The Photographer’s Visual Grammar: Visual Rightness and Aesthetics of Artistic Photographs
We are living in a world where photography is everywhere, and almost everyone is a photographer (in the sense of producing photographs with some aesthetic aspiration). Yet, despite the democratic nature of the medium, which suggests that anyone can make great photographs, there are large differences in the aesthetic quality of photographs. Scientifically, we do not yet grasp very well what differentiates aesthetic from non-aesthetic photographs, and how this results in a different viewer experience. In this study, we explored the visual rightness of 21 high-quality artistic photographs, compared with their ecologically valid less-than-optimal variants (one to four alternatives). The high-quality photographs were selected from an online contemporary photography competition which is judged by experts (http://www.life-framer.com). The alternatives were variants provided by the photographers themselves. Participants (n = 187) preferred the original photograph significantly more than chance level for the majority of the sets (13 out of 21), and significantly less than chance level for a minority of sets (three out of 21). This is in line with the visual rightness theory of picture perception, maintaining that artists are experts in creating visually right images, and that this is salient to nonexpert viewers. Yet, the preference for the original differed greatly between sets (range: 9.63–79.68%) and the original photograph was also the most preferred one in ‘only’ 12 out of 21 sets. Qualitative content analysis showed that preferences were influenced by many levels of photographic information (color, contrast, sharpness, composition, emotional expression, etc.), which were often working together. The most aesthetically powerful photographs reveal a skillful combination of medium, form, and subject matter levels, to produce an optimal visual message. Results have implications for empirical aesthetics, the photography practice, and for our understanding of photography literacy, a key topic in a world where there are many more photographs than humans that can appreciate them.