Focal point is a term that photographers and photography blogs throw around continually. “Create a focal point,” it’s said, “it should be the first and last place the eye goes in your image.” That’s true, of course, but like most important things it’s easier said than done.
A strong focal point is better thought of as the punctuation at the end of a carefully composed sentence. You need to know not only what makes the best single focal point, but also how to compose the visual sentence that precedes it.
First, consider what makes the best focal point or “punctuation.” There are a few things that your eye will be attracted to first because of the way your brain processes visual information: points of high contrast, high sharpness, faces, human and animal forms, warm color tones, and recognizable objects that are large in the frame. For effective punctuation of your visual sentence, you need an object or entity that creates interest and consists of at least one characteristic from this list.
Then, you must consider what makes not just a focal point, but a strong focal point. You must write the sentence.
In the scene, when you’re out shooting, look for ways to simplify and arrange the view through your lens to either point at or isolate your focal point. This is where compositional rules like the golden ratio or rule of thirds come in. Placing your focal point at these ideal locations in the frame gives the most space to support it with line, pattern, or blurred motion. Experiment with angle and camera position to further shake the viewer out of their usual way of seeing and get them to engage with your image.
In my own photography I think of this part of the process as “harvesting geometry.” You can adjust things like brightness, color, and sharpness easily in processing software but the hard lines and actual pixel-structure of a scene–the geometry–is difficult to adjust. It can be done, but it will save you a lot of time in software later to convert the three dimensional world to your two dimensional image properly now, when shooting.
The last step, and to really make your image shine, is to carefully polish what you’ve created in camera using image processing software. In Photoshop or Lightroom, use curves or levels adjustment masks and brushes to shift the brightness and contrast of the focal point and supporting areas of the scene. Your task is to create several tiers of contrast that build up to your focal point.
The spot of highest contrast, ideally in the brightest overall area of your image, should be your focal point. Areas of lowest contrast and darker tones should make up the non-focal areas of your image. As with all rules, there may be exceptions but this is the general idea.
Another trick is to focus on the whole of the image, by making it small or blurry to obscure detail. Analyze the image as a whole now that you can’t focus on the smaller parts. You want to cultivate alternating areas of lighter and darker zones that reinforce and frame each other, ascending towards the focal point. Find a rhythm of alternating tonal values that strengthens the natural path a viewer’s eye will follow in your image.
Beyond this technical recipe for strong focal points, there’s one other thing about how great art is made: emotion. First, create compelling graphic content with a strong focal point and a supporting visual hierarchy. Then understand that you can use this to create emotion in the viewer.
Emotional content is the difference between a casual snapshot and art. Use the visual language of photography to tell a story. When you can get your emotional content to connect to your focal point as well, you will have a truly powerful image.
We are animals. We see raw contrast and graphic content first. We only stay looking long enough to feel if the graphic content compels us. To reach that higher level of photography, be both an animal and a person. See and create both graphic and emotional content that all connects within the frame.