XII. Vectors

Vectors have different meanings and applications in mathematics, biology, psychology, computer science, and other fields. Because the application considered here is their use as an aesthetic tool,  a vector will be considered any visual element that guides the viewer’s eye within or around a frame. I think of them as lines of force that give direction. 

Vectors can point to other elements within the frame, lead the eye out of the frame, create a sense of motion in the two-dimensional space or all of these at once. A favorite pose of portrait photographers has been to position the arms and hands of the subject so they lead the eye to the subject’s face. For instance, this can be accomplished by having the chin resting on folded hands, or hands holding an object like eyeglasses below the chin. This is often seen in talent agency “head shots” where the face needs to dominate. And actors are taught to move or positions their hands so they keep directing the attention to the face. Vectors are all about managing the viewer’s attention. 

Here, the eye-line of the child directs the viewer to the man, his cigarette points to the lighter in his hand, which points to the woman’s cigarette, and then her leg points back toward the child, creating a circular motion to maintain the viewer’s attention in the frame. After that, the eye moves around the fame to see what else is there. 

Vectors can direct attention through the use of bright lines or lines of light. Above, the lines converge to the point of interest.

Here, the lines point to a mass and aid in the interpretation of the subject.

Vectors can be dark or black.

They can surround or encompass as well as point to the primary subject.

They can suggest depth an perspective.

Make a statement.

Or enhance a sense of motion.


Vectors are put to good use when the objective is to hold the viewer’s attention within the frame. The trick is to compose the shot so the vectors move from one to another around the subject, without leading the eye out of the frame. 


As with many of the other aesthetic dimensions, the challenge is to become aware of the light or dark lines or shapes within the frame and then compose with vectors so they either point to or encompass the primary subject matter, the point of critical focus. This is easier to do when the camera is on a tripod. There’s more time to work the composition. Otherwise, the composing has to be done on the fly.

Contemplating Vectors in Personal and Social Contexts

The consideration of vectors as visual elements that direct attention within and around a frame, draws me to consider the elements—vectors—that direct our attention within and around our everyday lives. What are the forces that command our attention, and where do they want us to focus? 

Of course, the sources of influence vary by individual, time, place, circumstances, and culture. But generally, and for the sake of reflection, they include the “still small voice within,” the environment, people close to us, religious, medical, and educational institutions, political and business associations, artists, sports figures, special interest groups, the mass media (radio, television, movies), the internet, social media networks, and reading materials. It would take volumes to consider the nature of their influence, but in examining some of these sources I found it very enlightening to note the direction the vectors are pointing, and what they want me to focus on. Ranking them was even more insightful, allowing me to make some critical adjustments. It took only a couple of minutes. Whether you write down your sources of influence or not, I highly recommend a close look as a way to bolster the ability to discriminate, understand the sources that are most influential, and provide a defense against negative valuation.

I welcome your feedback at <smithdl@fuse.net>

My portfolio site: DavidLSmithPhotography.com

My photo books: <www.blurb.com/search/site_search> Enter “David L. Smith” and “Bookstore” in “Search.”


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