Catching the Wandering Eye

September 09, 2020  •  1 Comment

In many of my articles I mention, often in passing, how the first job for a photograph is catching the eye of a reader. A browser. A passerby.

When you are communicating in your role as a marketer, and especially when you are enticing someone to be communicated with, the path to communication is something like, "Hey, look at me!" followed by "Ah, now you understand what I am," and then "See? It's good that you looked; now you appreciate the benefits available to you."

Put less conversationally, and from the perspective of the intended receiver, it is "Notice; Understand the topic and the offer; Imagine how the future will be better with the offered product/service/affiliation."

Simple, right? Notice how in each of these descriptions of the process, "Hey, look at me …" and "Notice; Understand …" the words that describe the steps become more numerous as the process unfolds. That correlation is not accidental. The attention-grabbing step happens, or doesn't happen, in as little as a half-second which, if the grab happens, you then have the reader's attention, a little more of their time, in which to attempt the next step, and then the next.

Today, I will delve only into catching that eye to stop its (and its owner's) wandering. (Note: I will often refer to advertisements, but these could just as likely be marketing materials calling out to be picked up, or graphics adorning a booth, calling out to be visited.)

To Start…

You can probably skip the rest of this article if you are able to choose appropriately from among these simple tips for creating and employing eyeball-grabbing imagery:

Show a very-well rendered image of something familiar;

Show something familiar rendered in an unusual way;

Show something unfamiliar in an interesting way;

Show people;

Make the image germane to the subject (which, by the way, does not require showing the subject);

Ideally, show whatever it is you're showing in such detail (or lack thereof) to lead the viewer to look for at least a little more information.

It is certainly possible to, technically, adhere to these tips and still not grab those eyeballs, but they are a start…

Danger! Danger! (Or not.)

Our brains are always on the lookout for, first, danger and then opportunity. Each of these, danger and opportunity, is most easily spotted if it stands out from its environment. The danger of a snake-in-the-grass? It doesn't stand out, so we might blunder into harm with no advance warning. But what if we're hunting for friendly snakes? Well, the snakes might not be a threat, but the environment is still working against our noticing them. And if that environment holds both harmful and friendly snakes, we must first notice a snake, then determine if it fits in one of those two categories, then act accordingly.

And, by the way, there is a third category of snake in the grass, which is neither harmful nor friendly. I mention this because ideally we don't want to disappoint a wandering eye by stopping it with a graphic, a snake, that promises to be an opportunity but is actually just a waste of time. That is annoying and you don't want to associate your brand with annoyance.

As marketers, how do you stand out from the grass that is a magazine, the internet, a trade show? The most effective tool for catching the eye of the beholder, in this dog-eat-dog world of getting your friendly-snake-in-the-grass company noticed in the bazaar of aerospace ideas, is an image. (Who doesn't love a mixed metaphor?) An assemblage of shapes, colors, contrasts, and textures, recognizable or intriguing, that causes a pause. A pause that suggests there might be an opportunity here, a pause that is your opportunity to make your case.

I'm a photographer, so that's where I would fit in, and step one for me is figuring out what to show and how to shoot it in order to get you to your step one: getting noticed. The second image above, the H145, grabbed your eye — probably as soon as some part of it entered your field of vision — by overfilling the frame with a boldly colored aircraft, pointed right at you, slightly tilted, and packed with aerospace components and construction details.

This box with its colorful background was an approach taken by a company that subsequently became a client of my then-agency. I don't have a copy of those ads, which were full-page buys, but this was the graphical approach — photograph the boxes on a colorfully lighted background. Add text and logo and done.

Remember how I cautioned against annoying a reader? Well, there is little chance of annoying a reader with this ad. It shows a box, the text of the ad spoke of the box. No surprises and, certainly, no miscommunication.

Then again, there wasn't much to enjoy about the ad, either. Reread those previous two sentences and savor that lack of joy. They paid a lot of money for those placements, but the ads performed only so-so.

I don't judge the box-on-bright-colors photo to be bad, as it was a fair attempt at achieving step one, but it has several weaknesses. First, it is, ultimately, just a photo of a box. The bright colors might stop a reader/surfer/attendee once, but there is little to hold the viewer's attention once the color has stopped their wandering eye. This box also looks very similar to other boxes offered by this company, and by its competitors. That similarity in appearance means another ad, though with different boxes but shot on the same colorful background, might not appear to represent a different product and, if the first ad was not of a product in which the viewer was interested, they might just flip to the next page or click on the next link or wander on to the next booth.

Relatedly, if a viewer didn't comprehend that the box was, indeed, a product in which they should be interested, the lack of depth in the presentation, of connections to the world or, best yet, a benefit to improve that imagined future, the next time they spot the ad they might, again, just flip/click/wander on by. It has happened more than once, to me, that in revisiting an ad in which there was at least an interesting graphic, I discovered the product/service was something that did interest me.

In considering how to improve things for the client, I had two immediate concerns: doing a better job of attracting attention and bringing at least something interesting to the ad. While I was at it, I also recommended we reduce the size of the ads. So what did I do instead of merely colorfully framing boxes, photo-wise? This:

I featured people. Actual aerospace people, not models or, ugh, stock photos of people. I then photographed those people staring directly into the camera, with a confident expression. As people ourselves, we are naturally drawn to returning the gaze. "What is this person thinking? What are they so sure of?" We created at least five of these ads, and likewise developed trade show graphics panels based on them, each with a different person and corresponding colored "frame." They looked alike yet different, and every one of the ads was pretty much guaranteed to get looked at. (The H145 photo also benefits, a bit, from this normal response to people looking at you.)

The ads did show the product, though not the "box" elements, but instead the human interface elements, and those product photos were quite small. The photos of these confident yet serious people — never haughty, not like they know something you don't — would grab the eyes of the reader who turned to this page because these eyes were already looking at them. Once grabbed, the text would do its thing and, before you know it, these now-2/3-page ads performed better than most of the other ads in a magazine.

Work better and cost less? Nice.

Working In Miniature

These three banner ads, which I screenshot off the web today, just happen to provide some exemplar approaches to catching a surfer's attention. At left, Bristow presents one of its aircraft, in its signature livery, photographed cleanly, with little else to the ad but a tag line and a logo. We know what to expect and it gives it to us.

Tech-Tool Plastics (another of my then-agency's clients) also shows an aircraft — a bright yellow one shot from a less-usual angle — but since their product offerings are, as stated here, "High-quality replacement windows," the composition puts the emphasis on the windows without indicating the owner/operator of the aircraft. That detail, the owner/operator, is immaterial since this is not positioned as a testimonial. I kinda wish they didn't consume 40% of the ad space with text and logo, but it works, so what am I complaining about!?

Intermountain Turbine takes a non-photo approach which substitutes strong graphics (step one) and just the words you need to understand what they are about. In this case, a photo of one or both of the enumerated engines might not have fared as well in such a small space, so I'd say it was a good decision to forgo them.

Each of these ads had to work at a small size on a page filled with competing content, both editorial and sponsored. Using a range of approaches I adjudge they succeeded and you can take whichever lessons to heart that fit your situation.

By the way, I commend you if you paused on the Bristow ad and thought to yourself, "Hey, didn't I see that photo in an earlier AeroMark Images blog article?" Not exactly, but close enough! I flew and photographed with Bristow in December and featured many of this ad's sibling images in a blog article about shooting air-to-air while flying a lazy orbit, "Going In Circles." Here's the photo from the shoot that they put into that tiny ad.

Doing More by Coloring Less

Understand that, in general, there are two distinct environments from which you need your image to stand out. One is the graphical one, all of the "grass" analogies I keep using, the other is the psychological environment, the experiences and expectations of the viewer. If a photo were to appear before them as part of an ad or booth graphic, displayed against a blank wall, would it stand out, mentally, as something about which they would want to know more?

Most readers/surfers/attendees expect color imagery, so one way to cause a pause is with a black-and-white image. Just as a zebra-striped snake would be more noticeable among the grass than a, well, than a green-striped one, so do black-and-white photos stand out among a thicket of color images whether the color images are actually present or are just expected.

Not only would this above image stand out among a sea of ordinary full-color ones, going black-and-white helps us stay focused on the Citation and the people, rather than mentally wandering off to the other aircraft, which includes at least one with a red stripe, and the green treeline, even though that is chromatically muted. The aircraft was about the most monochrome thing in the photo to begin with, so by pushing the color out of everything — and notice that the black-and-white version is much brighter and higher contrast than the original, inset, image — the bold elements and shapes of the Citation take center stage visually, not just geometrically. What a difference compared to the yellow H145, eh? But that would be the point — black-and-white images are not expected which, thus, draws the eye.

EA-18G Growler on or above NAF El CentroEA-18G Growler on or above NAF El CentroPhoto call at NAF El Centro

If the opportunity presents itself, we can further subvert a viewer's expectations by providing a bit of color to remain among an otherwise grayscale image. This Growler photo certainly benefits from this technique. Where the Citation photo was mostly gray to start, with some distracting colors in the non-important details, the Growler image was originally mostly bluish, from the horizon up, and tan below. Rather milquetoast, really. The afterburner flames are visible, but by dumping all of the colors except for those flames we give the viewer a bonus reward for stopping by.

And, whereas I had brightened the photo of the Citation, I darkened this E/A-18G, giving it a visual weight that works better for this military aircraft. That brightening led to a category of imagery known as high-key, while the darkening results in a low-key photo. Those categories are not dependent on photos being black-and-white, but figured I'd toss in that bit of photo jargon in case you come across it elsewhere.

Doing More with Color More!

People expect color images, and black-and-white upsets (in a good way) that expectation, but we can also grab those eyeballs by upsetting that expectation in the other direction. Punch those colors till they burn retinas!

(C) Chris J Price

The emboldened colors in this image of an F-16 are just that — bolder versions of the colors already present in the original image. I don't think there's much to add here: the recognizable shapes with the otherworldly colors will definitely cause a pause.

Try a Little Tenderness

I would be remiss if I did not share at least this one other approach to capturing a gaze: subtlety. 

Rather than poke a viewer in the eye — which is fine, by the way — a reduced presence, in size or detail or color or whatever other elements of an image or its presentation are screaming "look at me!", can also work. This H130 plies the skies near Salt Lake City in service to a drug rehabilitation center. Residents are shown around the mountains via this aircraft, which also delivers them to a remote ridge-top pasture to spend time away from the distractions of the urban areas. To support such a "story," I've framed the aircraft in subordination to the environment. The contrast in sizes, as well as in textures and colors, attracts the viewer. Rather than "look at me," the viewer's brain is thinking, "what is this?" with calm excitement. (Is that a thing, calm excitement?)

The Takeaway

With its first job being "get noticed," your photography needs to, first, be considered in terms of the graphical environment in which it will be encountered. Then, in coordination with the messaging, choose the subject that communicates that message, even if the "subject" is not the exact object or representation of your service. Photograph the subject, and prepare that photo post-facto, to attract attention and support the communication of your message. The tone of the photo must cohere with the tone of the copy and the layout of the ad, whether that is matching that tone or playing against it.

In short, give the passerby a reason to look, then don't disappoint them when they wonder, "what is this about?"

Bonus Image

Actually, the "bonus image" is the one at the top of the article. I bet you spent a little time checking it out, reading the text in the image, trying to understand what it represented. Is it aerospace-related? Yes. Do I expect you to know what it is, as in, on what aircraft it appears? No. Though if you do, count yourself among the very few. I, myself, was surprised with what I learned about the aircraft while preparing this article.

Here's the image again, so you don't have to scroll back to the top — I included it because it fits into the category of tips, "Show something unusual in an interesting way." It is a data plate on a World War II prototype stainless steel cargo aircraft, designed and built for the U.S. Navy by the Budd Company, maker of railroad cars. Here's a link to the Wikipedia article about it if you'd like to know more:


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