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The Importance of Focal Points in Photographic Composition

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Defined in the fine arts as a point of interest that makes an art work unique, in the realm of optics the term “focal point” also refers to the site where parallel rays of light meet after passing through a convex lens, or diverging from a concave mirror. In its broadest sense, a focal point in a photograph is synonymous with a photographer’s point of view. After all, what interest is there in an image without an author standing behind it?

Focal points have a tremendous effect on the reading and appreciation of any given image, so let’s dive in and examine how they work.

Placement in the Frame

As the photographer, you control the placement of focal point(s) in your image, and you also have the power to arrange them in the frame to assist or hinder easy viewing and interpretation. Let’s say you are seeking to create an easy-to-read picture, rather than framing your shot as a game of devil’s advocate.

Fun and games with focal points and poolside reflections explore the various options for placement of elements in the frame, as well as the limits of a focal point as a solid object.

The most basic—read predictable—solution is to place the point of interest in the middle of the frame. While this may be effective for driving home a message or capturing a hard-to-get subject, there’s much more to explore when making images than simply framing up your subject like a target. In fact, for maximum impact, a long-established compositional guideline recommends placing the center of interest along the grid lines and intersection points associated with the Rule of Thirds. This is a compositional guideline in its own right, which you can read more about in the explora article, Framing Up the Rule of Thirds.

Sharpness, Focus, and Depth of Field

Since a photograph’s focal point (or points) is one of the primary elements to draw a viewer’s interest, there is a lot riding on how it appears in relation to other elements in the frame. Technically speaking, treatment of the focal point—as well as the image as a whole—is greatly dependent on the concept you’re seeking to convey.

Which image is most appealing, the rosebud in soft light or the pebbled ground with dead twigs and leaves? Your answer likely reinforces the importance of the focal point of a photograph.

As noted above, unless you are seeking to disrupt or confuse the viewer, common sense dictates that the focal point of an image is rendered in sharp focus. The unfortunate example of a photograph where maximum sharpness falls behind or in front of an out-of-focus focal point sheds new light on the classic Ansel Adams saying, “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.” As far as this author is concerned, a well-exposed image with an unintentionally fuzzy focal point is the bigger offender of the two.

Since we’ve established a sharp focal point, let’s further contextualize this by exploring depth of field. Given sufficient light, the flexible scale of a lens aperture can greatly influence how a focal point is perceived in a scene. Applying limited depth of field to a sharp focal point in an image serves to highlight or emphasize your point of interest. At the other extreme, if the sharpness of your focal point remains consistent from the foreground to the distant horizon, this will tend to make the focal point less noticeable.

Pansies in sharp focus draw the viewer into the limited depth of field in the left-hand image, while the blurry pansy in the foreground competes with the focal point of the sharply defined pansy at right, adding visual tension.

This is merely a taste of how sharpness, focus, and depth of field can influence photographic composition. For more on this subject, read the explora article, How Focus Works.

Color, Lighting, and Contrast

In a manner similar to the way sharpness, focus, and depth of field function in an image, shifting levels of color, lighting, and contrast can also affect how a focal point is perceived and interpreted.

The bright neon pedestrian crossing sign serves as a clear focal point amid the desert landscape at left, while the earth-colored bricks and other objects in the scene at right are less readily distinguished as focal points, due to the limited color palette, overall.

A focal point that is brightly colored (or deeply toned in the case of a monochrome) will be very apparent in an image with an otherwise muted color cast or tonality. Yet, if it shares the same relative values as the rest of the frame, this point of interest could be hard to discern—bringing to mind the challenges of a “Where’s Waldo?” puzzle.

While one’s camera settings are the primary means to alter an image’s sharpness, focus, and depth of field, changes to lighting and contrast are often more easily achieved by physically moving the camera to an angle of view that presents these variable conditions at their best. In other words, unless you really want your focal point to be overwhelmed by contrast and flare, seek out angles that avoid shooting straight into the sun.

Aiming the camera toward the sun heightens the dissonant mood of the vertiginous pathway at left. In the landscape at right, shot near the top of the pathway, the camera points away from the sun, yielding a greater level of detail and more pleasing contrast levels.

And, by all means, don’t limit your compositional options to simply zooming your lens—change your angle of view by moving yourself. In addition to moving the camera along a horizontal axis, try getting down low or shooting the scene from above. As you move, take your time in observing how the lighting and contrast levels change, until you settle on a vantage point that highlights the focal point(s) to best suit your vision.

Balance and Juxtaposition of Multiple Focal Points

The extended depth of field of this desert landscape allows the desert bloom’s yellow flowers to play off the green desert shrubs in the middle distance as primary and secondary focal points. With limited depth of field, this same image would have a much different effect on the viewer.

There are no rules about an image being limited to a single focal point, and there are countless photographs containing two or more significant points of interest to prove it. When composing multiple focal points in a scene, one effective strategy is to organize the elements by establishing a primary focal point, and then juxtaposing this with a secondary or even tertiary element, and so on. Think about it as a way to attract the viewer’s eye and then direct the eye through the scene.

Unless you are trying to make a strong statement about balance or symmetry, presenting two (or more) focal points of equal weight in an image is likely to make the viewer’s attention repeatedly toggle between the competing elements. Making a slight adjustment to emphasize the primary focal point’s size or visual weight (which can be achieved with color or tonality) will help direct the viewer’s attention to the focal point with the most emphasis first, before moving his or her attention to other elements. If you want to learn more about how balance and symmetry affect photographic composition, check out the explora article, Understanding Balance and Symmetry in Photographic Composition.

The Punctum as a Subjective Focal Point

The rich color and detail of this scene immediately drew my eye, and immersed me in exploring a number of vantage points. In the detail shot on the right, the focal point may be on the thick wooden pole, but the white light emerging from behind the other pole is what pricks my consciousness as the punctum.

The selection and framing of focal points is a very subjective practice, which is guided by the photographer’s vision, but also influenced by the viewer’s response.

A viewer’s perspective adds a curious wrinkle to this discussion. This is a topic that was masterfully expressed in the book, Camera Lucida, by French philosopher Roland Barthes. Using a wide variety of photographs as examples, Barthes identified specific points of interest that evoked in him a highly personal response. He used the name Punctum (derived from Latin, meaning to prick) to describe this detail (which is often overlooked by the photographer) and its effect (which can vary widely from one viewer to the next).

While Barthes never specifically related a punctum to a focal point, it is worth noting here as a means to encourage image makers to be mindful of a viewer’s interpretation when composing an image, and in making the technical and artistic decisions that will allow you to effectively communicate your vision of the world with others.

Anyone seeking to learn more about the punctum, and Barthes’ book, Camera Lucida, might enjoy reading Cory Rice’s Explora article, 4 Ideas from the Photographic Writings of Roland Barthes.

An Oasis for the Eye

While this image displays a marked symmetry between left and right sides, its focal point clearly rests within the pyramidal structure of the two opposing pillows atop the poolside lounger.

So, where does this leave us regarding the importance of focal points to photographic composition?

While the selection of a focal point is triggered within the photographer’s mind and fixed by the action of composing a picture, its importance is invariably tied to a viewer’s response. As Barthes’ example of the punctum makes clear, when successful, such points of interest generate a heightened capacity to draw the viewer’s eye and hold his or her interest. Whether the subject matter and other elements in the frame are harmonious or dissonant, the effect is the same. To put it metaphorically, if you will—consider the focal points of your pictures as an oasis for the eye, and the seeds for your point of view.

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