A common question I’m asked by new photographers is “How can I improve my composition to make my photos more interesting?”
You’ve probably even asked this question once or twice – even if only to yourself.
The problem with this question is that it is not an easy one to answer.
There are a lot of ways to improve the composition of your photos, but one of the most direct ways of answering this question is by discussing the concept of a focal point.
What this means is that for a photograph to be interesting, the person viewing this image must have a clear vision of why the photograph was taken – what was its purpose – and having a focal point accomplishes that.
Without purpose, the viewer won’t know where to look, or even why you took the photograph at all.
So with that in mind, let’s talk about focal points.
What is a focal point?
Before you can learn how to create photographs with focal points you must have a basic understanding of what they are, and more importantly, what exactly it is that they do in an image, that help to make it more interesting.
In general, a focal point is the subject of your photograph.
However, it’s not just being the subject of your photograph that makes it a focal point, but how you capture that subject within the frame.
Therefore, boring subjects will often lead to boring focal points, and boring focal points will make interesting subjects boring. That is to say that boring subjects have trouble being improved, even by the most interesting composition, while boring composition will hurt even the most interesting of subjects.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples:
In this first example above you see two photographs taken of butterflies, perched on flowers.
The first image was taken a bit further away, has a more distracting background, and a weaker composition when compared to the second image.
The subject matter of both images may be essentially the same, but the focal points are quite different in how they capture the viewer’s attention.
Often, simplification of a scene through the use of composition tools and depth of field, can be have more impact on the focal point than the subject itself.
Here’s one more example to drive home this point of simplification.
In this first photograph you’ll notice a vast scene, shot with a wide angle lens.
This is a photograph that tries to capture the entire cascade, river, and background scenery.
The second photograph was taken with a telephoto lens, and simplifies the same scene down to one of the more interesting falls.
Take a close look at that wide angle shot . Can you find the same scene captured with the telephoto? Big difference right?
By focusing on simplification, and defining the focal point of the scene, you are able to point the viewer toward exactly what captured your attention, and by guiding your viewer in this way they won’t have to guess why you took the photograph.
How do you find focal points within your scene?
As mentioned earlier, it’s up to you as the photographer to decide what the focal point of your photograph is going to be, and to be honest, it can be just about anything.
So how do you determine what that anything is when you’re taking photographs?
A few simple ideas that can help you add more interesting subject matter (and ultimately focal points) to your photographs include:
- A human element
- Unique features
- Isolated objects
- Grand vistas
Let’s break these down a little further and explain how these ideas can create focal points within your photography.
The viewers of your photographs are of course people themselves, and as a result, having a person as the focal point of your image is a strong way to connect your viewer to the scene. In the photograph above the person adds a bit of extra interest to the wall behind her.
While adding people is one way to add a human element, this goes further than directly adding people to a photograph.
Adding a rusted bicycle, a discarded doll, sneakers, or even footprints in the sand on a beach, helps connect your viewer with something human.
By doing this you are able to associate your photograph to their experiences, which will help to add interest to the image they’re viewing.
In general, people are habitual in how they live their lives. This means that they see a lot of the same things, do a lot of the same things, and as a result don’t experience the unique or extraordinary often.
If you find something that’s slightly different than the normal, odds are it would make for a good photograph.
Finding unique things can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be impossible.
Think about using different perspectives, or odd scenery, that you could use to bolster the effect of the uniqueness.
Isolation can be a powerful tool for drawing attention, this can be anything that stands out in a scene.
You could combine this concept with the human element idea by finding an isolated man-made object, or you could work with nature and look for isolation there.
In this photograph of a loan seagull at sunrise, there’s a nice balance between the bird in the foreground, the sunrise in the background, and the birds flying over the ocean in the mid-ground. This is an example of visual mass, or visual weight in your photo.
All of these elements complete the photograph.
One of the best ways to photograph grand visits is by using the things mentioned above as supporting elements, within the vista itself.
While the scene might be beautiful, even awe-inspiring in person, often times without scale, those feelings are difficult to translate into a photograph.
Consider the photograph above taken from the summit of Mt Osceola in the New Hampshire White Mountains.
Without the hikers and dogs in the foreground, would it have the same impact?
The Importance Composition Plays in Focal Points
Now that you understand why having a strong focal point is important, and what sort of subject matter might lead to a focal point.
Connecting the viewer to the focal point
The final piece to creating a more interesting photograph is learning how to connect your viewer to that focal point.
As you might be able to guess from how this article as been presented, this comes down to one major tool that photographers have in their pocket: composition.
To create an interesting photograph you need more than just an interesting subject.
You need to compose the image in such a way that this focal point is brought to life.
Some common tools photographers use for composition include the following concepts:
- Rule of thirds
- Leading lines
- Golden ratio
The art of creating interesting photographs is learning how to both choose what you should include, and what you should leave out of the frame you capture.
This concept revolves almost entirely around composition – it’s how you build the photograph you’re taking, by positioning your camera before the shot.
Ultimately, to create a photograph that grabs attention you’ll need a focal point in that image, without it, what’s the point of your photograph?
John Davenport is what you might call an enthusiastic amateur photographer.
He has created a photography community called PhoGro designed to help photographers explore and grow their photography skills.