It can be said that the composition of a photo is the single most important element that can make or break a photo.

Good composition can take your photo to the next level…successfully drawing the viewer in and expressing the emotion you want.

Do your photos have this “next-level” composition?

What elements of composition can make or break a photo?

I believe that focal points/subjects is probably one of the top elements of composition that a photographer needs to understand. In my free video training, I talk about subject(s) and focal point(s). I only touched on the topic and hope to expand upon that now. (If you haven’t yet taken advantage of my FREE video, click on the button below!)

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Basic definitions:

  • Subject: Just as a good character is essential to a story, so is a subject essential to a good photo. Each photo should have its “lead character”, called the subject, around which the image is created. A subject can be a person, an inanimate object, or even a “theme” such as love.
  • Focal Point: Resting spots or anchors where your eye stops. In the case of a photo, a focal point can be a good thing that draws your eye toward your subject or it can be a detraction from your subject (an “eye snag”). Focal points keep your eye from wandering aimlessly through a photo. Without a focal point, your eye has no place to stop. A photo without a focal point can make it seem unfinished. A focal point can BE the subject or just SUPPORT the subject by drawing the viewer’s eye to the subject.

Disclaimer: The following examples are what I have learned concerning subjects and focal points and you may interpret them differently. Use my ideas as a springboard for your own study and experimentation with subjects and focal points.

Take this simple quiz…

look at the following 3 photos and try to identify subjects/focal points as defined above.  Write down your ideas to put into the comments below later.

Sunflower
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Photo #1: Sunflower

Snail
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Photo #2: Snail

Winter Trees
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Photo #3: Winter Trees

How did you do? Remember, your interpretation of these photos may not be my interpretation but here is what I see:

Photo 1:  Sunflower  The orange sunflower is the subject because of it’s nearness to the foreground.  It could be argued that the lighter yellow sunflower is an eye snag because lighter colors catch your eye first but because it is out of focus, I think it is focal point that leads your eye to finally rest on the larger orange sunflower.  (On a side note:  I won Best of Show at the Mercer County North Dakota Fair in 2013 with this photo!!)

Photo 2:  Snail  The snail is the subject, it is clear and in focus and that’s where your eye lands.  I think the board that he is attempting to scale helps as a focal point.

Photo 3:  Winter trees  I don’t think there is any clear subject/focal point in this photo and in fact your eye just doesn’t know where to land!  The colors are beautiful, and that is why I took the photo, but perhaps if I had taken more time to zoom into just one of the trees or look around for a better subject, it would have been more of an “eye-grabbing” photo.

 

Look Through Your Old Photos

Recently, I took a look at some older photos in an attempt to identify subjects and focal points. These were all taken before I had done any study of these elements of composition. I was surprised to discover something…that many of my photos had no real identifiable subjects/focal points. They may have been beautiful, but didn’t enable the viewer to be drawn in or understand any story or emotion. Remember, that is what I am all about…engaging the viewer and telling a story with my photos. Here are some examples:

White building with lightpost and 4th of July painted bench
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Photo #4: White Building

4th of July Painted Bench
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Photo #5: 4th of July Painted Bench

Lily Pond
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Photo #6: Lily Pond

Fern and Leaf
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Photo #7: Fern and Leaf

Photo 4 and 5:  The object that stands out the most in photo 4 is the colorful bench of course, but it is crowded in with too many other things that detract from it.  There really is no story being told here, also because of the busy capture.  The lamppost is an eye snag and the house is too far away to be of any interest.  Perhaps if I had taken a close-up of the bench that would have been better.  Photo 5 is a better composed photo!  In hindsight, I might have even taken this photo from a different, lower angle.

Photo 6:  Again there is no one subject that the eye can land on and it’s not a very interesting photo.  The tall plants in the foreground cover up what could be a subject area in the pond.  Perhaps, I could have moved around and tried to use the tall plants as a frame for the pond!  I would also have to be careful and not fall into the pond!

Photo 7:  Like photo 6, both of which were taken in the Botanical Gardens in Grand Junction, CO, this photo is too busy.  I think I meant for the little flower in the center of the larger leaf to be the subject but it does not stand out enough nor are there any focal points to draw your eye to it.  It’s a rather “blah” photo if I am honest!  Haha!

Strong Subjects and Focal Points

OK…now lets look on the flip-side. Here are some examples of my old photos that I think have strong subjects/focal points:

Banana Tree
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Photo #8: Banana Tree

Green Door in Courtyard
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Photo #9: Green Door

Red beverage wrapped in red napkin
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Photo #10: Red Beverage

Photo 8: The subject is the bananas, of course, they are in good focus (could be better) and they fill a good part of the frame.  The tree trunk is a focal point that leads up to the subject.  I think the point of view from which I took this photo adds some interest as well!

Photo 9:  The green door is my subject here.  The light color caught my eye and then I looked for a good way to “frame” it.  Thus the sand color bricks are a good focal point frame for the doorway that helps draw your eye.  It tells a story for me in that it aroused several questions in my mind about what was behind that door!

Photo 10: I originally took this photo because I was on a hunt for red things and this fit the bill.  The beverage is the subject and I believe the napkin makes a good focal point that “surrounds” the subject and draws your eye.

Would you agree with me? Please comment below on what you see in my photos…I would love to hear your opinion!

Examples of Different Types of Focal Points (FP’s)

Fort Perch Lighthouse B&W
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Photo #11: Fort Perch Lighthouse Mono by Mark Broughton

Frederick County MD Covered Bridge
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Photo #12: Frederick County Covered Bridge

2 horses in barn window
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Photo #13: Two Horses

FP’s that point toward your subject: The large boulder in photo 11 could be an eye snag except for the fact that it actually points toward the lighthouse which is the subject of this photo. Another focal point is the contrasted bright light in the clouds that draw your eye to the lighthouse. In other words, the clouds/light frame the subject and make it a much more powerful photo than if it was a clear sky.

FP’s can be leading lines that move toward your subject: The stone wall in photo 12 is a leading line that leads your eye to the subject which is the Covered Bridge. Do you see an “eye snag(s)” in this photo? What is it?

FP’s can be colors, contrasting light, or a “frame” that surrounds your subject:  The red boards in photo 13 are the focal point that frame the subject of the horses. Red is often a color that will draw the eye and this is a great choice of focal point to draw the eye to the horses. One could also say that the real subject is the love or companionship that the horses are displaying. It is the story behind this photo and would encourage the viewer to think of their own stories surrounding this theme. (Photo credit online here)

Putting These Ideas into Practice:

Let’s say you are out taking photos and your eye is drawn to a particular subject you see before you. You immediately take a photo. This is ok, but don’t stop there. Part of visualizing your photo before you ever snap it, is to stop, take time to put your camera to your eye and move it around framing your subject/focal points differently. Physically move to a different place to get a different Point of View (POV). Get down on the ground, get above your subject, or fill the frame with your subject for instance. Ask yourself some questions:

  • Do you want to eliminate distracting elements in the background
  • Do you want to zoom in to highlight your subject?
  • Are there any “eye snags” that take away from your subject and the story you could tell?
  • Are there some great focal points that could point toward your subject, leading the viewers eyes to the story you are trying to tell?

Whew…that was a lot of content to consume.  If you made it this far, you’re awesome in my book!

Good composition, especially knowing your subject and using focal points well, can make or break a photo! That photo will tell a story and even engage the viewer to think of his/her own stories…and that’s what I call a win!

I encourage you to try the ideas out in the section above entitled: “Putting These Ideas into Practice”.

In addition, here is another exercise you can do to help train your eye to visualize your subject and any focal points that would support it. I found this in Kent duFault’s guide entitled “Advanced Composition“. (Page 12)

Cut-out a piece of cardboard about 8x10″ in size. Then cut-out a 4x6″ opening in the center.  Look at the world around you through the hole, holding the board about 12” in front of you. In this way, your mind will focus in on details and help you begin to “frame” more pleasing compositions, finding your subject and using focal points to support it. This is like looking through the lens of your camera and will train your eye/mind to visualize better.

Please comment on my different photo examples above and share some of your own photos that you compose after reading this post. I’m here to help so ask any questions you need to!

Grandma and baby looking out a window

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