our natural sense of balance is thrown off by the change in direction. Because of the forces of gravity, we naturally relate our vertical orientation that is perpendicular to the horizontal, level ground with the acute level of pictures and other things around us. Our sense of gravity being so powerful and innate, we can immediately sense when the gravity around us is thrown off even in the slightest. He expands on this principle, along with other aspects of image composition including directions, asymmetry, and the figure ground principle.

Image Orientation


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The two above images follow Zettl’s principle that horizontal images evoke calmness and tranquility, while vertical images appear more dynamic and exciting. The choice to shoot vertically or horizontally, therefore, can dramatically change the mood of an image. Personally, I like to take pictures both vertically and horizontally, then make my choices later!


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Another way to impact a picture’s mood is to tilt the image, automatically adding a new level of intensity. Our gravity is thrown off when something tilts or shifts, such as a plane dipping dramatically towards one direction. Similarly, we note a sense of chaos and imbalance when a picture is tilted. At times, tilted images can appear so powerful that they are disorienting.


Whether we realize it or not, we tend to look at the center of an image or graphic and then “read” or “decode” the image from left to right. You would assume we place equal weight on our time spent looking at the left and right sides of the screen, but Zettl claims that we actually quickly glance to the left, then focus our attention on the right. For this reason, many advertisements place their most prominent information or main point on the right side of the screen!


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in the above image, what catches your eye? I personally glance at the text on the left, then focus my attention on Julia Roberts, specifically her dramatic eye color and makeup! It’s no surprise that the Lancome advertisers placed her picture on the right side of the ad, with her eyes slightly above center.

Figure/Ground Principle


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A final, and important, principle of image composition is the figure/ground principle. The figure/ground principle is the process of structuring an image by contrasting a stable background behind less stable figures. Zettl outlines the following characteristics of figure/ground (113):

  • The figure is thinglike, while the ground is part of a screen area.
  • The figure lies in front of the ground.
  • The separation line between the figure and ground is associated with the figure.
  • The figure is more likely to shift than the ground. It does not appear as stable.
  • The ground appears more continuous than the figure.

Until next blog,



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