Basic Composition - Focal Point

In nature photography, images that draw the viewer in have a point of interest, or a focal point. This could be something quite small such as a far-away subject or one that is small-sized within the camera’s frame. Regardless of size, a strong focal point can make an otherwise boring or average image appear interesting. This harks back to my previous blog about using negative space creatively as single small subjects can often be surrounded by negative space which helps draw the viewer's attention. But in this blog, I’ll show you that a single subject can be a powerful element even when there are other elements within the frame. Keep in mind, that the idea is to draw the viewer toward the subject, this is what focal point means. But the point of interest should also invite the viewer to take in the entire scene and stay there awhile.

First, the subject or focal point. Look at the image below (reader beware, the following description may conjure up, let’s say, not so pretty thoughts). While photographing on the Gulf Islands National Seashore, I was drawn to this large driftwood laying in the surf. The image has a single subject serving as a strong focal point surrounded by negative space. I was liking it, until someone looked at the photo and told me the driftwood looked like – let’s just say, something that you would not want to step in. Well, that killed it for me! I was so enamored with the mood of the beautiful blue tones in this long exposure water scene that I totally disregarded the appearance of the subject.

My point is, if you include a single subject as a focal point, make it an appealing one and not one that causes the viewer to turn away or think of something awful. The subject does not have to be amazingly beautiful or command great attention under normal conditions. Instead, it can be a simple form as in the next example. Although the bird is a very small part of the scene, it provides a point of interest. Without it, the image falls short, as seen on the right.

Here are a few tips on how I decide if a single element is focal-point-worthy.

Placement. I may sound like a broken record but remember these three little words – Rule of Thirds. You can see that the first two images above relied on that rule for placement of the single subject. As seen below, I also used it in the single mangrove image (also from Biscayne Bay) where the tree is centered but it is placed at the top third of the vertical frame.

Lighting. In photography, light almost always determines whether an image is quality or not. In the image below, perfect warm light illuminated the bird and the grasses surrounding it. Despite the busy scene, nothing competes with the bird including the lit mangrove roots in the left bottom corner. In fact, these help to balance the scene.

Leading lines. Nothing like lines to lead the viewer’s eyes to the main subject. Keep in mind that while the focal point is the subject and you want the eyes drawn there, the entire image should appeal to the viewer.

Shape. I look for interesting shapes, patterns or textures in my subject and this is probably why red mangrove trees dominate many of my images, such as the one below. Here, I took advantage of negative space to emphasize the tree.

Color and contrast. The subject should stand out from its surroundings. In the left image below, the white bird stands out beautifully against the dark greens and without it, the scene has no point of interest.

Mood. Mostly, I photograph water and sky and depending on the conditions or time of day, the predominately blue scene offers a tranquil and peaceful mood such as with the image below. The small mangrove tree helps give the viewer a sense of place.

One among many. Here, you have one subject that differs from all the others, such as in the image below.

Keep these ideas in mind as you go out searching for attention-grabbing scenes. If you are looking for wildlife, you may not have the ability to ‘fill the frame’ with your subject. But don’t put away your camera! Remember, a strong point of interest does not have to fill the frame; sometimes less is more. By composing an image that includes a significant amount of its surroundings your subject may have just as much or more impact as a close-up.

Thanks for looking on and if you are interested in receiving tutorials in Photoshop or individualized workshops in the field, please check out my website and feel free to contact me at