Focal Point Photography: What to Know & How to Nail It
In photography and fine art, the focal point of your image is the main point of interest, the spot that catches your eye. When you look through your camera, the focal point is you asking the question, “What am I taking a picture of?” Defining a clear focal point in your photography will help you tell a story and result in more engaging images. Following these tips and tricks, you will see what makes focal point photography so inviting and how you can master it in your work.
What is focal point photography?
Whenever you look at an image, be it a photograph or a work of art, you inherently want to know why the artist chose to convey this picture. For example, if you are looking at a photograph of a woman, many stories can be told, each depending on the image’s focal point. If you focus on her necklace, hands, hair, the image’s narrative changes. And that is why focal point photography is such a favored medium.
Typically, a strong contrast in the scene conveys an image’s focal point. There are lots of ways to accomplish this, including but not limited to: color, depth of field, composition, framing, and lighting.
- Color: Contrasting colors can set your subject apart from the rest of the image.
- Depth of field: Photographing your subject with a shallow depth of field will eliminate confusing visual clutter and make your subject more pronounced.
- Composition: Positioning your subject closer to the camera, or along the grid lines of the Rule of Thirds, or including other elements in the photo to highlight your subject will tell the viewer what is most important visually.
- Framing: By cropping in on an image, or changing the camera position, we allow our subject to become the focal point.
- Lighting: Similar to color contrast, having a sharp differentiation in lighting in your photograph will immediately draw the eye to your subject.
One of the best ways to use color in your focal point photography is to find extreme contrasts, such as a brightly-colored, artistic mural set against a single-colored wall. Each color itself has a contrast on the color wheel, and incorporating this into your photography will also help define a clearer focal point. For example, purple and green are opposites on the color wheel, so photographing a purple flower against a sea of green grass will immediately draw the eye towards the purple flower.
Depth of field
Shooting at a narrow depth of field will naturally add contrast in your photography between the subject and the background. When we shoot at a higher f stop, which gives us a wider depth of field, we get everything in focus: statues, buildings, sky, and pedestrians in the foreground.
However, when we shoot at a lower f stop, which gives us a more narrow depth of field, then we can control exactly what will be in focus. By removing the rest of the visual clutter, the eye naturally focuses on the subject and creates a more dynamic photo.
Composition in focal point photography
Sometimes an image contains more than one focal point. And in this case, we can use the composition of the elements within the image to tell the viewer where to look. This can be the use of leading lines to guide the viewer’s eye towards the focal point, or arranging objects so that they point to, encircle, or otherwise nod towards the subject. We can also set one object apart from the rest, and let the contrasting space between the subject and the other objects guide the conversation towards the solo object.
Closely related to composition, framing the image is the moment when we look at the image as a whole and decide where to draw the lines. Using framing techniques like the Rule of Thirds will help you craft a compelling image just by placing the subject in the right area of the image. When we use the Rule of Thirds, we divide the image evenly into thirds horizontally and vertically. The spots where the lines intersect are the most visually important to your image, and so placing your subject in one of these areas makes it feel the most meaningful.
Of course, placing your subject directly in the center of the frame will also indicate a clear point of focus, and is great for portraits. If you’re looking to create a more advanced photograph, however, the Rule of Thirds will definitely set you up for greater creative success.
Another easy trick for enhancing your vocal point is to physically move the object closer to your camera, allowing it to appear larger in the image, which also tells the viewer that this is what they should be looking at.
By allowing our subject to be the brightest spot in the frame, we let lighting tell the viewer what is important in the frame. Lighting can be produced and manipulated to your heart’s content in a studio, but we can also use lighting as a tool when photographing on the street.
Look for opportunities such as a patch of evening sunlight breaking through the clouds, or through a window to get the naturally darker frame around the image, and direct our attention towards the couple passing outside the window. Experimenting this way will soon have you noticing interesting imagery all around you.
Finding focal points
Incorporating focal points into your photography is a great way to produce more interesting and engaging content, but you might not know where to start. Let’s take a look at some common subject matters which can easily be incorporated into focal point photography.
Like color and lighting, another great way to bring contrast into your photo is by finding objects in isolation. This can be anything that stands out in a scene, such as a single slice of birthday cake leftover after a child’s messy and exuberant birthday party, or a solitary tree growing in the middle of a cornfield. The contrast between nothing and something immediately gives your subject priority and gives you a strong example of focal point photography.
People and the human element
Incorporating the human form into your photography is a great way to set the tone, and give your viewer something to focus on. When shooting out in a city, we might like the exterior of a building, but find that it looks a bit motionless and uninspired in picture form. If we photograph that same building with a little girl walking past holding a red balloon, suddenly the image has a much more concrete focal point and gives us something to take interest in.
The human element is another way to add a focal point to your image. A pair of sneakers hanging over a telephone line, an old bike forgotten by its owners and slowly being swallowed by vines, or even just footprints on the beach will immediately give your photograph clear direction.
Like an object in isolation, an object out of place with the rest of its surroundings can immediately create a compelling photograph. Take, for example, a scene of smartly dressed business people, walking briskly to work with their briefcases in hand. In the middle of all of this stands a clown—this contrast creates an interesting photograph with a clear focal point.
Never stop practicing!
Incorporating focal points into your photography will give your work a greater sense of purpose and direction. When a viewer looks at a photo, they want to know why the photo was created, and what they should be getting out of the experience of viewing it. We use these elements of composition, lighting, color, and contrast to make the subject as clear as possible. So what are you waiting for? Grab your camera and start practicing focal point photography today!