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Photography: Visual Appeal

Updated on April 16, 2011

Visual appeal denotes the ability to catch the eye and hold the attention. It transcends the subject matter and artistic merits of a picture and includes the potential response to their combined attraction. That is to say that visual appeal depends on both what is shown and who is looking at it.

Any snapshot of a baby would provide ample visual appeal for its family. Comparatively dull photographs of a new piece of machinery are still very likely to interest its potential users. But to produce or find pictures of sufficiently wide appeal that will draw the eyes of hundreds of thousands to some magazine cover or advertising display is not quite so simple.

Pictures that meet such conditions are sometimes caught by photographers who either just follow their instincts or are lucky enough to stumble on the right opportunities. More often, however, they are supplied by skilled professionals who repeat and vary effects based on certain fixed formula... even when they are not conscious of doing so.

Methodical analyses of visual appeal are largely speculative. Although controlled investigations of the subject in terms of experimental psychology are conceivable, the data we possess are neither complete enough nor sufficiently documented. It is generally agreed, however, that visual appeal is a complex phenomenon and whilst the terms applied to its components vary a great deal and may be grouped in many ways they usually cover three categories: novelty impact, emotional response and signaling force.


Novelty Impact

Novelty impact is governed by news value, personality content and action.

1) The value of any news clearly depends on just how new, how big and how close it is to the man whom it seeks to inform.

2) The more a personality is known the greater his or her pictorial impact. Yet the face of any person still has a stronger impact than a scene lacking human content.

3) Anything dynamic will attract attention. Action, movement, expression, visually score over repose.

Emotional Response

Emotional response is evoked primarily by the human element in the picture. This can be broken down under the more specific facets of survival, sex, success, experience and escape. Most of these appeals are elementary and people are hardly ever indifferent to them. They remain effective irrespective of whether the reaction to them is positive or negative: approving or disapproving and whether it involves pleasure or revulsion, temptation or fear.

1) Death being the ultimate problem of everybody alive, any pictorial demonstration of survival is universally fascinating. This explains the unfailing attraction of all young creatures- but also of catastrophe, murder and any form of violent fate from which the reader may feel reasonably sheltered.

2) There is an effective appeal of sex, not only in the obvious display of it but also in the associations that the subject may evoke. The world of entertainment, for example, is an inexhaustible source of such associations as it draws mass attention to its stars and blends their personalities with the parts they play.

3) Other people's success stimulates curiosity, challenges ambition and evokes envy.

All these varying responses look for the identical reassurance that the person behind some achievement is as human as ourselves.

4) It is human to cherish any confirmation of one's own experiences. Familiar faces, places and situations are likely to meet with warm response. Everyday aspects of everyday subjects may have little appeal, but there is a great deal of it in unusual aspects.

5) There is a promise of thrill in change, distance and adventure; pictures that feed people's dreams are popular.

Signaling Force

Signaling force is the power in a picture to make itself noticed by its sheer formal qualities; these are clarity, pattern and emphasis.

The primary task of any picture is to concentrate on its subject, lift it from its surroundings and show off exactly as much detail as its story needs.

A picture should be obviously self-contained; its unity may be visibly reinforced by distinctive framework, balancing elements or graphic space management.

Emphatic angles of view and perspectives, a strong suggestion of direction, speed and tension as well as contrasts of size, tone, light or color possess strong pictorial momentum.


Any successful picture will have something of all the three basic categories that add up to visual appeal. But only a few of the many elements on which any of these categories rest are likely to be present at any one time.

It is useful training discipline for photographers, designers and art editors to apply some such method of classification as this to analyzing existing publications and photographs.

This is done, as a rule, by using a points system based on credits that represent these several appeals.

Although both the classification used and the evaluations gained in an exercise of this type are bound to be arbitrary they help to standardize habits of pictorial judgment provided the experimenter will force himself clearly to account for his motives in crediting points rather than worry too much about exactly how much credit this or that subordinate element would deserve. At any rate such an approach is a great deal more effective than just following the time honored but vague advice to visit art galleries and look at the work of the masters.


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    • profile image

      Erdisa Dipidua 

      7 years ago

      How an informative article.Reading this article makes me more sensitive to take a picture..I like this article..

    • Destrier profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from Rural Australia

      I am glad you learned something Taj :)

    • profile image


      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Destrier. Your view of a photo's visual appeal in terms of the 3 categories: novelty impact, emotional response and signaling force is very interesting. I'll keep these in mind the next time I'm taking photos.


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