Using movement to draw the eye through a photograph

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Movement is a very important aspect to discuss in photography, and is one of our four main visual cues of depth, movement, color, and form.

Movement as a visual cue is viewed in a few ways: Apparent, real, graphic, and implied.

Apparent movement is found in flip-books and films, since it is essentially taking multiple still frames and mashing them together. Real movement is simply unmediated movement in real life. As photographers, we deal with single-frame still images, so we’re only dealing with graphic movement and implied movement.

Graphic movement leads the eye

Despite what is expected, graphic movement doesn’t necessarily involve any motion in the photograph. Graphic movement deals with the way the eye moves across an image. This is affected by some of a viewer’s inherent biases and experiences. For example, in English-reading cultures, we read from left to right. It’s typical for a viewer to scan an image from top-left and across. Regardless of this, a photographer has some ability to steer the viewer’s eye themselves.

A bridge that leads the eye to the Minneapolis skyline
Bridges are such common subjects in a photograph thanks to their great ability to lead the eye.

The composition for this photograph draws the eye directly along the bridge into the Minneapolis skyline behind it. This is a pretty commonly-found example of leading lines and is a great method for controlling a photo. Using leading lines gives a photographer the power to draw the eye toward a subject.

Implied motion within a frame

Cave painting of a horse engaved into the wall.
Horse engraved by finger into the soft wall. The legs are drawn to appear as if the are moving in flickering light. Image courtesy of Wikicommons.

Implied movement is the actual act of motion in a photograph. This technique dates at least as far back as ancient petroglyphs. Le Grotte Chauvet, a cave in France, holds over 400 paintings filled with rich detail from tens of thousands of years ago. One drawing shows a horse running with multiple legs, a great example of implied motion, especially when viewed by flickering firelight.

Photographers illustrate and execute this effect in a few ways.

A pigeon flapping its wings
Aren’t there enough pictures of pigeons and ducks on the internet? This shot is just such a great example of implied motion that we had to use it.

Though it may seem unintuitive to capture blur in an image, the effect is pretty astounding. Blur draws direct attention to that part of the image, and retains the illusion of motion wonderfully. By visibly retaining motion in a photograph, a photographer can dynamically keep the action in a still frame and paint a picture that may be stronger than a crisp shot. This is captured by slowing the shutter speed of the camera.

However, it is also effective to capture motion without blur. Photopigs previously explored the differences between long- or short-exposure shots illustrated with moving water, discussing the perfect shutter speed and the most accurate representation of how the eye sees real motion. There’s a fine line to the blur effect, so exploration and experimentation are necessary.

Using graphic and implied motion together

Fireworks over a lake in Loring Park with a couple church steeples in the background
Out of the hundred fireworks shot in my library, they all simultaneously illustrate graphic and implied motion very well.

This photograph is a great example of utilizing both graphic and implied movement. The bright center of the fireworks immediately draws the eye inward. The lines then lead the eye to the top of the photo to reveal the smaller explosions and carry the eye up, before pulling it back down and along the ground. Lines carrying the eye through an image are a great way to illustrate graphic motion, while the blur of the fireworks illustrates implied motion.

What are your experiences with movement, whether implied, graphic, or apparent, in photography and videography? Do you think that retaining blur is obnoxious and distracting? Which visual cues do you find to be the most intuitive? Share your opinions in the comments.

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