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What Makes an Image Memorable?

A friend recently sent me a Washington Post Article about a study out where scientists test images for Memorability.

Take a look at these four photographs I took in Africa last spring and rank them according to which photo you believe is most “Memorable”.  As in, “The viewer likely to remember the image 100 seconds after they first saw the image.

Bee Eater, Namibia
Petrified Acacia Tree, Sossusvlei, Namibia
Dunes in Namibia





Girl in Pink, South Africa, Cape of Good Hope
Girl in Pink


Ready for the Results?  I was surprised …


I love all of these photos.  But my favorite image of the entire travels to Africa – the Girl in Pink – ranked the lowest on memorability.  A mere 46.5% of you, the the viewers, will remember this photo for more than 100 seconds.

The most memorable photo of this group is the Flamingo … ranked high as very memorable with 81% memorability beyond 100 seconds.  BeeEater follows with 75% and Dunes of Namibia with 66%, a mediocre medium.

Much of the basis of this study boils down to what graphic designers and professional photographers already know about photo composition and color of an image.  They earn their living choosing the images and designing the graphics that please the eye and successfully sell their wares … they want you to remember their image from the advertisement you saw when you are out shopping for your next pair of shoes.

Where the study falls short, though, is in measuring the intangible.  To me, a memorable image awakens emotions.  Or shows an unrecognized truth.  Or prompts re-living a memory.  Or peaks curiosity and a desire to learn more about a person or a place.

To me, the little girl in her white dress and bright pink coat slowly sauntering barefoot along the boardwalk – lost in her own world and thoughts and framed by the mountains of South Africa’s Southern Cape – evokes my curiosity and stirs my imagination more than a picture-perfect image of a beautifully posed and reflected flamingo.  Because to me, a memorable image is not just about form and focus and color and technical proficiency.  A memorable image has the power to awaken what was once hidden.

Photo Memorability Study:

Understanding and Predicting Image Memorability at a Large Scale
A. Khosla, A. S. Raju, A. Torralba and A. Oliva

Test your images here


Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate lives in Seattle, WA. She is a two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate, a communications specialist and writer, a nature lover and fan of beaches, mountains and big trees in the Pacific Northwest.