Emphasis in photography composition – 5 essential techniques

how to use space in emphasis photography

​Good writers piece together an intriguing tale that keeps you turning the pages. Film directors bring a script to life so that you can’t take your eyes off the screen. It’s the same with photography. Photographers need to compose an image that catches your eye and takes you straight to the focal point. To do this you must understand the principle of emphasis in photography composition.

So, if you thought that photography composition was just about the rule of thirds, leading lines and a bit about color and framing, you’re in for a fascinating surprise! That’s just the start of photography composition.

Learning how to construct an image creatively, cohesively and with intent is the end goal of all those techniques (aka rules), and how you combine them. But not just by mashing composition techniques together. The principles of photography composition guide how to use the rules.

emphasis with light subject on dark background

What is emphasis in photography?

Emphasis is one of the principles of art and design, which of course also includes photography. A principle sounds complicated, but actually it’s just a framework for composing an image.

So, in photography composition we use principles of design to help us create a cohesive image, which:

  • Tells a story
  • Draws in the viewer
  • Holds attention
  • Looks good

Why use emphasis in photography?

It’s about photographing on purpose. What I mean by this is that when you raise your camera to take a photo, you must first put some thought into what you’re photographing. When using emphasis, the reason for the image must be the dominant element in the photo and the eye should go straight to it.

In portrait photography it’s easy to know – you’re taking a photo of a person. So you must make that person stand out in the image. However, you might want to emphasize just part of the person.

It all depends on what you’re trying to say with your image.

framing to emphasize subject

How is emphasis used in photography?

To use any of the principles of design in photography, you must first learn about the elements of photography composition, aka the rules. These rules of composition are the tools, the building blocks, of principles and they include:

  • Line
  • Color
  • Space
  • Texture
  • Form / Shape

Further reading: 19 photography composition rules you need to know to be awesome

The principle of emphasis in photography composition is used to draw in the viewer by accentuating the focal point of the image to make it stand out.

So when surveying a scene, or planning a shot, ask yourself – how you’re going to make your subject stand out?

The easiest way to make something stand out is to put it against something that is the opposite of it. For example a:

  • Colorful subject against a dull background
  • Bright subject against a dark background, or vice versa
  • Subject with curved lines against a background of straight lines

Now let’s take a closer look at five elements of photography composition that can be used to create emphasis in photos.

1. How to use line for emphasis in photography

The most obvious thought when using line for emphasis in photography is to use leading lines and this will certainly do the trick. Leading lines lead the viewer’s eyes straight to the focal point.

However there’s more to lines than just leading lines. Getting back to the point above about using contrast, a person placed in a scene against straight lines will stand out, because people are made of curved lines.

emphasis from curved lines against straight lines

Converging lines are another highly effective way to use lines for emphasis. The converging lines draw the eye into the image, to the point at which the lines converge.

So, placing a subject at the point of convergence takes your viewer straight to the focal point with no hesitation.

converging lines to emphasize subject

Further reading: 7 types of lines in photography composition and how to use them

2. How to use color for photography emphasis

Using complementary colors in composition is a sure fire way to get a viewer’s attention. Plus, warm colors carry greater visual weight than cool colors. So, when you place a warm color against a cool color, our eyes go straight to the warm color.

complementary colors in emphasis composition
A pop of color in the absence of much color variety is another way to draw in the viewer using emphasis in photography. Likewise the contrasting use of light and dark colors are eye catching for emphasis by contrast.

color splash for emphasis

Further reading: Color in photography – the ultimate guide

3. How to use space for emphasis photography

The main image at the top of this tutorial is a great example of using space for emphasis for two reasons…

  • When you place a subject in the foreground and make it significantly larger, it’s very clear that it is the focal point. Our eyes will go straight to the dominant subject in the foreground of an image.
  • Because she is the only subject in the image (with just out of focus sky and clouds behind her), she instantly gets the viewer’s attention. There’s nothing to distract the viewer, so the emphasis is purely on the focal point.

Where you place your subject in the frame is also important. This is why the rule of thirds is so popular and one of the first rules of photography composition that we learn. We’re naturally drawn to the four invisible points on the rule of thirds grid.

So when you place a subject at these points, where viewers will naturally look, it’s instantly recognizable as the focal point of the image.

There are times though when placing a subject elsewhere in the frame will work better, such as the center. It all depends on what is in frame and your artistic intent.

Further reading: Using positive space in photography composition

4. How to use texture for emphasis in photography

Humans are curious, so the contrast of rough on smooth texture, or vice versa, will draw the eye purely, because of the difference.

When using texture for emphasis, bear in mind that a textured surface carries more visual weight than a smooth surface. To balance out these areas, make the textured area a smaller part of the photo than the smooth area.

depth of field makes the subject stand out

Here the rough texture of the rock wall in the background contrasts with the model’s smooth skin and shiny hair. The shallow depth of field further serves to create emphasis on the model as our eyes are drawn to in focus objects and it also separates her from the background.

If your aim is imbalance, then by all means, allow the textured surface to dominate, with a smaller smooth area.

Further reading: How texture in photography composition adds interest

5. Using form and shape for emphasis in photography

The difference between shape and form is simply light. When you light a subject it appears more three dimensional, because of the contrast of light and shade on the subject. Without shading a subject is purely two dimensional in appearance, and is therefore a shape.

Silhouettes are a great example of using shape in photography. The reason silhouettes are so engaging is because we don’t normally see objects like this – our eyes can take in a far greater dynamic range than our cameras.

Aside from the novelty factor of a silhouette, the contrast of a very dark shape against a brighter background draws in the eye.

For even greater emphasis:

  • Place your subject in front of the brightest part of the image
  • Add some interesting lines with the shape of the silhouette to really make it stand out

Further reading: Using shape in photography composition

shape in emphasis photography

Last word on emphasis in photography

It’s possible to have more than one dominant area in a photo. However, to make the image enjoyable to view, one of the areas should be more dominant than the other so that the viewer is not confused.

With careful composition the journey back and forth between the dominant areas could be very engaging.

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Jane Allan

Jane is the founder of The Lens Lounge and a professional portrait photographer living on the “sunny” south coast of England. Obsessed with light and composition. Will put her camera down to go landsailing.

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