In photos, as in life, we like to have some place to go. Not having a direction in a photo is one of the reasons for people becoming bored of viewing photos or lackluster responses on internet sites. People can’t always put their finger on why your photo leaves them uninspired, but it may be because they aren’t sure where to go and what to see.
To help alleviate this problem, give your viewers some place to go. Not in every photo, but think of it from time to time when setting up a shot. There are a few ways you can give your viewers a place to go in your photo and I’ve listed some suggestions below.
Tight Focus and Blur
The first technique deals with a change in focus. It’s how our eyes naturally see the world, in thin, two dimensional slices at a time. This is in focus and that is out of focus. The screen you are reading this is in focus and the keyboard (or floor if you are reading this on a mobile device) is not. Couple that together with two eyes to give a three dimensional aspect to what we see and we now have a useful way to navigate our living room without smashing our shins on the coffee table.
The problem in photography comes when cameras are left to their own devices and choose for us. Many cameras will increase the aperture setting (closing down the aperture) to bring more things into focus. Most cameras ‘think’ you want a lot of things in focus. Surely the camera has it figured out for you!
But the truth is, interesting photos have few things in focus (hyperfocal techniques no withstanding) at one time. And it’s important to remember this when taking a photo. Pick one thing to be your focal point and try to make it stand out from the rest of the scene. This can be done by increasing your aperture (decreasing the f/stop number) to take advantage of a shallower depth of field. It also helps to get closer to your subject to also shallow up that depth of field.
Whether we know it or not, we are used to seeing something in focus and something not in focus. Looking at your screen, do actually notice your hands on the keyboard are not in focus? Typically, no. We know our hands are there and we don’t need them in focus by our focus should be on the screen. Do the same with your photos and give your viewers a focal point while letting the rest of the scene blur out of importance.
Leading Lines are just that; lines in your image that bring viewers to a particular point. I also like to include paths in this example because a path, or road, while not always perfectly straight, can lead viewers as well. Playing with Leading Lines can be a lot of fun because you get to move around. Pay attention to the lines in a photo, such as this one taken on a Washington State Ferry.
They day was gray and boring and there wasn’t much to look at. But there were lines everywhere. The railings, the horizon, the deck chairs. They all lead to the pilot house and I mostly wanted them in focus. So I took a position that would allow them to converge. I moved around the deck a bit until I had a nice and easy spot where two of the lines for the Rule Of Thirds converge.
Lines can also be curved as in this shot of a trail leading into the unknown distance.
One of the more simple tricks to leading your viewers is to give them space in the photo to move into. We take our periphery for granted and that plays out in photography (as well as other forms of art) in a way most of us don’t consciously understand. What I’m talking about here is the fact that as you move your head from left to right, or up and down, your brain is scanning ahead. It is why you also don’t bump into the coffee table even though it may not be in focus. Your eyes say it and your brain understood what was coming before it was in focus.
When a photo does not allow for this scan-ahead to occur, we tend to turn our nose up at the image. Not because it is horrible, but because ‘something’ isn’t quite right and we’re not sure what. Take these two images of the setting sun for instance.
The difference between the two is the position of the boat and where it is going. We all know a boat (typically) goes forward and we know which direction this one is facing. When it is just about out of the frame, we subconsciously want to know where it’s going and are slightly irked by not knowing. Mind you, this can be a good method for grabbing attention, but for making pleasing photos while you are learning photography, give some space in front of the subject for it to ‘move’ into the frame.
It’s important to remember these are only rules. And rules are made to be broken. But if you are just starting out in photography, learn to use these simple techniques first to add some instant attraction to your images, then venture out and let your artistic creativity take over your style.