Research and impact | By Amy Ripley

City research: The art of centring the eye in photos: are selfies the new artist portraits?

A new study suggests that it may not just be artists who make eyes the centre-point of their work. We also tend to compose ‘selfies’ that horizontally centre on one eye, particularly the left.

Academics from City, University of London, the University of Parma and the University of Liverpool speculate that this alignment provides a wealth of information about the direction of our gaze and what we are paying attention to. This, in turn, may be used to share important information with the viewer about our mood and what we are thinking.


Previous research suggests that painters apply the same eye-centring principle in their portraits, whether knowingly or not. Other research argues that the eye-centring phenomenon may just be a statistical artefact caused by random processes.


The research analysed over 4,000 Instagram ‘selfie’ photos available from Selfie City with an equal proportion taken in the major cities of New York (US), São Paulo (Brazil), Moscow (Russia), Berlin (Germany) and Bangkok (Thailand).


The study subdivided the images into ‘standard selfies’ taken at arm’s length using a camera-phone or similar digital device and a ‘mirror selfie’ taken of the creator’s reflection through a mirror with the digital device in the shot. This is an important distinction, partly as it is needed to differentiate whether people have a left or right bias toward composing their selfies.


The study did not include photos commonly known as ‘wefies’, ‘usies’ or ‘groupies’ (taken with multiple friends in the shot), those taken next to pets or life-sized dolls or self-portraits taken from unnatural angles and positions (such as with the head cocked at an extreme angle).


For each selfie, the horizontal position of each eye relative to the centre-line of the image was measured, with the distance and direction of the closest eye recorded.

Statistical analyses applied to this information showed that the selfie creators tended to centre one of their eyes slightly to the centre left of the selfie, usually the left eye.


Interestingly, this centring tendency varied less among selfie subjects than expected if the phenomenon happened by chance. The observation was consistent across all the cities sampled in the study.


Furthermore, the slight centring of the eye to the left is consistent with a phenomenon observed in neurologically healthy people known as ‘pseudoneglect’ in which spatial attention tends to be shifted to the left. This is observed when people are asked to indicate the middle of a horizontal line drawn on a sheet of paper. On average, the mark is made slightly to the left.


The finding of the left eye being more commonly centred than the right is also consistent with previous research, suggesting that selfie-takers and artists of self-portraits prefer showing more of their left cheek.


Professor Christopher Tyler, Professor of Optometry and Visual Sciences at City and a collaborator in the study, said:


“The core result of this study was to replicate my earlier finding that painters throughout the centuries tend to centre one eye in portraits. In a modern context, selfie-takers are simultaneously both the artists and the subjects of their portraits.


“This centring tendency opposes the alternative possibility of placing the symmetric face symmetrically in the frame, which would avoid leaving the non-centred eye ‘out in the cold’. These results are important for understanding the perceptual principles in operation as these diverse ‘portraitists’ choose the framing and composition of their pictures.


“The tendency to centre a feature of particular interest in the frame presumably derives from humans having a single focal region of high resolution in the centre of the retina: the fovea. This provides a natural point of attraction for this largely unsuspected tendency in composing the portrait.”