What Makes a Photo Memorable?

Does a photo have to be shot by a pro photographer to be more memorable? Or you could ask: who’s driving the extinction of pro photographers? Because the question is legitimate whether advanced camera phones have stunted our abilities to recognize professional photography. A new study by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) explores the question whether or not typical newspaper readers preferred — or could even tell the difference between — photos shot by professional photographers and those contributed by amateur shutterbugs.

The dynamics in the news business are changing dramatically. There are fewer photojournalists on the streets than a few years ago. But, are the mass layoffs of photographers from major news organizations warranted? Do end users have to pay the ultimate price because they’re fed “lower quality” photography? The answer to this question shouldn’t surprise anyone.

Zoo Miami flamingo moving day | Patrick Farrell
Zoo Miami flamingo moving day | Patrick Farrell
“Quality matters,” writes Sara Quinn, author of the NPPA study. “And quality in photojournalism is all about strength of story, a genuine moment, rare access and a perspective on what’s happening in the world.”

People were easily able to distinguish a professional photograph from a user-generated photograph in the test, which included published images from three public events. The source of 90% of the images was identified correctly.

As consumers navigate a glut of visual clutter, they are developing a new language on images. The implications inform journalists, brand advocates and community activists. Ultimately, the findings of the study help understand how social media impacts democracy. Because in the end people still seem to equate image quality with reliability. Meaning a snap, as great or funny or artistic it might be, is still perceived as a snap of something bigger, as a part of a whole. The professional image, the study finds, manages to emanate authenticity, reliability and trust in the source of information.

It’s no surprise that the study found that the public is fluent in the quality of photojournalism and they trust professional images more than user contributions. The study also found users spent the most time looking at faces and people and reading photo captions. Furthermore, the study concludes that the public is distrustful of manipulated images, preferring real-life interactions to posed photos and associates professional images with better quality.

But… what determines a professional image? That’s where eyetracking comes in, a method to accurately identify which of the photos and captions newspaper readers were asked to view were shot by pros, and expressed a distinct preference for the professional over the user contributed images.

In essence the study says that in an age where images are instantaneous and easily shared, some characteristics make a photograph not worth publishing and sharing? Not that photographs taken by seasoned cellphone users who capture everyday life are of lesser value. The question is what makes a photograph tell a story and what makes it memorable. Among the findings: people value images that reflect their lives and give context to the world around them.

Here are the eyetrack study’s key findings:

  • Professional photographs were twice as likely as user-generated photographs to be shared, according to ratings given by people in the study.
  • People look first at faces. And they are interested in the relationships between people in the frame, often looking back and forth, between faces and interactions.
  • The longer or better developed a caption, the more likely it was to receive attention. Most captions were read to completion, as people looked back and forth between caption and image, establishing context.
  • The importance of “storytelling” to photography was mentioned by nearly every subject in the exit interviews.

The last point is something I gladly take on in response to recently voiced criticism against my suggestion to “enhance” DSLRs with an average Joe smartphone mode. The most memorable photographs are not memorable because of their pixel-perfect post-processing. The most memorable photographs have emotion, story, moment. And they’re about people.

+++ For more information on the topic, you might also want to read the NPPC interview As Photographs Flood Our Screens, Which Ones Hold Our Attention? And hear Sara Quinn talk about her photojournalism eyetracking survey. Furthermore, NPPA funded a larger project to help understand what people value in journalistic photography. The results of the four-part video study can be seen here.

(via The Next Web and NPPA)
  • Omer

    Suggesting that photography for a publication will be well served by journalists with smartphones is akin to assigning violin players to cover and write news stories. Who are these publishers and why are they in the journalism world?

  • Bengt Nyman

    Just about everybody with a serious camera also has a smartphone. If this person leaves the camera at home it becomes a day without pictures, unless somebody runs into his car and he remembers the smartphone.

    • You might suffer smartphone-phobia, my dear. Lighten up, there is more to gear than specs.

      • Bengt Nyman

        Not at all. I appreciate my smartphone. Especially the Geotag Photos Pro app. It is the by far best way to geotag your photos taken with a real camera.

    • Omer

      If I understand you correctly, then yes, the issue is more about training, know-how and craft, rather than gear.

      • Bengt Nyman

        Smartphone snaps are great for Facebook and Twitter. But don’t expect to sell many through Getty.