Have you ever looked a photograph and your eye was immediately drawn to one part of it? The rest of the photo seems to drift away, relegated to mise en scene. But you don’t mind. The photo is stunning – striking even – and you can’t take your eyes off of it. This sensation happens when a photographer is able to create a strong focal point.
Focal points are crucial in any kind of photography, from landscapes to portraits. Most often defined as, “the thing that makes a photo unique,” a focal point is basically where a photographer directs the eye of the viewer. Photographers use all sorts of techniques to show you their point of view. Here are a few you can try out:
Shallow Depth of Field / Selective Focus
This is one the easiest ways to create a strong focal point. By using a wide aperture, you can choose a narrow slice of your photo to be in focus, leaving the rest blurred and less distracting. Typically, apertures lower than f/4.5 will accomplish this technique pretty well, but even wider apertures of f/1.2 can offer even more opportunities. For instance, in portrait photography, a shallow enough depth of field means you can more easily highly facial features, like the eye. Some great lenses to help you achieve this are the Sony 55mm f/1.8, Nikon AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G, and Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM.
Our eye is naturally drawn to the lighter parts of an image. Using light to literally highlight your subject is a surefire way to put the attention where you want it. While you’re probably thinking about maneuvering lamps right now, don’t forget about ways you can use natural light. Light rays in breaking through a forest. The sun coming up from behind dramatic clouds. Catching the light on a model just the right way. A sunbeam coming in through your coffeeshop window. Using light creatively is a surefire way to tell your viewer what you want them to be looking at.
Leading Lines and Framing
We naturally follow lines. They’re like subtle arrows in photographs that lead us from one end to the other. Thankfully for photographers, lines are everywhere, from trees to buildings to roads. When a photographer uses lines to point you towards a subject, they’re called ‘leading lines’ (for obvious reasons). Leading lines can be as subtle as felled trees in the foreground to a road in a wide landscape shot that leads to a mountainous skyline.
Additionally, photographers can use framing to, well, frame the subject. Think using the hard edges of buildings in the city to frame a sunset or the pillars in a parking garage to frame a car or model. Use the rule of thirds and don’t forget that, for interior shots specifically, the floor and ceiling can be used to great affect when creating an intentional subject.
One of professional photographers’ favorite ways to immediately say, “Hey! This is my subject!” is to use high contrast. Contrast is a powerful tool that, like depth of field, can separate points of interest from each other. Color blocking has been especially popular method lately. Color blocking uses contrasting colors (and often a high saturation) to separate subjects from the background. A vibrant blue against a light wall or brilliant pink against a light grey are immediately striking. Some ideal bodies here are the Sony Alpha a7RII, Canon 5D Mark III, Nikon D750, and Leica Q.