Eyetracking Photojournalism: New research explores what makes a photograph memorable, shareable, and worth publishing

Jan 27, 2015
Two hundred photographs were selected from news publications for the study, including 100 that had been taken by professional photographers and 100 that had been contributed for publication by the general public (commonly referred to in the industry as user-generated content or UGC).
Two hundred photographs were selected from news publications for the study, including 100 that had been taken by professional photographers and 100 that had been contributed for publication by the general public (commonly referred to in the industry as user-generated content or UGC).

Part One in a four-part weekly series. Read part two here and part three here.

By Sara Quinn

ATHENS, GA (January 27, 2015) – What makes a photograph worth publishing in an age when images are shared in an instant, around the world? 

I asked 52 people that question last May at the University of Minnesota.

Quality matters, they said. 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. 

These details from extensive interviews in a project funded by the National Press Photographers Association begin to help us understand what people value in journalistic photography. 

Can people differentiate between professional and amateur photographs? Yes, quite definitely. Study participants were able to tell whether a photograph was made by a professional or an amateur 90 percent of the time. 

The study included 100 photographs made by professional journalists and 100 photographs submitted by members of the general public and published by various news organizations (commonly called user-generated content or UGC). The photographs were arranged in a random order with their original, published captions.

The eye movements of study participants were tracked with a device that allowed us to record and analyze complex and statistically significant findings: what people were drawn to in a photograph, how long they looked, if they read captions, and more. Participants had the opportunity to view as many as 200 photographs and captions. Nearly 20,000 eye movements were annotated and studied.

Combining eyetrack research with a survey in which people rated the quality of the photographs on a scale of 1 to 5 created powerful data. Subjects also rated their likelihood of sharing each image. They told us which of the images were most memorable, and why; where and how they usually encounter photography and what characteristics make a photograph worth sharing and publishing.

Other headlines from the research: 

— Professional photographs were twice as likely as user-generated photographs to be shared, according to ratings given by people in the study.

“Bad quality kind of crushes the credibility of a photo,” said a 20-year old female participant in the study, “I would be more likely to share something that looked nice, than something that looked like just anyone took it.”

— More time was spent, on average, with professionally generated photographs than with user-generated images.

— Professional photojournalists took each of the 25 photographs rated highest from the collection of 200.

— The 20 most memorable photographs were also taken by professionals. Each was cited by at least four of the test subjects. One close exception was a user-generated photograph of a bulldog in a hoodie, cited by three people.

— People look first at faces. (This echoes other eyetracking studies I have directed for The Poynter Institute for Media Studies.) And they are interested in the relationships between people in the frame, often looking back and forth, between faces and interactions.

“It’s the people’s faces and their reactions,” said a 57-year-old female test subject. “For me, the sympathy on their faces draw me in closer, if I can see them really happy, or hurting or really excited, it draws me in to the photo.”

— “Special access” to a scene or event was cited frequently when test subjects referred to what made a photograph worth publishing.

“Not everyone can be front and center and see the actual reaction on people’s faces,” said a 20-year-old female student who participated in the study. “I appreciate getting to see things that people don’t usually get to see up close and personal.”

— 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. 

Note: A survey of captions collected for the study over a three-month period clearly shows that user-generated captions are generally under developed.

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

“You can tell which ones are done by people who know what they are doing,” said a 21-year-old male participant, “whether it’s the focus, or the angle or the lighting, being allowed to be up close—all that stuff.”

— The importance of “storytelling” to photography was mentioned by nearly every subject in the exit interviews.

 “A photo needs to tell me a story, versus just capturing a scene,” said a 44-year-old female participant.

“If (a photo) draws you in, it’s connected to a story and it makes you want to learn more, that’s important,” said a 41-year-old male participant.

— Without prompt from the researchers, a number of subjects said they had noticed recent moves in the news media to incorporate user-generated content.

“I think if I was running a newspaper, it would be important for me to have photographs that were quality, as opposed to photos that are just like, ‘Yeah, everyone just kind of send stuff in,’ ” said a 21-year-old male student. 

NPPA President Mark Dolan emphasized that in commissioning the study, NPPA had no assurance that the results would be favorable to the photojournalism profession. 

"NPPA honestly did not know what to expect," said Dolan. "We obviously were hopeful that research participants would have positive impressions, and were gratified to learn that those who were interviewed appreciated the value that high-quality images contribute to news publications and the publications' readers."


Want to learn more? Watch for more details about this research in the coming weeks on this site, and read here some details about the research so far.

Next week: How people describe quality photography.

Coming Soon:

* You’ll have a chance to look through the 200 photographs to see what photographs were viewed by participants in the test.

* Memorable and sharable: See and hear the comments of test subjects taking about the photographs that stayed with them.



Funded by the National Press Photographers Association, this study follows a long line of research, looking at how people consume news content. Other studies developed by this research team include Poynter’s Eyetracking the News, a comparison of print and online news reading habits (2007) and Poynter EyeTrack: Tablet News Experiences (2012).

This project began when then-NPPA president Mike Borland called early in 2014 to ask what eyetracking had shown about photographs in previous research. There were a few, specific findings, which still hold:

- Documentary photos get more attention than static or posed photographs.

- Faces attract a lot of attention — often they are where eyes go first.

- Mug shots get only a fleeting glance — purely informational, unless there is strong, supporting information in the presentation.

 We realized the need to analyze photojournalism in much greater detail, particularly with the changing dynamic of digital and social media.

So that we might look for clear differences in the study, we recruited people in two distinct age sets: 18-30 year olds (a group we have been calling “digital natives” because they are among the first adults who don’t have strong recollection of life before digital) and 45-60 year olds, or “printnets,” referring to those who have one foot in the print world and one foot in the “’Net” world.

NPPA has offered to present specific results and testing methodology with news organizations and universities to help make sense of digital sharing and determine the best forms for storytelling.

NPPA this month moved into the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia in Athens, their new partner in visual journalism education and leadership.