Using Focal Points in Photography - Digital Photography School

Using Focal Points in Photography

By Robert Parviainen

Next time you take your digital camera out and line it up for a shot pause before you press the shutter button and ask yourself:

“What is the Focal Point in this Picture?”

Some other ways to ask the same question might include – What is the central point of interest? What will draw the eye of the viewers of this picture? What in this image will make it stand out from others? What is my subject?

The reason a focal point is important is that when you look at an image your eye will generally need a ‘resting place’ or something of interest to really hold it. Without it you’ll find people will simply glance at your shots and then move on to the next one.

Once you’ve identified a point of interest or focal point you then should ask yourself how you can enhance it.

6 Techniques to Enhance the Focal Point in an Image

A focal point can be virtually anything ranging from a person, to a building, to a mountain, to a flower etc. Obviously the more interesting the focal point the better – but there are other things you can do to enhance it’s power including but certainly not limited to:

  • Position – Place it in a prominent position – you might want to start with the rule of thirds for some ideas.
  • Focus – Learn to use Depth of Field to blur out other aspects in front or behind your focal point.
  • Blur – If you really want to get tricky you might want to play with slower shutter speeds if your main subject is still and things around it are moving.
  • Size – making your focal point large is not the only way to make it prominent – but it definitely can help.
  • Colorusing contrasting colors can also be a way of setting your point of interest apart from it’s surroundings.
  • Shape – similarly contrasting shapes and textures can make a subject stand out – especially patterns that are repeated around a subject.

Keep in mind that a combination of above elements can work well together.

Lastly – don’t confuse the viewer with too many competing focal points which might overwhelm the main focal point. Secondary points of interest can be helpful to lead the eye but too many strong ones will just clutter and confuse.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • http://www.markboltonphotography.co.uk Mark Bolton

    some good points raised… I have done a short blog post too about focal point… take a look if you have time!
    http://www.markboltonphotography.co.uk/focal-point/

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/kathyspix/ Kathy Wesserling

    Like many photographers in the Northern States, I love taking pictures (by the 100s) of the Fall colors. One year, a really great photographer told me that anyone and everyone can take pictures of Autumn Woods. But, the best photographers take Fall landscapes with a focal point that is different – like a shed out in the back-40 or a piece of farm equipment sitting out in the field in front of a grove of trees. If either one is red, you’re really set-to-go!

    The focal point is the main character; the rest of the landscape tells that character’s story.

  • Santanu Chandra

    If i want to share some tip how can i post it here?

  • Rose

    Please, use commas. Also, “It’s” is not the same as “Its”. Great page, though.

Some older comments

  • Kathy Wesserling

    May 24, 2013 07:01 am

    Like many photographers in the Northern States, I love taking pictures (by the 100s) of the Fall colors. One year, a really great photographer told me that anyone and everyone can take pictures of Autumn Woods. But, the best photographers take Fall landscapes with a focal point that is different - like a shed out in the back-40 or a piece of farm equipment sitting out in the field in front of a grove of trees. If either one is red, you're really set-to-go!

    The focal point is the main character; the rest of the landscape tells that character's story.

  • Mark Bolton

    January 30, 2013 09:08 pm

    some good points raised... I have done a short blog post too about focal point... take a look if you have time!
    http://www.markboltonphotography.co.uk/focal-point/

  • shanbigs

    May 12, 2012 12:27 am

    Would you pliz help me get to know about the rule of thirds and the types of focal points

  • Marco

    November 29, 2011 07:27 am

    @yolandi -- While you are confusing a few concepts here, you might want to check what your closest lens distance is for your autofocus. There are no changeable settings for this. It is a function of the lens built into your camera. This article on focal points has to do with composition of a photograph. For instance, here in the midwest, many of my landscape opportunities are of a vast collection of tree tops looking out from a high vantage. Not much interest in a shot like that. However if their were a large cliff rising through the treetops that might change if it was interesting enough. Whereas your problem most likely stems from you being too close to the object for autofocus to function as you expect it to.

  • Yolandi

    September 7, 2011 10:37 pm

    Hi. I have a finepix fujifilm digital camera and are having trouble with finding the settings for my focal point. To give you an example, if I focus on something in macro, it make MY focal point a blur and my background clear, and I want it to be the other way around. But I can't find a setting unless I'm looking in the wrong place. Can you help?

  • ?????

    April 2, 2011 08:41 pm

    Total term of, your home price?Results provide them, not slow down.Your letter is, storage options If.Can also check , abilities Axes I-II materials in the.Well It supports, need help In.,

  • Katana Topple

    March 19, 2011 11:46 am

    Nice article. Thanks for the good tips. Keep 'um coming and take care!

  • the photographer

    March 19, 2011 12:34 am

    tnx every one to explain the term

  • frank deland

    March 17, 2011 05:09 am

    Photographer, Try a low ISO and a higher f/stop: ISO 100, and F/8 . With the low ISO you can get a pretty fast shutter sped with a higher number f/stop. It also blurs out background nicely, yet keeps the subject sharp. (Assuming you are shooting in RAW)

    ISO 100 f/4 1/1600

  • Paul

    March 16, 2011 08:00 am

    Nice example here, is that a free runner? Awesome shot.

  • KRISHNAKUMAR NAIR

    March 15, 2011 11:52 pm

    to the photographer,
    try taking the picture of your kids from at least 5-6 feet away. This will increase the depth of field and you will get the entire body in focus.

  • the photographer

    March 12, 2011 02:37 pm

    Darren, tnx for your valuable tips, it really help we beginners to understand the concepts

    i tried to capture my kids snap with 50mm lense @ 1.8 f-stop keeping his eys at focal point, entire body is coming blur, what i want is " body to be sharp focus & background to come as blur.

    how to handle this kind of scenario.

  • frank deland

    March 11, 2011 04:32 am

    Apologies. I meant Darren, not Darrell.

  • frank deland

    March 11, 2011 04:20 am

    Come on, Mohamed. What are you trying to do to us nepohytes with a photo like that. Amazing.

    Ren, I think you are referring to "hyperfocal distance" and those little numbers on the old lenses that used to help with depth of field focusing. Now, it's the 1/3, 2/3 rule, right?

    So, I would agree that the focal point of this thread is really the subject of our photos. In landscape where we often try to "get everything in", I am learning that it is very important to ask before clicking, "what is the main subject of my photo?" I especially try to keep that in mind when I get out the cropping tool.
    For example, I took a photo of a breaking wave. In the background was a small island and in the foreground a lot of foamy water leaving the beach where I was standing. When I cropped out the island and the foreground, the wave stood out even more. That was the subject of the photo and now it is the only thing in the photo and it is one of my favorites.
    So, crop, crop and crop again until your subject cannot be missed.
    Very important lesson, Darrell!

    Pat mentions focusing on the eyes when taking a portrait. Another tip I read about was not to put the eyes in the center. Apply the Thirds Rule. Put the eyes in the upper third, even if it means you do not include the whole head. If you cut out the legs of your subject, do so above the knees, not below.

  • Jorge

    March 1, 2011 10:29 pm

    Great article, I always use focal points in my pictures and it allows me to be very creative

  • Mohamed Ghuloom

    March 1, 2011 07:16 am

    Focal Point is everything that matters in your photo, that's my opinion of course. You should be smart where is the most important place in your photo or what is the most important element in your photo and make sure it's greatly in focus.

    If I would share a sample of my work in which the focal point was really essential, it's this one:
    [eimg url='http://www.abulphoto.com/Artworks/Free/AbulPhoto-001-wwwAbulPhotocom/1120312293_RGB5m-L.jpg' title='1120312293_RGB5m-L.jpg']

  • Mark

    March 1, 2011 03:00 am

    Bokeh focal point on the tennis court (the reverse of what this article is talking about). I love this shot. At first the viewer is focused on the chain links in the fence then the eye is drawn by the strong lines to the blurred out children on the tennis court. http://www.flickr.com/photos/whalemap/2482904279/

  • ren@rt

    March 1, 2011 02:19 am

    Although most readers understand that this concept applies to composition, some technical terms may lead to confusion as they appear in other areas of photography.

    The term “focal point” in photography also applies to optics, where it represents a point in space where rays of light converge after they have been affected by an optical system. In the case of photographic lenses, this is a point behind the lens (inside the camera).

    Focusing a lens in a simple camera moves the actual glass system closer or away from the camera body, moving its focal point with it. When the point coincides with the plane of the light sensor (or film), images appear sharp e.g. you can focus a point at infinity, like a star, into a singular point on the light sensor (or film). The distance between this focal point and the optical centre of the lens is called “focal length” and this is measured in millimetres, e.g. a 50mm lens has its optical centre 5cm away from its focal point.

    To avoid confusion and repetition of terms, perhaps we could use the term “point of interest” when talking about photographic composition.

    See ehow.com for other uses of the term.

  • sal Vera

    February 28, 2011 05:54 pm

    When everybody talk about focal point and depht of field , Open Aperture to blur the background of the subject; but don't tell about the use of the fast lensF 2.8 or 1.8 to get shallow depth of field; I have my Nikon D90 with 18-105mm 1:3.5-5.6 and try to open the maximun aperture 5.6 and cannot able to get the bakground blurred, so I will have to buy a fast lens or use a macro lens

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    February 28, 2011 04:16 am

    This one used a clear focal point, and draws the viewer down the street

    Gate Keepers, Rome: http://t.co/gaQCEox

    Cheers

  • Erik Kerstenbeck

    February 28, 2011 04:10 am

    Hi

    Great article - having the proper focal point is really essential for the viewer to be drawn into the shot. I used to think that shooting at f22 was always the best thing to do - have to grab all of the viewfinder, but this is clearly not using the camera and len's unique capabilities!

    Very selective subject "Stop and Go, Rome" http://t.co/mIW9S6U

    Focus of the Key "All Wound Up" http://t.co/sO0eNFn

    Experimental Focus Stacking "Perfect Timing" http://t.co/NwD3a5s

    Regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • wrightwaytodraw

    February 27, 2011 10:59 am

    Great tips for new beginners!

  • ScottC

    February 27, 2011 10:56 am

    And don't let the foreground get in the way!

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lendog64/5478877504/

  • christine giglio

    February 27, 2011 10:26 am

    http://kryssiesdailyphoto.blogspot.com/2009/09/devouring-sun.html
    Here is my example. I focused on the bumble bee and let the flower go out of focus.

    [eimg url='http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_z7ohRnDhfC4/Sr_9OlOivfI/AAAAAAAAB_0/AKgbOOYupD4/s1600-h/dahlia+%2863%29.JPG' title='dahlia+%2863%29.JPG']

  • Leo Mangubat

    February 27, 2011 08:23 am

    Simple but great reminder. We definitely need a lot of reminders like this one.

  • Sue Daigle

    February 27, 2011 07:33 am

    Looking at some of my olds photos left me with that "what was the point of this photo?" feeling after finding this site. This article addressses the most important idea of photography: what does the photographer want you to see or feel? Keep posting such great articles. The subject may seem aimed only to beginners but it's something we all need to keep in mind.

  • Alfredo Sarmento

    November 29, 2010 08:17 pm

    Simply great tutorial and helps alot and encourage the beguiners like me to cultivate interest in learning this great hobbie. Thank you

  • Claudia

    August 19, 2010 12:57 am

    Excellent tutorial!

  • Amit Pahuja

    June 17, 2010 03:06 am

    great tips. I'm learning a lot :)

  • S.Chandrashekar

    October 7, 2009 04:16 am

    Articals in this section are very informative it helps ammetures like us to try out the tips you have given

  • Moose

    August 29, 2009 06:33 am

    So what how do you feel about focal points when shooting landscapes? Where is your focal point in that situation?

  • Vickie

    June 25, 2009 05:44 am

    WOW I love this site!! I'm a photography student in Florida, Your section on composition happen to be a reading assignment I have spent 4 hours looking around and reading. Fantastic! All I want to do is shoot!

  • ms_elove

    June 17, 2009 03:30 pm

    Hi there, I am new to this site...I consider myself as a beginner. I am also trying to learn (for now) the basic photography. I am glad that I found this site, so helpful and so I've been on every night reading articles to learn some techniques on how to improve my photography.

    Thank you for this simple tips. This is very helpful to me. For sure, I will apply this to my own good.

    Thanks again.

  • Sundeep

    March 19, 2009 06:00 am

    Great Info!!! Sure will be useful for a beginner such as myself. Keep up theexcellent work!

  • Bluenoser

    March 10, 2009 01:10 am

    Excellent tutorial, really enjoy the tips provided here DPS.

  • Jennifer

    February 24, 2009 09:42 am

    Great tutorial. I'm trying to improve my photography skills so I can put them to use on my completed interiors. My portfolio is looking woeful.

    Of course, we use focal points in interior design all the time. I seems like a no-brainer to apply it to photography. But I always makes things harder than they should be.

  • Canon

    February 17, 2009 11:59 pm

    Nice tips Mr. Darren. Thankz!

  • christos

    February 13, 2009 08:41 pm

    Every time I read your newsletters I am inspired once again to take a more creative approach to my subject. Thank you and keep them coming,

  • mariena payne

    February 8, 2009 06:32 pm

    Hi Darren..thanks so much for your help ( tips )

    I really appreciate it.

    Regards

  • Dave Marcus

    February 7, 2009 12:08 am

    My father's advice to me was always "Before clicking the shutter ask yourself 'what is it you are taking a picture of'?" This is another way of focusing on the focal point, but it asks it in a broader way. His reference is not necessarily to a physical object though and thus perhaps is a more useful question. The answer can be in terms of light, mood, interaction, etc. Focusing on that question allows you to drop the inessentials from the picture and highlight the essentials.

  • francis ariel gapasin

    February 5, 2009 02:05 pm

    Simple ang concise tip Darren. Your tips are useful since im still a newbie in photography. I have another item to put in my tickler. Thanks.

  • Amanda

    February 5, 2009 12:42 pm

    Just found this site, I think it's really helpful. I'll definitely keep in mind adjusting my aperture and shutter speeds more concerning my focal points. Thanks!

  • Manal

    February 5, 2009 07:09 am

    I guess I have always thought of the focal point as the main image and how it should be just in the photo but I've never really thought about how I could actually set it apart from everything else. I'm gonna try that, getting a focal point and working around it, instead of working on it

    Thanks
    Manal

  • themisfit

    February 4, 2009 10:45 am

    Nice simple post with some good advice.

  • Ben May

    February 3, 2009 07:44 pm

    Great help, just found your blog. will be subscribing to the feed

  • Ryan | LifeGawker

    February 3, 2009 12:49 am

    This is a great tip, short and sweet. As a newbie to DSLR's I tend to find myself trying to cram everything into the shot. Then later I look at the pic and it just a scenery shot with no real interest. Being sure to think of the focal point is an easy way to keep my pics more interesting. Now, if I could only figure out what the focal ring in my viewfinder is all about and how I can apply that here. Another lesson for another day.

  • Pat

    February 2, 2009 08:31 pm

    Nice article Darren.

    I would also add that when photographing a close up of a person the key thing to focus on is the eyes.

    Select a focus point that will give you the composotion you desire without having to move the camera. Allow for fine composition changes later in cropping for print etc. The tighter the compose your image the more the focus point becomes to keep those eyes pin-sharp.

    Inner Beauty Photography

  • Ilan

    February 2, 2009 05:33 pm

    Rules are made to be broken! :D

    Focal point is important, depends on what you photographing. Street photography, for example, less relies on focal point - Although having one won't hurt the photo of course. :)

  • Gary Lee

    February 2, 2009 04:27 pm

    Brendan . . yes, the rule of thirds still applies . . . albeit it does give you a LOT of extra space, so hopefully, your subject can gain the focus of your user as much as possible

  • lils

    February 2, 2009 03:21 pm

    nice simple tip, sometimes I forget about what I'm focusing on when the scene is busy and everything looks good to me. I'll definitely keep this in mind.

  • Brendan

    February 2, 2009 03:00 pm

    Does the rule of thirds apply in the same way if the picture is taken vertically?

  • Amadou

    February 2, 2009 08:50 am

    Nice tips on using focus to draw the viewers' eye to what's most important in the image. One thing that many beginners (and even intermediate level shooters) fail to take advantage of is adjusting the aperture for the optimal range of sharpness between subject and foreground/background. I've posted a short video discussing aperture and its relationship to depth of field at http://blogfiftygreatestphotos.com/2009/01/22/understanding-aperture.

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