Ok, ok, I know what you’re thinking…
There’s nothing easy about photography. Either that or, photographers shouldn’t take the easy way out.
I agree with those assessments wholeheartedly.
However, there is something to be said for working smarter, not harder.
When it comes down to it, we’re all just trying to do what we can to create photos that have more impact that wow viewers and make them say, “DANG, that’s a great shot!”
When it comes to landscapes, there’s a virtually endless supply of tips, tricks, and techniques you can employ to get a more dramatic or eye-catching photo.
But there’s one trick that, in my opinion anyway, has more impact than most.
That’s having a strong focal point.
What Exactly is a Focal Point?
Quite simply, the focal point of a landscape image is that thing that immediately draws the attention of the viewer, like the mountain peaks in the image above.
Think of it like the exclamation point at the end of a sentence…
Naturally, the focal point in a landscape can be just about anything – a waterfall, a mountain peak, waves crashing on a beach, and so forth.
It might be a man-made object like a fence or roadway, or a person, for that matter.
But the caveat here is that the focal point has to be strong. It should command attention from the first instant that someone views the photo.
The question is, how does one include a strong focal point in a landscape?
Determining a Strong Focal Point
Like much in photography, creating a strong focal point is a little easier said than done, but that doesn’t mean it’s a time-intensive task, either.
As noted above, there are certain landscape features that naturally draw the eye.
A waterfall is a great example.
However, try to think of strong focal points in other terms, and not just whether they are pretty. This includes:
- Contrast. Areas of the scene that are very bright or very dark will draw the viewer’s attention. In the image above, the light on the mountains draws your eye to that focal point.
- Shapes. As noted earlier, including the human form (or an animal) will immediately catch the viewer’s eye.
- Size. Typically, the larger something is in the frame, the more attention the viewer will pay to it.
- Color. Our brains are wired to attend to color, especially those that stand out from the rest of the scene.
If you think about how to create a strong focal point in your landscapes, you should strive to have that focal point represent at least one of the characteristics above.
For example, in the image above, the human form is an immediate focal point. And this isn’t the case simply because of the familiar human shape.
Note how the man is also very dark, which creates contrast against the bright sky in the background. He’s also quite large in the frame, which accentuates his importance even further.
Accentuating a Strong Focal Point
Of course, it’s not enough just to slap a strong focal point into an image. If you do that, it might look out of place in the shot.
Instead, you need to compose the photo around the strong focal point such that it is supported by the other elements in the scene.
For example, when you frame the shot, identify ways that you can compose the image such that the focal point is accentuated or isolated in the frame.
An ideal way to do this is to use the rule of thirds to place your focal point in a position of prominence in the shot.
In the photo above, note how the Matterhorn and the human figure would roughly align with the rightmost vertical grid line of the rule of thirds.
Another way to do so is to look for ways to simplify the scene.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to go for a minimalist look. Rather, pay attention to your framing such that you can eliminate unnecessary elements in the shot. This helps the viewer direct their attention to the focal point rather than being distracted by other components of the landscape.
In the image above, the photographer moved closer to the subjects to frame the shot with less environmental clutter. As a result, we focus on the footprints in the sand and the people that have made them.
You can also accentuate the focal point by using things like lines to direct the eye.
Leading lines are one of the most powerful landscape photography tricks because our eyes naturally like to follow lines.
Learn how to use leading lines effectively in landscape photography in the video above by Mike Browne.
Use Post-Processing to Help Your Cause
If you can incorporate a strong focal point and then accentuate it by the manner in which you structure the shot, all that’s left is to enhance these things in post-processing.
Now, post-processing your landscape photos can go wrong very quickly, so this tip isn’t to say that you should go overboard.
But what you can do is use things like the curves adjustment to add contrast and shift colors, which, as I noted earlier, are two of the primary ways to draw someone’s attention to a focal point.
You can also use the levels adjustment to change the tonal range of an image, including fine-tuning the brightness and contrast in the scene.
Better still, you can create curves or level adjustments for specific areas of your shots to accentuate the color, contrast, brightness, and so forth without impacting the rest of the photo.
This is especially important when thinking about creating a strong focal point because you want the focal point to be the highest contrast element in the scene. The surrounding elements should be darker with less contrast, as this will help you create a visual hierarchy in the image that accentuates the focal point.
Learn more about using curves and levels adjustments in the video above by Joshua Cripps.
Putting It All Together
With that, you have three quick and easy tips for creating a focal point and accentuating it in-camera and in post-processing.
As noted in the introduction, there are plenty of things you can do to improve the look and feel of your image, but having a strong focal point has to be at or near the top of the list in terms of impact.
Looking at the images in this article, you can see just how impactful a strong focal point can be.
Now it’s time to put your learning to the test and start creating more compelling landscape photos by including a strong focal point!