Laypeople Skilled in Analyzing Quality of Published Photographs, Research Shows

Given the ubiquity of digital cameras and high-end smartphone cameras, it should be no surprise that the globe’s population now snaps as pictures every two minutes as were taken in all of the 1800s. But has that diminished the public’s ability to distinguish between professional and amateur photography?

That question, along with a study that appears to give a partial answer, was the subject of one session at this year’s South by Southwest conference, held over the past two weeks. “What characteristics make a photograph worth publishing and sharing?” the session’s organizers wrote in a summary of the event. “The implications inform journalists, brand advocates and community activists.”

The study on which the session focused was commissioned earlier this year by the National Press Photographers Association in response to massive layoffs of staff photographers from top publications such as Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Sun-Times. It used interviews and eyetracking data from 52 people and found that consumers could identify whether a photograph was taken by a professional or an amateur with 90% accuracy.

The study’s authors say it’s clear that readers prefer professional, as opposed to user-generated, content.

Using eyetracking gear also allowed the researchers to determine what parts of photographs and captions users looked at the most as they were shown about 200 images. By pairing that data with survey results — participants were asked to rate how much they liked photos on a scale of 1 to 5 — the researchers were able to be more specific about what distinguished high-quality photos from low-quality ones.

People tend to look first at the faces in photographs, and often look back and forth between faces to see how they interact, researchers found. Overall, participants spent much longer looking at professional photographs than user-submitted ones.

The study participants also emphasized the importance of a photo’s ability to tell a story, as opposed to just capturing a static scene.

And, in a finding perhaps surprising to many in the publication industry, the study showed that most captions were indeed read to completion. The longer or “better developed” a caption was, the more likely it was to receive significant attention. Participants tended to look back and forth between the image and the caption in order to establish context as they read.

Sara Quinn, one of the session leaders who also worked on the study, told the blog The Next Web for a March 16 article that she was impressed by how sophisticated the participants’ analyses were, given that they were all laypeople with no background in professional photography.

“People in the study … had a pretty large vocabulary when they were talking about the quality of images,” she said. “They were pretty articulate about what made a good photograph.”

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