At the judge’s panel for the SD Fair we talk a lot about how it is not the judge’s job to find the real photo somewhere inside of the photo that was submitted… it’s the job of the photographer.  But we do not often talk about how that is to be done… how does one determine, for themselves, the proper focal point, i.e. the real “subject” of their photo and then properly present it to the viewing audience (or, in our cases, to the judges) or to their instructors?

Here are some suggestions as to where to start and how to think about doing just that:

  1. Don’t just blaze away because the scene in front of you is pretty and then hope something works – THINK ABOUT IT.  Stop for a moment and really ask yourself, why does this scene resonate with me?  Is there something in it that I’m especially drawn to, that triggers some emotional response in me?  And if so, what is it I or you would like to convey to the viewers?  For example, if you come across a scene where a bright red barn is sitting at the edge of a beautiful field dressed in its brilliant deep spring green attire, what is it that REALLY attracted your eye?  Is it a huge green expanse of texture with a bit of red visual punctuation?  Or is it this fascinating red structure backed by a green complimentary area?  Those are two very different photos.  A photo that simply gives both elements equal attention may be post-card pretty, but is emotionally boring and confusing.

    The better you can relate to and at least internally articulate your response to the scene, the more precisely you can determine what is the primary, driving element in it, the better you can determine what is the real subject and what is simply background and environmental subtext for it.  But to make the photograph really stand out, something – some single element – needs to be allowed to be the major subject… the “focal point.”

    A normal sized photograph is not a large enough visual universe to handle multiple focal points in the way something such as a wall mural might.  Competing areas of interest do not add to an image, they detract from it and from each other and combine in a negative way to make the final collection too busy and too filled with distraction to deal with.  So the goal is clear: simplify.  Think of it this way, if you had to describe the scene and your response to it to a person who could not be there to see or experience that scene, what would you say to them?  THAT is what you need to illustrate with your photograph.  Work at pre-visualizing what the finished photograph should look like and then set about capturing and editing it so that vision for it will also be the result.

    What makes a photograph – or any art work for that matter – yours and not someone else’s is that it can be only you with your unique combination of history, associations, perspectives, filters, etc. that can give us YOUR take on the scene, not someone else’s.  Art is about interpretation, never about narration.  Under the very best of technology the only way to actually show the viewers the full reality of a scene is to take them there and even then they may react differently than you.  Your job is to help them understand your take on the scene and let them see it from a perspective they may never have thought about, to show them something about that scene they might never have seen on their own, basically your job is to expand their universe through the vehicle of your imagery.  You cannot do that by simply letting multiple elements compete and dilute each other’s power.  Pick the one that most resonates with you, and then work to make that selection clear using the techniques below.

  2. Once you have identified your real subject, remove or at least minimize all distractions. Apart from the subject itself, every other element in the image should either enhance or support the “hero” subject.  If it does not, then get rid of it.  If it competes for attention, get rid of it.  If it is in any way distracting or dilutes the power of the subject, get rid of it.   But since this is not a painting where you can simply leave things out or move them around easily, how does one get rid of those distracting elements.  It is harder, to be sure, for photographers, but it is not impossible.  There are several ways to go about it; here are a few of them to get you started.
    1. Point of View. Sometimes a simple change in angle of view will completely alter the emphasis of a shot and hide or remove the unwanted elements.  Try moving around, drop to the ground, climb up on something, if possible it may be OK to physically move something, but generally it will be up to you to find the best vantage point.  The only thing that is usually true is that to let the viewer see things from a new perspective, that vantage point is rarely from eye level and normal distances.
    2. Focus and Depth of Field. Photography gives us a tool that does not exist in the other arts.  The human eye is constantly refocusing as it scans an area, so we perceive a scene as if it were all in focus.  Our brain allows us to concentrate on certain areas and exclude others from our attention, but everywhere we look we try to bring it into focus.  Consequently, most realistic style paintings show everything in focus and use composition to remove or re-arrange things to tell the story.  But the optics we use, and the human limitation on resolving power combine to let us use the illusion of “Depth of Field.”  That lets us create an image where only the area we want is in focus.  And because of minute pain stimuli in the optic nerve when we try to focus on something that is out of focus (put on someone else’s prescription glasses to “feel” this discomfort) we will tend to concentrate on the parts of a photo that are sharp.  This is a powerful imaging tool for our story telling.  Learn your equipment so that you can use it purposefully and easily.
    3. Tones. In the black and white world tone was all we had to tell our story.  There we learned to use it to lead the eye, to emphasize or de-emphasize elements.  It was important critical learning and one reason I hope foundational training in that film-based media never goes away because almost without exception, those photographers who started their photo education in that analog monochromatic world are better in the end.  Colors have gray value and if they are all the same or close, then color alone will not stop the final image from seeming flat and lifeless.

      Our eyes are drawn to tonal contrasts.  A light area in a dark environment or the opposite, e.g. a dark area on a light environment, will draw our attention and help tell us what is important in the overall scene.  The variations in tone helps the illusion of depth, topography, and form and tells us much about the texture and make-up of a picture element.  Purposefully use those tones to tell your story.  A different and more primitive part of the brain analyses tonal patterns than the part of the brain that analyses color.  So treat it as a separate issue and make it work for you not against you.

    4. Color. If the color of a subject is important to its story as you interpret it, then include it; if not… don’t.  But if you do use it, learn the psychological/physiological/emotional impact of color and how it will effect your viewers.  Humans will respond very differently to areas of bright red than to areas of bright green or blue.  Learn those differences and how to use them to help convey your feelings about the subject. Otherwise you may get a response you didn’t intend.
    5. Framing and Cropping. Our photographs present the viewer with a new universe… ours.  Within its borders we are constructing that universe and have both the power and the duty as artists, to include what is needed and exclude what is not.  Pay attention to the subject and how it dominates the attention of the viewer.  Is that being well served by the aspect ratio?  Should it be a panoramic view or a square, for example.  And then, when you think you have it, now carefully go around the edges and borders of that universe looking for anything, no matter how small, that might attract attention or take the viewer’s eye out of the scene… and get rid of it.
  3. Use Composition as the syntax of the language of your visual story. All languages have a syntax to allow users to make sense of the separate elements or “words.”  The language of visuals is no different and for we visual image makers the syntax is found in the composition of the elements. It is way beyond the limitations of a blog entry to cover even this part of our topic in detail but as a photographer, you need to do so.  Here are a few of the high points…
    1. Balance and visual weight. Visual elements have varying amounts of “weight” in any painting or photograph.  Of course, large elements are heavier than small ones other things influence that sense of weight. Dark tones are “heavier” than light tones.  Some colors are heavier than others.  Many lighter areas can balance a larger area just like trying to balance on a kids teeter-totter.  If some overall image is completely balanced it can become static and dead, but if it is too imbalanced it quickly becomes chaotic and unintelligible.  The trick is that perfect state of dynamic tension that is not quite balanced but is not falling apart.  It will do your photography wonders to study the issues of visual balance and weight as it is taught to traditional artists.
    2. Arrangement of space and Elements. The Greeks taught us through long observation that elements arranged based on the “Golden Rectangle” and “Golden Spiral” seem to be more universally appealing than other arrangements.  We have used schemes from Fibonacci numbers to the Rule of Thirds to make it easier for the mathematically challenged among us (like me) to arrange things.  But for every so-called rule, its opposite is also a rule and tells us about achieving specific responses.  We are told for example that placing the subject in a bull’s eye target location create a static unmoving, undynamic results, that has also just told us what to do if that is precisely what we want to say about the subject.  Learn the “rules” but also learn how to then turn them on their head for a previsualized result.  There can be as much power in purposeful bending of the rules as in a slavish adherence to them.
    3. Perspective (Linear and tonal). The use of perspective is an illusion designed to create a simulation of dimension and depth in a flat or two dimensional rendering such as a painting or photograph.  That illusion  via overlap or tone or detail changes as objects are farther and farther from us make us “feel” the depth that was in the real scene.  But for emphasis we can move the appearance of things closer or farther apart once we learn the techniques to do so… hint, hint…
    4. Leading Lines. Leading lines are those implied lines in a photograph that are so powerful as to lead our eyes and attention in specific directions across or through the image.  Without other clues, our written language has taught us how to interpret those since those of us following the Greek and Latin foundations read and write in a left-to-right, top-to bottom fashion.  Think of a typical line chart, say of one’s financials.  We can eliminate the chart legend itself and if the line is higher on the right than on the left we will intuitively see it as going up, generally a positive thing (unless it is a chart of liabilities).  This is so powerful we can not only lead a viewer’s eye into the subject, we can give them a sense of whether they are looking up to it or down on it and with all of the connotative baggage those phrases contain.
  4. Select the right lens to tell your story about your subject. I know we spend a lot of time in classes trying to sell the idea that the tools do not matter, that a good artist can pick up almost any form of tool and make art with it.  And that is at least partially true.  But it is not completely true.  A painter does not try to do everything with one brush because the effect of laying down paint with a particular brush will be different than with another.  So too, if you approach the actual capture of your photographic image with a complete pre-visualization of how it will look in the final print, there may be only one combination of lens and point of view that can achieve that vision.  Your job is to learn how different lenses render objects spatially and how to select the right ones for the work you intend to do.  This will allow you to optically establish the subject’s emphasis and importance as YOU wish, not as you must try to accomplish with a lens and/or camera position that is fighting that goal.
  5. Timing is everything. A photograph captures, usually, a finite period of time and except for purposeful long exposures, generally captures a fraction of a second out of a lifetime of visual experience.  Selecting that fraction of a second out of all of the options is one of the most powerful ways you have to making the image tell your story and perspective as only you can.  Almost every aspect of your capture is susceptible to a change in timing.
    1. Light and Shadow. As the sun moves across the sky, as it hides then peeks out from the clouds, moment by moment the pattern and the color of the tones painted on the scene change.  And not just different times of day but different times of the year see our normal “main” or “key” light – the sun – create different patterns and colors on the environment.  Your job is to learn those patterns and select the time when they best tell your story about your subject.
    2. Action. Anytime real motion is encountered, telling its story through the precise capturing of action is critical. But, unfortunately, it often happens in a fraction of a second shorter than even the capture duration.  That moment in a boxing match when the glove impacts a face, the moment in football when the incoming ball touches the hand of the receiver, the moment the bat collides with the baseball, those are the moments of action that cement the issue of the image’s real subject.  But to capture those predictably cannot be done with a reliance on dumb luck and a fast shutter burst.  You need to so well know and understand the action at hand AND your own reaction times that you can anticipate that desired moment and push the shutter release in time to capture it… shot after shot.  Then you can call yourself a sports photographer and not just a camera operator.
    3. The “Decisive Moment.” Henri Cartier Bresson coined this term primarily applying it to his street photography.  But it applies equally to ALL photos even ones we don’t think of such as landscapes.  Except here in California we do not think much about the landscape itself as moving, but as noted above, the light source is constantly moving and revealing or hiding different elements; the wind may be moving those elements around; in short it is not only the subject’s action itself that impacts our shot timing.  We need to be ready for any of it and understand how it will effect that final image.

Holy Cow, that’s a lot, I know.  And that is, as noted, just hitting the high spots. But if it were easy, there would be a lot more stunningly successful image makers.  Being an artist in any medium is actually a lot of mental and emotional work.  We are, in an important way, visual philosophers — “Ontologists” to be specific; our field is an exploration of the very nature and being of our world.  Our job is to present our findings to our viewers in ways that they can grasp and understand.  We have a lot of tools in our toolbox, but the most important tools are our brain and heart.  As the photographer Skip Cohen wrote, “…we cannot tug at a viewer’s heartstrings if our own hearts are not in it.”  I tell students all the time, forget just trying to photograph what you see.  Technology is so good now the camera can do that without any help from you.

Your job is a lot tougher, it is to photograph what you FEEL, because only you can do that.


About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. gene wild says:

    Excellent. May I shake the link to this?

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