Composition: How to Draw Attention to Your Subject

There are several tools you can use to draw your audience’s eyes towards your photos’ subjects. But there are also many ways in which you can accidentally transfix your audience with something different than what you intended. So in today’s article, read up on the right way to get your audience’s attention and keep them focused on your subject. That will give your pictures better, more pleasing composition.

Guide All Eyes to the Subject

In a previous article, we explained the “Golden Crop” rule, which you can use to find an ideal place to position the subject in a picture. For an image with a complex composition containing a number elements that may compete with the subject for your audience’s attention, it’s good to guide their eyes towards the subject using “guidelines.”

These can be made up of something very concrete in the picture—maybe a path or a railing. But often they can be imaginary instead, made from, for example, a row of repeating elements that together serve as a “path” to guide the eyes.

The seams (emphasized here with arrows), the wrinkles, and the pattern all lead the viewer’s eyes towards the center of the umbrella, which is located on a golden-crop point. In this case, the whole umbrella is the subject. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/13 s, f/3.2, ISO 200, focus 6.8 mm (32 mm equiv.)

The seams (emphasized here with arrows), the wrinkles, and the pattern all lead the viewer’s eyes towards the center of the umbrella, which is located on a golden-crop point. In this case, the whole umbrella is the subject.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/13 s, f/3.2, ISO 200, focus 6.8 mm (32 mm equiv.)

The imaginary guideline made up of the series of poles and flags leads your eyes through the picture. The nearly vertical line of the tall building brings them back to its main topic—the flags. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/500 s, f/2.8, ISO 200, focus 10.2 mm (48 mm equiv.)

The imaginary guideline made up of the series of poles and flags leads your eyes through the picture. The nearly vertical line of the tall building brings them back to its main topic—the flags.
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/500 s, f/2.8, ISO 200, focus 10.2 mm (48 mm equiv.)

When composing your images, you also need to carefully watch for unwanted guidelines that might lead your audience’s eyes away from the subject.

Vertical guidelines often serve to optically box in the subject and prevent your audience from moving their eyes on out of the image.

The picture is painstakingly divided up via a rule-of-thirds composition, the subject is placed on a golden-crop point, and the vertical formed by the lightning rod and the darker part of the picture leads all eyes back to the subject.

The picture is painstakingly divided up via a rule-of-thirds composition, the subject is placed on a golden-crop point, and the vertical formed by the lightning rod and the darker part of the picture leads all eyes back to the subject. Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX 3, 1/4 s, f/2.8, ISO 800, focus 12.8 mm (60 mm equiv.)

The shadow on the staircase leads one to the model’s face. The railing line (along with the shadow) forms a good frame for the model. Canon EOS 7D, EF 50/1.4, 1/125 s, f/3.2, ISO 100, focus 50 mm (80 mm equiv.)

The shadow on the staircase leads one to the model’s face. The railing line (along with the shadow) forms a good frame for the model.
Canon EOS 7D, EF 50/1.4, 1/125 s, f/3.2, ISO 100, focus 50 mm (80 mm equiv.)

Clean up Around the Edges

When composing, you need to also pay attention to the edges of the picture.

A photograph can often be disrupted around its edges by unwanted elements that have no connection to the picture that you set out to take. They’re just distractions, stealing attention away from your subject. It’s usually enough to just step back a bit while composing; this removes the unwanted elements from your picture. In situations where you can’t clean up the picture’s edges while composing, you’ll want to do it later on in a photo editor, for example in Zoner Photo Studio.

The original photo, whose composition is broken up by the branches in the top left corner.

The original photo, whose composition is broken up by the branches in the top left corner.

After my digital edits, you can see a much calmer composition. Retouching away objects in the sky is a very simple task in most photo editors. Canon EOS 7D, EF-S 15-85/3.5-5.6 IS USM, 1/10 s, f/5.6, ISO 100, focus 35 mm (56 mm equivalent)

After my digital edits, you can see a much calmer composition. Retouching away objects in the sky is a very simple task in most photo editors.
Canon EOS 7D, EF-S 15-85/3.5-5.6 IS USM, 1/10 s, f/5.6, ISO 100, focus 35 mm (56 mm equivalent)

Take More Readable Photos

When photographing complicated scenes, always try to make them easy for your audience to interpret, by taking advantage of any guidelines available in the scene. And likewise, you should make sure not to leave lines and elements in the picture that steal attention away from your subject.

Last updated 31. May 2016

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Author: Jan Zeman

I’ve been digitally editing pictures since 1996. I started taking pictures in 2006, and since then I’ve gradually been becoming a full-time photographer. In my work, I focus on portrait, architecture, cityscape, and product/advertising photography.

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Comments

  • Terry Byford

    Jan, I beg to disagree with your assessment of the last image. Far from being distracting, using the branches of a tree to “frame” an image is a well established ploy to concentrate on the subject matter, and fill in what would be an otherwise boring blank sky. And by removing the branches, this is what you end up with. Here, though, it is more a question of which is better, with the branches in or removed? For me, the image becomes somewhat unbalanced without the branch, and you only have to look at the revised image to see how much the blank sky impacts on our appreciation of the image. Quickly reverting to the original, it feels and balances better despite the so-called defect.

    This image is not perfect in this respect and it would have been better for the photographer to have moved to his left to include more of the branches to provide a more positive frame. This would have been my advice when taking this image.

    • Zoner

      Thank you, Terry, for you point of view, it’s always interesting to hear other photographer’s opinion and advice.