When someone looks at one of your photographs, what do they see? Where do they look first, second, and third? How do their eyes move through the frame? To communicate effectively through your photographs, you have to direct your viewers’ attention. You can’t just hope that they’ll notice your subject; you have to make them look at it. How do you that? With light, design, and processing.
Light can make your subject stand out, and draw viewers’ attention right to it—or pull their eyes away to something completely different. Look at the image of Half Dome below and notice what areas attract your attention. Where does your eye go first? Second? Third? If you’re like most people, you probably looked first at the sunburst, and next at either the yellow trees or the cloud wrapped around Half Dome. Why? Because these are the brightest and most colorful areas in the photograph.
Our attention is naturally drawn to bright spots and warm colors. In this image, I want people to look at the sunburst, the yellow trees, and Half Dome; to me, these are the most interesting parts of the photograph, so the light complemented this scene perfectly. But it doesn’t always work this way. In the first image (left) of Bridalveil Fall below, most of the waterfall is in the shade, so your eye gets pulled to less interesting, but brighter, areas in the upper-right and lower-right corners of the frame. There’s a competition between the subject (the waterfall) and the light.
In the second image (right), a sunbeam spot-lit the waterfall, drawing attention to the two main subjects (the water and the rainbow) because they’re the brightest and most colorful things in the frame. To me, this image is far more successful.
If your main subject is dark, with bright areas next to it, or behind it, you’ll create a visual competition between your subject and those adjacent highlights. Ideally, you want the main points of interest to be the brightest things in the frame so that viewer’s eye goes there immediately.
Of course, there are always exceptions. If a dark subject contrasts with brighter surroundings, your attention goes right to it, as it does with this Joshua tree silhouetted against the sky (below). So a dark subject can work if it stands out clearly against a brighter background. While our eyes usually get drawn to bright spots, they always get pulled toward contrast.
You can also direct viewers’ eye with lines and shapes. In the photograph below of El Capitan in autumn (left), the light does a lot of the work; the two main focal points (the cliff and the foreground leaves) stand out because they’re the brightest and most colorful things in the frame. But your attention is also directed to El Capitan because nearly every prominent line in the photograph points right to it (right). Even though El Capitan occupies only a small part of the frame, you can’t miss it.
The example below is more subtle but shows the power of circular design. Again, light plays a role; the dark silhouette of the small bush stands out against the lighter water behind it, while your attention also gets pulled toward the brighter patches of water, particularly along the side on the left and the top.
Those bright reflections in the river form a semicircle, and in the lower right corner there’s another, less obvious semi-circular shape that draws your eye back, and completes the circle. This circular design keeps your gaze from wandering out of the frame and brings your attention back to the central bush.
The subjects in this photograph are mundane: a shrub and some water. But the light and lines make the image interesting. The more you think about the underlying design of your photographs, and how lines and shapes direct the eye, the better your compositions will be.
Nature rarely provides perfect illumination, so sometimes we have to help it along. Even the best photographs often benefit from dodging and burning, which is selectively lightening or darkening parts of the image in software. By lightening an object, you draw more attention to it; darkening something makes it less obvious. Both can be used to direct the viewer’s eye.
I was lucky to find beautiful, backlit mist underneath Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite one June morning (below, Ieft). But the left side and upper-left corner are both bright, and light areas along the edge tend to pull your eye out of the frame. On the other hand, Bridalveil Fall is a major focal point, but it was shaded and dark and needs to draw the eye more.
I used Lightroom’s Adjustment Brush to darken the left edge and upper-left corner and lighten the area around the waterfall. The illustration on the right shows the areas I changed, and the Exposure settings I used with the Adjustment Brush (negative amounts for darkening, positive numbers for lightening).
You can also make similar adjustments with the Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop, or for more flexibility, make a Levels or Curves adjustment layer, then paint on the layer mask to select the area you’d like to change (paint with white to select, black to hide).
With either Lightroom or Photoshop (or any other software), large, soft-edged brushes usually work best for dodging and burning, as they create gradual transitions that make the changes less apparent. And don’t overdo it—a small amount of lightening or darkening can make a large difference, and bigger moves usually look heavy-handed and obvious. In the image below the changes are subtle, but your eye now travels more easily to the most interesting parts of the photo: Bridalveil Fall and the mist in the center (below).
Almost every photograph can benefit from dodging and burning. After you’ve adjusted the overall color balance, contrast, and saturation, look at the brighter parts of the image. Are any of these spots distracting? Do they pull the eye away from more interesting things? If so, darken them to help draw attention elsewhere. Then look at the darker regions. Are any of these areas important focal points that need to draw the eye more? If so, lighten them.
Be the Director
You can’t always control the light, but you can look for situations the where light makes your subject stand out from its surroundings. You may not be able to move mountains or trees to create a perfect composition, but you can become more conscious of how lines and shapes direct attention, and use that to your advantage. And if the light and design aren’t perfect, you can use dodging and burning to draw the eye a little better.
When you make conscious decisions about where you want viewers to look, and use the tools of light, design, and processing to direct people’s eyes, you become a creator and communicator with a camera, rather than just a snap-shooter. Take charge: be the director of your photographs—and of your viewers’ attention.
Michael Frye is a professional photographer and workshop leader specializing in landscapes and nature. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography and is the author or principal photographer of five print books, including The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. Magazine credits include National Wildlife, Outdoor Photographer, American Photo, Sunset, and Texas Highways, plus many others. Michael and his wife, Claudia, live in Mariposa, California, just outside Yosemite National Park. You can see more of Michael’s work on his website.