Why you Must Have a Focal Point in Your Images

This was originally written and published for Digital Photo Mentor. The article is republished here with search engines blocked and canonical set to the original published article. It is here for archival purposes and so my community can find it too.

When it comes to long exposure photographs, it’s too easy to forget some basic compositional components.

In this article, you are going to learn about the importance of having a point of focus in a long exposure photograph.

But before you start, you must understand what a point of focus is.

What is the point of focus?

A point of focus, or focal point, is defined as the center of interest or activity. Don’t take the word “center” literally, though, as a focal point does not have to be perfectly center in your frame. In fact, you are encouraged to have it anywhere else for a better composed photographed. Think of the focal point as the one object in your scene which makes up the majority of what the photograph is about. It’s something which is in focus even if everything else is not. It’s something that people will remember before forgetting the rest.

Why is a point of focus important?

As you just read, without a point of focus, the viewer can get lost in a photograph. Without something to act as the glue, parts of a photograph can feel distant or alien from each other.

So by having a point of focus, you are giving your viewer a complete story, instead of a Mad Lib to fill in blanks.

Focal Points in the Real World

Now that you have an understanding of focal points, and know the benefits of having them, take a look at some real world examples. And visualize how these scenes would look without them.

Monmouth County Fair

This photograph from a county fair has many people moving around. So many that there are tons of blur streaks moving horizontally across the scene. The amusement ride is also blurred with light streaks spinning in circles. The photograph is a lot of fun.

But without the center of the ride still, your eyes wouldn’t have a place to rest. You would be looking aimlessly at all the movement with nothing in focus.

Boston

This photograph from the financial district of Boston, Massachusetts has a shutter speed of 60 seconds. Being so long meant that anything in front of the camera would be blurred with movement. If you look closely, you might notice a bus driving by, or the people walking in the distance.

At the same time, you’ll notice that the building just off center is perfectly in focus. Having that focal point keeps the composition held together and still lets the viewer branch out to find easter eggs, like the bus.

Forbidden

This photograph was made on a beach in New Jersey not long after Super Storm Sandy destroyed so much of the coast. What was once a popular fishing pier turned into a rubble of garbage, rusty metal, and wood. I loved that the pier looked like an X was blocking someone from walking into the water.

But as you can see, the water is perfectly smooth. That is due to the 25-second exposure.  If the remains of the pier weren’t there, this would be a horrible composition. And that’s because the photograph would be of the shells and sand, which are so small, smoothed water and a soft sky. There would be nothing for an eye to focus on, and that’s a problem.

But imagine if the X wasn’t there, and instead, it was layers of wooden pillars bringing your attention to the water. That would be a different story, but equally powerful and engaging. And if that were the case, the pillars would become the focal point.

The Dock

This photograph is closer to what you just imagined. Except there is still a focal point. Having a point of focus is even more important when the photograph is minimal.  In this photo, you are being directed from the pier into the gray and white abyss of the water and sky. Your eye is directed where to go, by the simple act of including a focal point and composing it a specific way in the scene. In this case, on one edge aiming towards the opposite edge.

Manasquan Reservoir

The previous photo was a minimal and monochrome, which strengthens the need for a focal point. But in a photograph like this silhouette which is color, it’s also important. This one, in particular, is minimal, silhouette and also a long exposure. So there is little in focus (without zooming in). And that’s okay. A focal point doesn’t have to be in focus if it still acts as the glue to the photograph.

In this photograph, the lens is focused on the trees in the distance, but the hyperfocal distance worked well. The hyperfocal distance the distance between the lens and the closest object in the frame, when a lens is focused at infinity. As it turned out, the object you see beneath the tree line was in the hyperfocal distance range. So it is also in focus and has become the focal point of the photograph. It’s the point of focus because it stands out above everything else. It sits alone in the water, with nothing surrounding it. It’s separated from the trees.

Casino Couple

This photograph was taken in Asbury Park, New Jersey at the famous carousel. There isn’t a carousel there anymore, and the building is falling apart at the seams.  But it’s a beautiful structure and a lot of fun to people watch or do street photography. Or in this case, boardwalk photography.

The photograph is a lot of fun to view because of the couple standing in one of the doorways. But imagine if they were not there. Yes, you would see the faint images of people outside on the boardwalk. Yes, you would see the lines of the building and the texture on the floor. But nothing would be completing the story. The couple is the story. They are the focal point.

Drift wood in Jordan Pond at Acadia National Park. The colors and fog we amazing during and after the sunrise
Drift wood in Jordan Pond at Acadia National Park. The colors and fog we amazing during and after the sunrise

Photographs like these are so much fun. Standing in water, or balancing on a rock for minutes at a time just for a long exposure. Seeing what’s underneath still water brings life to a still image. But a scene like this would not be as fun or as strong of a composition if that tree wasn’t there.

Imagine if all you could see were the trees in the distance, the fog and the still water. What would stand out? Maybe the long log under the water, or the color of the leaves in the distance. Maybe those would become the focal points. But they wouldn’t be as prominent of a focal point as the one you see here.

The Bubbles

This is proof of what you just read. This photograph has a lot of great elements to it, from the colors of the water, sky, and trees, to the rocks and logs visible under the water. But there are no other elements that are obvious as focal points. So nothing is holding the photo together, to complete the story.

Each year a group of photographers gather somewhere in the world with one goal. To photograph new places and enjoy great times with friends. A new tradition is to create patches with iconic scenes from the places we're photographing. The patch for the 2015 trip was of the Whitman County Growers grain elevator. This is the scene we used for the patch.

The Palouse region of Washington State is known for their rolling hills. It’s one of those areas and scenes which so many photographers have on their bucket lists. A scene like this is easy to get lost in. There are so many colors, shadows, and patterns to photograph. It’s easy to capture with a wide angle lens, too. But there are so many things that can wrong by doing that, and one of those things is the lack of a focal point.

This photograph is filled with color, texture, and movement. There is a constant that remains. The building just below the center frame. It doesn’t move; it’s bright and also has beautiful light on it. It’s the focal point, and the waves of green fields surrounding it, are complimentary. Without the building the photograph would not be as strong as it is – it would be green hills.

gtnp

This last photograph from Grand Teton National Park is an example of one that doesn’t need a separate object as the focal point. The point of focus are the trees. They are what stand tall, bright, sharp and clear. The water, sky, and mountains are the complimentary elements which finish the story. The trees are the glue to that story.

But if you imagine this photograph without the trees all you would be left with are the water, sky, and mountains. Although the mountains are so far in the distance that they can’t be the focal point. To make them so, you would need to zoom in much closer. So it can be done, just not with this composition.

Think Focal Points

At this point, you are read about the importance of having a point of focus in every photograph you make.

You have seen real world examples and visualized how photographs would look without focal points.

It’s your time to go further with your compositions and include obvious points of focus in your work. If you try and fail, then try again. Never give up and keep learning.

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