Focal Point in Photography: A Complete Guide (with Examples)

(Last updated on June 21st, 2022)

We all look at hundreds or thousands of images a day. But can you think back to a time when you stopped scrolling and spent five to ten minutes looking at an image?

Chances are this image had a strong focal point. The composition utilized many tools to direct your eye there.

As a photographer, this should be your number one goal. You want your images to draw in the viewer’s eye. In reality, this is often harder than it seems. With practice you can create stunning images with strong focal points.

In this article, I will discuss the idea of the focal point in photography. We will review the photographic tools used to emphasize a strong focal point. What exactly it is and how to use it to compose well-thought-out images.

What Is Focal Point in Photography?

The focal point in the barest sense is the subject. The part of the image you want the viewer to notice immediately. Ideally, the viewer’s eye will travel through the image to arrive at the focal point. Be it a portrait or landscape; every image has a focal point.

The leading line of the beach draws the eye right towards the focal point which is the sea stack
The leading line of the beach draws the eye right towards the focal point, which is the sea stack.

When creating portraits, the focal point is always the person’s eyes. We as humans are naturally drawn to eyes. The focal point for landscape photography can be a rock, a tree, a cloud, or the moon. There can even be more than one focal point in a landscape image.

Creating a Strong Focal Point

It is challenging to create images that bring in the viewer’s eye. Getting the eyes to linger on a particular part of the image can be even more daunting. Below I will talk about strategies you can use to strengthen your compositions to pull the eye towards the focal point in the image.

Photography in essence is painting with light. So it is no surprise that many of the following techniques were adopted from painting. Learning how to look at a landscape and translate the trees, rocks, mountains, or rivers into a composition that rivals a Renaissance painting is part of the joy of photography.

Creating a Focal Point With Smart Compositions

Increase the Size

  • Making your subject larger in the frame will help convince the viewer of the focal point.  This is commonly used in macro photography where a small insect or subject is made larger than life. Presenting a small item in this manner will engage the viewer’s curiosity and strong focal points in your photography.

Color

  • Color is another great way to enhance a focal point. Spend time with a color wheel and learn the basics of color theory. Having this knowledge with you when you are creating images can help you choose what colors to include in your images and where to place them in the composition.
  • Complimentary colors are opposite on the color wheel and when they appear in the same image, the focal point will stand out even more. For example, if you are creating images of a holly bush and want to highlight the bright red berries, be sure to include the deep green leaves. These two colors are visually striking. This will greatly enhance the focal point in your photography.

Shapes

●       The last basic compositional technique worth considering with the focal point in photography are shapes. If an image contains many of the same shapes, the repetition could boost the focal point. On the other side of the coin, having a few different shapes will help contrast the focal point; making it stand out even more.

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Enhancing the Focal Point

Position

Make sure your focal point is in a strong position. It has to be prominent enough to be obvious to the viewer that it is the focal point. For example, if you want to create an image of a red barn in a green field, placing the barn on the extreme border of the frame would be wrong.

This would only highlight the green field, leading the viewer to question what is the importance of the green pasture. While this may cause them to spend a moment more viewing your image, ultimately, it will leave them confused about the image.

A better strategy for this example is to place the barn in a well-thought position. You can place it dead center. It will be evident that the barn is the focal point but the composition will suffer because centering your subject is not often the best compositional choice.

Rule of Thirds

Placing the barn at one of the Rule of Thirds intersections is the strongest way to pull the eye through the frame and highlight the focal point. In this case, it is the red barn.

To visualize the rule of thirds, divide the frame up into nine squares. There will be three even rows columns. Placing a subject or the focal point at one of the corners of the center square will create a composition that is pleasing to the human eye.

A red barn was photographed using the rule of thirds
A red barn was photographed using the rule of thirds.

The Golden Spiral

The golden spiral is another popular ratio. When this one is employed well, the image will almost certainly be one of your best images. This logarithmic spiral grows by a factor of 3.14, or pi, for every quarter turn it makes.

When used with photographic composition, it strengthens and image and places the focal point in a strong position.

While the golden spiral is similar to the rule of thirds, it forces you to think more critically about the entire composition. More elements have to go into the right spot to place the focal point at the precise correct point.

The same image with the golden spiral overlaid on the image
The same image with the golden spiral overlaid on the image.

Using the Camera

The camera and lens are powerful tools that can strengthen any composition when used correctly. If you are using a fast lens, or one with a wide aperture, such as f/2.8 you can create a separation between your subject and the background.

This shallow depth of field will highlight your focal point and strengthen the image. This has become widely popular in portrait photography and is gaining more traction in landscape photography. When creating portraits, make sure  the eyes are in focus when using an aperture below f/4 as there is a narrow depth of focus with these aperture settings.

The depth of field becomes smaller with wider apertures. In addition, if you are using a longer lens, such as an 85mm or 105mm for portraits, remember that these focal lengths have even shorter depths of fields when opened up to wider apertures.

A pygmy owl separated from the background with a shallow depth of field
A pygmy owl separated from the background with a shallow depth of field.

With practice, you can certainly create portraits that allow the viewer’s eye to travel amongst the frame before landing on the focal point.

A blurred background creates a strong focal point
A blurred background creates a strong focal point.

Another part of the camera you can use is a slower shutter speed to create a blur that highlights the focal point in your photography. Whether you pan with a fast-moving subject or the subject is motionless relative to the background, adding blur is a dynamic way to highlight the focal point. Practice with various shutter speeds to find the perfect balance between a sharp subject and motion blur.

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The Light

As I mentioned, photography is painting with light. Using light, or shadows, to highlight a focal point is a powerful tool when used correctly. Often used almost subconsciously in black and white photography, light can direct the viewer’s eye right towards the focal point.

Rays from the sun direct the viewers eye in this image towards the silhouette of the tree line
Rays from the sun direct the viewer’s eye in this image towards the silhouette of the tree line.

When creating images, keep an eye out for light rays that point the way to the focal point. While this may seem like cheating, it is incredibly impactful when done correctly. These light rays can originate from the sun, from a strobe, or ambient light. Always be on the lookout for them when creating images to enhance the focal point in your photography.

Shadows are often overlooked when composing an image. We are often concerned about creating a well-balanced exposure that has plenty of information in the darker portions of the frame. But what if you pushed some of your shadows into pure black?

This could create greater contrast. Using darker portions in your image to guide the eye around, while highlighting the focal point, can also create mood and feeling with your image. Play around with your exposure. Try something new when composing your images to truly highlight the focal point.

Create Strong Compositions by Focusing on the Focal Point

Here is a chart highlighting all the ways you can bring the viewer’s eye right towards the focal point in your photography.

Rule of ThirdsThis is the most common way to highlight the focal point in photography.
The Golden RatioLike the Rule of Thirds, this is used less but when done correctly, has a stronger impact on the focal point.
Shallow Depth of FieldA great way to create separation and direct the viewer’s eye toward the focal point in your photography.
Motion BlurUsing a slower shutter speed to create motion blur will place direct emphasis on your subject, creating a strong focal point.
Light & ShadowSetting your camera on Manual mode to have complete control of the exposure will help you create compositions that highlight the focal point.
Color TheoryKnowing a little bit about color theory will allow you to use things like complementary colors, analogous, or triad colors.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the focal point in photography?

The focal point is the section of the image the viewer’s eye is drawn towards. While this is often the subject, it can be a bright or darker part of the image. There can be one or many focal points in an image.

How do I drive the viewer’s eye towards the focal point?

A good image pulls the viewer’s eye in and keeps them engaged with the photograph. The best way to accomplish this is by using the rule of thirds, the golden ratio, color theory, and/or active lighting.

What compositional elements can enhance a focal point in photography?

Beyond the rule of thirds and the golden ratio, you can use elements such as the rule of odds, high key (or low key) images, or color theory to drive the viewer’s eye towards the focal point.

How do I achieve the best focal point in my photography?

Creating a strong focal point in your images requires a well-thought composition. Every element should have a place and a reason to exist within the frame.

How can lighting help contribute to a strong focal point?

Active and dynamic light is a solid way to highlight the focal point in photography. Commonly during the break up of a storm, the clouds will diffuse the sunlight and create crepuscular rays that could literally point to the subject. Additionally, objects can cast shadows which could be used to highlight the focal point.

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