A green python (Morelia viridis) photographed in Iron Range National Park, Queensland (Photo by Stephen Zozaya, used with permission)

I love this simple shot, submitted by herpetological photographer Stephen Zozaya.

In fact, I like the photo so much I'll use it to illustrate a general point about photographic composition. Stephen took several pictures, including this one:

Green Python (Morelia viridis)

Of the series, it is the top photo that grabs our attention, even though the others are properly exposed and focused. Why?

Consider a distillation of both images into simple silhouettes:

Images work most effectively when the subject's basic shape stands out. The first silhouette is clearly visible as a coiled snake, but the second is buried amid background clutter. We see with our brains as much as we see with our eyes, and our brains work harder to make sense of the second image, diminishing its relative impact.

This silhouette rule is a principle long recognized by graphic artists:

When we view objects, especially moving objects, our brains tend to break them down not into a collection of varying hues, but rather silhouettes. Quick object identification is a primal evolutionary necessity, and it’s a foundational way our visual interpretation works.

When an object’s silhouette is difficult to make out, we have a tough time keeping track of what we’re seeing. It’s why so many comics and drawings use the visual shorthand out outlining figures and objects. The shades and values of an object are secondary to the basic shape when it comes to recognition. As such, effectively managing silhouettes is a vital tool for visual narratives.

-Aaron Diaz, author of "Dresden Codak"

Photographers are obviously constrained by the reality of the scene in front of the lens. As Stephen's lovely green python demonstrates, however, they do best when respecting the silhouette rule.

[If you'd like to submit a reader photo for Compound Eye, leave a link in the comments below]