Emphasis in photography composition – 5 essential techniques

​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 aim to compose photos that catch the eye and take 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, color and framing, you’re in for a fascinating surprise!

That’s just the start of photography composition techniques.

how to use space in emphasis photography

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 photographers with 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?

Using emphasis in composition is 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 in photography, 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

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 will you make your subject stand out?

The easiest way to make something stand out in a photo is to place it against something that’s 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’ll certainly do the trick. Leading lines lead the viewer’s eyes straight to the focal point.

However there’s more to lines in photography composition 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

I emphasized the subject by photographing her in front of a row of vertical lines, which contrasts with the curved lines of a human shape

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 of the image with no hesitation.

converging lines to emphasize subject

The converging lines in this covered walkway lead the viewer straight to the subject as I placed her at the point of convergence. It’s one of the reasons why I love photographing at this location.

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 in a photo 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

The model’s red hair draws the eye instantly to the subject in an otherwise monotone image

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…

  • Placing a subject in the foreground so that it’s significantly larger, makes it very clear that it’s the focal point. Our eyes go straight to the dominant subject in the foreground of an image.
  • Because she’s 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 the intersection of the rule of thirds gridlines, where viewers will naturally look, they’re instantly recognizable as the focal point of the image.

There are, however, times though when placing a subject elsewhere in the frame works better, such as at the center. It all depends on what’s in frame, how you use positive space and your artistic intent.

4. How to use texture for emphasis in photography

Humans are curious, so the contrast of rough on smooth texture, or vice versa, draws 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.
  • If your aim is imbalance, then allow the textured surface to dominate, with a smaller 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.

5. Using form and shape for emphasis in photography

The difference between shape and form in photos 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

shape in emphasis photography

Last word on emphasis in photography

You can 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 isn’t confused.

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

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about using emphasis in photography composition, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my composition tips have helped you to understand how to use emphasis in photography, share that too.

3 thoughts on “Emphasis in photography composition – 5 essential techniques”

Leave a Comment