Inside the psychology of what makes particular images popular


Credit: Getty

Getty's Rebecca Swift has spent the last year discovering the subconscious thinking behind our image choices. Here she discusses her findings and what pictures to choose in 2019 that'll resonate with a global audience (besides eggs).

If anyone knows what sorts of visuals we naturally gravitate to as consumers, it’s the stock image giants. While these days you’d be forgiven for thinking stock photography to be fodder for the internet meme machine, it’s nonetheless a lucrative corner of the visual industry, supplying as it does marketers, news outlets, designers and more with images of people, places and graphics.

Stock agencies like Getty and its subsidiary iStock therefore are a good place to go to see what sort of images people are spending their cold hard cash on. Even with that though there’s still a bigger story to tell, especially with this week's news that a picture of an egg has become the most most popular image on Instagram, inspiring tweets like the one below from Julian Glander. What images out of all the millions online are popular on a universal basis around the world  - and what explains their rampant popularity?


Getting stuck into the science behind stock photography is Getty director of creative insights Rebecca Swift, who I meet a cafe that resides at the quiet nexus between fancy Fitzrovia and the chaos of Oxford Street. We’re there to discuss a year-long psychometric survey carried out for Getty on visual tastes and why we are attracted to certain images, with a total of 82,000 subjects across 182 countries helping her to look into this pictorial grey area.

“Our clients were asking us how do you measure whether an image is successful, or how can you predict whether an image is going to be successful in a marketing campaign?” Rebecca tells me. These are two very valid questions in the stock field, especially for an agency like Getty which has some pretty considerable clients.


One of the images used in the survey (Credit: Getty)

“We kind of know in what people search for and click on,” she continues, “so we know what they interact with and we know what they obviously spend money on.

"But we wanted to test the consumers i.e. normal people versus professional image buyers. Is there something when you become a professional image buyer that you look at imagery in a different way than if, say, you’re just looking at images for fun, or as a part of your day to day?”

As both sorts of consumers make use of the Getty site, it made sense for Rebecca and team to break down that data; while they knew what people were liking and buying online, they needed to know what drove each type of user to lean towards those certain images. For example, Customer A might simply like the image for themselves, while Custom B might want the image for a campaign as they think it’ll catch the eye of someone else  -  their very own customer, if you will.

Rebecca began the research process in 2018, working with a virtual quiz product called Visual DNA that was subsumed into data giant Nielsen over the course of the one-year study (and which fortunately managed to run before the data-geddon that was GDPR). 

“Luckily we were with the right company,” Rebecca explains, “so we didn’t take any personal information. 

“The only info we asked people for was if they were male, female, or identified as non-binary, what age group they were in, and whether they licensed images professionally and spent a lot of time looking at images - or whether they weren’t that bothered about images at all.”


Credit: Getty

The 50 questions participants were faced with on the survey appeared on the surface to be innocuous, asking them to rank images they found the most creative, marking depictions of situations they found stressful, and which man and woman on they found most relatable, to give a few examples.

“At no point did we say this was for stock photography,” Rebecca tells me. “It was just about how do you identify as a visual person.

"At the end of the quiz, you were given your visual personality; you found out whether you liked images that look very different, whether you like images about adventure etc. You were given a whole profile as to the type of person you are.”

Stock opinions

Revealed for users then was the type of visual person you are; for Rebecca there was the revelation that the most relatable man for both men and women around the world looks like… well, a bit like myself, according to her description.

“Blue-shirted,” she reveals. “Bit of stubble, but not full beard. Hair styled but not loads of product.”

The result was especially surprising as the survey put together a wide range of ethnicities and styles of masculinity for responders to react to. 

“And yet this very approachable friendly looking man,” Rebecca continues, “who actually is a Londoner, was chosen in Asia, Africa, in the US, UK and across Europe. Men and women had very, very similar tastes, which I thought was very interesting.”

Things weren’t so straight cut though when it came to images of women.


Credit: Getty

“‘There you see more the gender divides,” says Rebecca.

“Women tend to relate more to pictures of women where they’re kind of carefree and playful, whereas men tended to go for women that look more professional, attractive and 'friendly looking' as well.”

The universality returned though in other areas of the survey, with the following findings showing preference is something unhindered by barrier, race or language:

  • Young, female medical practitioners were seen as the most trustworthy individuals from a varied line-up of workers and everyday people.
  • An image of a solo kayaker in America was deemed most 'aspirational', various demographics agreeing this was the situation they found most inviting visually.
  • A beautifully shot photo of a plate with a salt and pepper pot was crowned to be the highest 'quality' image by respondents around the world.

Taking the last result into regard, what exactly constitutes quality for Rebecca remains an open question, she admits.

“We left it very broad as we talk in the industry a lot about quality photography, but what is that definition of quality? Is it a beautiful moment between a couple that’s posed on a mobile phone - or is it a huge production with loads of models and lighting?”

“There were very specific questions testing assumptions that we had about whether very ‘stocky’ images would be chosen,” she adds, “or whether there were certain types of images that would be seen as more creative than others, or whether image quality was identified in a certain way. 

“We really wanted to see how high production values are identified.”


Credit: Getty

Palettes & personalities

With a crossover in answers between professional image buyers and more everyday users, Rebecca and team have got to drilling down the research results by personality and demographic, something which might prove interesting for anyone deciding on what colours to choose for a brand campaign.

“All age groups actually like a certain sort of image for example, which has white light, is very clean, with lots of passive colours and ‘beautiful’ people," she tells me. "And when we go right down the other end of the scale and you start looking at people who are highly 'open' in their personalities, then you’ve got selections of bright vivid colours.

"You also have interesting people with tattoos and long hair; older women who dress in a very eccentric way, that sort of thing.”


Credit: Getty

“Even certain colour palettes work with certain personalities so that’s the bit that we’re now digging into a bit more,” she reveals.

The survey then is still an ongoing concern for Getty, with analysis of the results to be released in the months ahead. From what we know now  -  and from Rebecca’s well-versed expertise in the visual  -  what should creatives then be expecting in the year ahead, and what will the data mean for the stock business of Getty itself?

“It’s a conundrum that we have as we’re all attracted to very similar stuff, so where do we go with our photography?

"The most important thing, and this is obviously very important for us, is that quality imagery is recognisable and it’s globally recognisable,” Rebecca believes.


Credit: Getty

“Photographic skills still do have a price. We work with a lot of customers who are trying to take the mobile aesthetic from social media and take a user generated look into their imagery. But that’s not necessarily always relevant. Sometimes good quality imagery actually has its place.”

That ‘mobile aesthetic’ of social media is made up of a landscape of selfies; as Rebecca puts it, now that we’re all taking photographs of ourselves, “so the diversity of people has expanded exponentially.”

“If we’re looking at that expansion of humankind, then the homogenous type of person you see in advertising is not going to work. Nobody’s going to be able to relate to that anymore."

Rebecca believes then that the writing's on the wall then for homogeneity in stock imagery - even if ironically our tastes are not so wildly different after all.

Read next:  2019's Visual Trends according to Getty/iStock, Adobe and Shutterstock

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