What Makes A Photo Memorable?

Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Waco, Texas by Lewis Wickes Hine (1913) – Library of Congress Flickr collection
Messenger boy working for Mackay Telegraph Company. Waco, Texas by Lewis Wickes Hine (1913) – Library of Congress Flickr collection

The photo that can be considered more memorable or impactful from others is one that leaves an impression on the viewer when looking at it and for some time afterwards. Not every photo is able to leave such an impression on its viewers. There have been several studies done about this very topic at prestigious universities such as MIT. One research project published in an article at MIT called “What makes an image memorable?” by Phillip Isola, Jianxiong Xiao, Antonio Torralba, and Aude Oliva, seeks to answer this question. The research came up with some very interesting findings. 

In the study they had people look at about 10,000 photos and then had the people rate the images on how well they were able to remember them. They tested them by having them look through the photos and then let the researchers know which photos they had already viewed. The photos that appeared to leave the biggest impression and be the most memorable were photos of people, up close static objects, and building interiors. Landscape photos appeared to be the least memorable of all the different types of photos (Peterson, 2013).

Though the subjects’ memorability ratings of each photo varied slightly, overall there was a high consistency in the ratings. After all the ratings were analyzed it was revealed that photos of people were the most memorable along with photos of interior spaces (Trafton, 2011). The big question, why are photos of people and interior spaces are so much more memorable than landscapes, is still quite a mystery. Alexei Efros, associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, not involved with the study, said, “there has been a lot of work in trying to understand what makes an image interesting, or appealing, or what makes people like a particular image. But all of those questions are really hard to answer” (Trafton, 2011). 

Though we may not know why people find certain photos more interesting than others, we are discovering which ones they do find interesting. Knowing this can help a photographers choose subjects that may get more positive and longer lasting responses to their photography. Also, businesses looking to use images in brochures, websites, and other marketing materials can use this knowledge to leave a greater impact on their potential or current clients. 

Series on How to Make Impactful Photos

1. What is considered an impactful or memorable photo?
2. What makes a photo more memorable or impactful than another photo?
3. What are the key elements of a memorable photo?
4. What specific elements of a photo make it so memorable?
5. What is it about those elements that leaves such an impact on people?
6. How can a photographer make more photos that are memorable?
7. How can a photographer capture intensity in a photograph?
8. How do people’s faces affect the memorability of a photograph?


Peterson, D. (2013). How To Take Memorable Photos. Digital Photo Secrets. Retrieved March 28, 2014, from http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/2955/how-to-take-memorable-photos/

Trafton, A. (2011, May 24). MIT News Office. What makes an image memorable?. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2011/memorable-images-0524

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