Over the years, I have discovered the power of flipping images.
So much so that I flip almost all of my images during editing just to investigate the possibilities (although only a rare few stay flipped).
Combined with other editing decisions, flipping can reinforce storytelling. It can help lead the viewer’s eye to important elements in the frame, reinforce or develop themes in an image and create or intensify emotion.
Create a scene that’s more compositionally pleasing
As photographers, we crop and tweak images to be compositionally pleasing. We consider balance and triangles, swirls and curves, lines and dissections to lead the viewer’s eye through the frame.
In some instances, simply flipping an image, or a part of an image, can help compositionally prioritize elements in the photograph to better express the intended story.
I love the energy in this summer image! I want the viewer to get to that joyful expression as quickly as possible. Flipping horizontally creates a more natural leading line from the bottom left corner up the image and into her laughter.
In this image, I want the viewer to circle from the little girl to the trees and back to her but her eye line leading out of the frame competes with that flow. Flipping just her figure creates a more natural flow through the image.
Use composition to support the intended story
With a simple image flip, you can rewrite an image’s plot.
Most visual theory implies that our eye enters the frame from the left, so flipping an image can help influence where the eye is drawn. If elements are moving left to right, the momentum is comfortable and easy. If they are moving right to left, there is tension or struggle introduced into the scene.
This can also be implied with the struggle of a vertical climb versus horizontal movement.
My intention with this image is to focus on the sibling relationship. I flipped the image so the viewer enters the frame from the left, where the bridge lines lead to the pair, to big brother holding onto his little sister’s hand, holding her back from the water.
The viewer’s eye circles from the pair to the bridge and back to the pair. In the left image, all of the lines (the bridge, the shore, the direction they are walking) pull the eye out of the frame and towards the water, away from the sibling interaction.
These webworms were overtaking our neighborhood trees and we were all disgusted by them. One afternoon, I decided to drag out the macro lens and see them in a different light, to try and find the wonder in their form.
The original photograph isolates the worm, but the upward climb creates a struggle that competes with my intended story. Rotating and flipping the image, giving the worm plenty of space to move, creates a more peaceful mood, allowing the viewer to take in the details of the worm without distraction or tension.
Create a surreal or dreamy scene (flipping the world upside down)
My favorite way to use the flip is to present scenes that aren’t possible in real life. I love to take a scene, turn it sideways or upside down and create a dreamlike or surreal story.
These flips can create an image where the viewer isn’t immediately certain what is happening, keeping them in the frame searching for clues. I tend to push the editing in these images to add to the fantasy of the scene.
In this image, I loved how he looked like a torpedo shooting through the water with the sun at his back. Flipping the image gives the image even more speed and almost makes it look like he’s caught in an ocean wave rather than swimming at the local pool.
In this image, I originally shot to have their silhouettes and reflections bathed in the golden light, but the composition wasn’t what I had envisioned. I almost threw this image away, but I flipped it and found an entirely new image, one where the viewer is drawn into a dreamy scene of sunny nostalgia.
Here’s how I edited the above image:
Check your edges for distractions
A final and more practical way to use the power of the flip is to check your edges for distractions. It’s like playing a game of Boggle, where you don’t recognize an obvious word until you turn the board a few times.
Seeing a scene from a different angle reveals edge flicker that you don’t realize is there, allowing you to clean up your frame before returning to its original orientation.
In this image, I originally flipped it because I wanted the eye to enter from the left and lead towards her at the door. But flipping the image made me aware of distractions (the broom in the corner and the wall plaque) that weren’t as obvious in the original frame.
Watch out for words in flipped images – I needed to flip “MY PAL” after flipping this image. Even when I have no intention of keeping an image flipped, I use this trick to check for distractions.
Flip before you click
The most powerful benefit of the flip is considering it while you shoot. I experiment with flipping almost every image I edit, even if I have no intention of keeping it flipped.
Seeing images on a computer screen from a different angle and/or flipping sections of an image helps prepare my eye for future shooting. It’s a training of sorts, a daily practice of seeing how an image would have looked in a different position, bringing awareness to different perspectives while in the moment of clicking the shutter.
Once I see how powerful those changes are on screen, it forces me to move my body and experiment with angles and perspective while my camera is in hand.
I challenge you to do the same as you shoot – consider the power of the flip in an effort to get it right in camera. To shift compositional elements in the frame for balance, think about how you can shift your body left to right or up and down to alter positions of elements in the frame.
If you’re trying to create tension or flow, you can move yourself to the other side of a scene or wait for the action to shift (which often happens with running, swimming or biking).
For surreal or dreamy effects created with vertical flips, you will usually have to do some post processing, but considering the completed frame as you shoot will help you create a more intentional final product.