Secrets of great focal point composition in photography

It’s easy to get confused between focal point and focus point in photography. Most of the time the focus point of the photo, where the focus is, is also the focal point, which is also referred to as the point of focus. What? No wonder new photographers get confused!

Also, just focusing on the main subject in a photo isn’t enough to create a strong focal point. There are several composition techniques to enhance focal points and make your photo stand out.

If you only use focus to establish the focal point of an image, you’re missing out on including visual clues to make the image more interesting to the viewer.

Before we get into why focal point composition is important and how to enhance focal points in photography, it’s a good idea first to understand what exactly a focal point is.

What is a focal point in photography?

The focal point in a photo is the part of the image that draws and holds the viewer’s attention. This is the subject, or point of interest, or point of focus, as I mentioned. You can have more than one focal point in an image, but there’ll always be a dominant focal point, or principal focus. In other words, the main subject of the photo.

The main subject of a photo can be:

  • One person (or object) in a photo
  • One person (or object) standing out from a group of people (or objects)
  • Or a group of people (or objects), such as a family, that are all in sharp focus

The other visual focal points, if there are any, guide the attention of the viewer to the main point of focus and help tell the story of the photo.

How to use a focal point in photography composition

Why are focal points important?

A focal point is not just a subject, or point of interest, it adds to the photographic composition and can impact a photo in two important ways:

  • Focal points add structure to the image by giving the viewer a place to go
  • Creating a main point of interest can give scale to a photo

Here’s what I mean…

Structure using focal points

You’ve probably guessed by now that focal points give the viewer something to focus on. If a photo has no clear focal point, the viewer’s gaze has no point to rest on, their attention will wander and they’ll move onto the next photo.

The more obvious the focal point is, the easier it is for the viewer to understand the reason for the photo and to be guided to a resting point for the eyes. Once the photo has their attention, they’ll explore it further and appreciate it more before moving on.

To understand the impact of a central point of interest on the viewer’s experience when looking at an image, read about the Gestalt principle of figure to ground in my tutorial on Gestalt theory.

Scale with focal point photography

A focal point can be used to give scale to an image, which adds drama and impact, making it more interesting.

A small person in a vast landscape, shows how big the landscape is and highlights the vulnerability of the person. Because we know roughly how big a person is, when placed next to a giant boulder, for example, it informs the viewer of the size of the boulder.

As focal point composition is so important, it makes sense that, to make great images, you need a strong focal point.

Blur the background to isolate focal point

How do you create a strong focal point in photos?

What makes focal point photography so interesting, is that there are many ways to enhance a main focal point, or create multiple focal points to tell a story.

Our eyes are naturally drawn to:

  • Areas of sharp focus
  • The light areas of a scene
  • Areas of high contrast
  • Identifiable objects that are closest to camera and therefore larger
  • Faces, specifically eyes
  • Humans and animals
  • Warm colors

Now you just need to combine this knowledge with photography composition to emphasize the focal point of your image.


Composition techniques to enhance the focal point

Photography composition techniques to draw the viewer’s attention to the focal point and strengthen the image:

  1. Selective focus
  2. Rule of thirds and Golden ratio
  3. Leading lines
  4. Rule of odds
  5. Contrast
  6. Color

Leading lines direct attention to the focal point

1. Using focus to enhance a focal point

Our eyes are naturally drawn to the sharpest element in a photo, which is why focus is the most obvious technique for emphasizing a focal point.

When using focus, it isn’t just a matter of ensuring that your subject is in focus. You must also decide what you want out of focus. This is known as selective focus, or differential focus.

In portrait photography when you blur the background of an image, you’re using selective focus for a shallow depth of field to separate your subject from the background. Isolating the focal point makes it stand out so that the viewer’s gaze is not drawn to other areas of the image.

The advantage of using selective focus with wide apertures and a long focal length to blur the background and/or foreground is that you can also blur out any distracting elements in the photo.

Focus on the eyes

Because we’re drawn to eyes in an image, whether a person or an animal, it’s important that your subject’s eyes are the sharpest part of the image. Specifically, the eye closest to camera.

And this is exactly why, if there’s a person out of focus in either the background or the foreground of the image, it’s really important that they’re not looking directly at the camera. Even though they’re out of focus, their eyes will still draw our attention.

To make it worse, because they’re out of focus, our eyes will then bounce back to the sharpest part of the image, the focal point. And back again. It’s very unsettling for the viewer.


2. How subject position enhances the focal point

When positioning a focal point in the frame, two photography composition techniques are particularly helpful:

  • Rule of thirds
  • Golden ratio

Our attention naturally goes to a subject placed on the intersection of the dividing lines of the rule of thirds.

In a close up portrait, if the eyes are on the top horizontal line it’s more engaging. In a pulled back shot of the full length portrait, place the subject on either the left or the right vertical line.

Moving subject position in photos

If the subject is moving, they should be on the left vertical of the rule of thirds grid, moving towards the right of the image into the active space. This follows the composition guides that subjects should move from left to right and into space in an image. If they’re up against the edge of the frame it’s unsettling.

Stationary subject position in photos

If a subject isn’t moving, they can be on either vertical, but they should face into the picture. So, if they’re on the right vertical, they should face towards the left of the scene and vice versa if on the left vertical.

In a landscape photo the horizon is best placed at either the top or the bottom horizontal line, not through the center of the image.

Placing focal point on rule of thirds or golden ratio

Like the rule of thirds, using the golden ratio for placing the subject in the frame, places them at a point where the viewer will naturally seek the focal point.

Both techniques allow space within the scene to include other elements that will lead the viewer to the centre of interest and therefore make the focal point stronger.

3. Using leading lines to direct attention to the subject

Our eyes naturally follow lines that lead into and out of a photo, so this is the most obvious way of saying “look here”! Leading lines make it easy for the viewer to know the subject of the image, as they direct the viewer’s eye straight to the subject.

The leading lines don’t have to be actual lines. A line can be implied, like a row of trees.

Leading lines can also be created by line of sight. So if people in the photo are looking at the main subject, the viewer will too. The viewer’s eyes follow the invisible leading line to the subject.

4. How the rule of odds creates a strong focal point

The photography composition rule of odds is a great way to make one subject in a crowd or group portrait stand out, especially if it’s a crowd of even numbers. When confronted with an even number of objects, our eyes dance around between the different objects. Odd numbers, make our eyes rest on the odd number. So splitting a group into smaller odd numbered groups directs the viewer’s attention.

Test how the rule of odds works now…

  • Put four identical pens (or any other object) on a table in two groups of two. Your eye bounces between the two groups looking for differences.
  • Now, on another surface, put another four pens down in two groups, one pen on its own and the other three together. You’ll notice that your eye keeps going to the single pen.

The single pen is very clearly the focal point and gives the eye a resting place.

5. Contrast highlights the subject

Visual weight helps to define the most important part of the scene, the focal point.

If every object in an image is equal in shape, size, texture, brightness and color, they all demand attention equally, so there’s no focal point for the eye to find and rest on.

Let’s use the four pens again to make this point. If one of those pens was larger, or a different shape, color or texture from the rest, it would stand out. It would contrast with the other pens, and it’s this contrast that draws the eye and gives it a resting point. The different looking pen is naturally the focal point, so it must be in focus.

Imagine that your camera is focused on the different pen and it’s closer to camera than the other pens. The pen is:

  • In focus, while the others are blurred
  • Larger, because it’s closer to camera
  • Different in appearance

Now it’s very obviously the focal point and your eye will be irresistibly drawn to it.

Speaking of high contrast in photos, our eyes seek out the lightest part of an image, so most of the time the focal point must also be the brightest part of the image.

Focal point is silhouetted against bright background

Of course there’s always an exception and that is that the contrast of a dark object against a bright background will also draw our attention, which is why silhouette photographs are so captivating.

6. How to use color to strengthen focal point

Because our eyes are drawn to warm colors, in portrait photography a person wearing red, orange or yellow in a largely blue, green or gray scene will instantly grab the viewer’s attention, even if they’re a small part of the scene.

How to use color to draw attention to the primary subject:

  • If you don’t want somebody in the background to stand out and detract from the main focal point, make sure they’re not wearing a warm color.
  • If your background is largely made of warm colors, such as a desert, beach or autumn wood scene, dressing your subject in complementary colors (blue or green) will be visually appealing. However, in this instance, your subject must be more prominent in the scene to get the viewer’s attention.

Line of sight as leading lines in compositionAlthough this is a family photo, because of the little girl’s red cardigan, our eyes are drawn to her first. In this image she’s the main point of focus. The leading lines to her created by her parents looking at her further emphasize her as the focal point.

Multiple focal points in photos

Up until now I’ve talked about just one focal point. It’s possible to have multiple focal points in photos, but you have to be careful not to have too many as the image will become cluttered and your viewer won’t know where to look. Just like when you have no focal point.

I suggest creating one main focal point, with secondary focal points that add to the composition and story of the image.

Rule of odds and line of sight in compositionBecause the rule of odds, we’re first drawn to the youngest child standing apart from her family. She’s locked in a gaze (actually, a battle of wills if I’m honest) with her mother, so our eyes are drawn from the girl to her mother. The father and older daughter are looking straight to camera, so we are drawn to them too. So, in this family grouping, there are multiple focal points demanding our attention, which tells a story in itself.

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