Garth Hagerman Photo/Graphics
Garth Hagerman Photo/Graphics

Guide to Composing your Photos

Part Two: Dramatic Focus

In the theatre, an important aspect of the director’s job is to control the “blocking”, the arrangement or composition of actors on the stage. The director tries to keep the audience’s attention focused on the important action at all times.

What catches the audience’s eye? What keeps their attention? The answers to these questions are no less significant to photography than they are to theatre. Your role as a photographer is similar to a director’s role in the theatre; you control the dramatic focus of your photographs through the arrangement of compositional elements.

How do we control the dramatic focus of our photographs? We can find some clues by looking at the director’s craft.

When an actor who is supposed to be the dramatic focus of a scene is being “upstaged”, someone else is doing something so interesting that the audience’s attention will be distracted from the intended dramatic focus.

Imagine, as Hamlet delivers his “to be, or not to be” soliloquy, that there’s another actor juggling knives on an elevated platform behind Hamlet. The Danish Prince is being upstaged, since juggling knives is generally more interesting to look at than someone talking to himself. If the juggler were to put down his knives and stare intently at Hamlet, the audience’s eyes would follow the stare to the right and proper dramatic focus point. But, as long as the juggling continues, it doesn’t make much difference what Hamlet says; the audience is only paying attention to the juggler.

The position of the actors on stage is important in determining the dramatic focus point. Locations that are more likely to be the dramatic focus point are termed “strong”, those less likely to be the focus point are “weak”.

Most set and lighting designs create their own strong positions. Converging lines, created by stage risers, furniture, walls, etc. focus the audience’s attention on particular areas of the stage. Elevated positions are stronger than low ones. Positions close to the audience are stronger than those far away. Brightly lit positions are stronger than dark ones.

Where do we want to place the dramatic focus of a photograph? How do we control that dramatic focus? How do we avoid upstaging our intended dramatic focus point? To find strong positions in a photographic image, and thus learn how to control dramatic focus, let’s go back to the ROT.

Let’s place both the horizontal and vertical thirdsy lines on the same field, so that we wind up with:

Thirdsy lines create center stage
Thirdsy lines create center stage

Our “center stage” is the central rectangle formed by the thirdsy lines. Generally, photos should have their dramatic focus points off center. In this one small way, our theatre analogy breaks down for a moment.

Center stage is always a powerful, strong position on stage, but photos with their primary subjects dead center look too mechanical, too simple, too unambiguous, and too blah. Let the viewer take a moment to figure out what is happening in your photo.

The intersections of the thirdsy lines are naturally strong positions, particularly since major compositional lines tend to intersect at those points. More often than not, these are the perfect spots for dramatic focal points.

Let’s look at some of the other tools we might use to control the dramatic focus in our images. These tools include diagonal lines, interesting shapes, breaks in patterns, contrasting color, and optical focus.

Diagonal lines can be powerful compositional tools. They create a certain dramatic tension by dividing the frame in two. If a diagonal just happens to intersect a strong vertical element near a thirdsy junction, you get… voila!… an instant dramatic focus point. The audience’s eyes are naturally drawn to the intersections of lines, just as they are drawn to intersecting set design elements on stage.

Not only that, but those intersecting lines just happen to create one of our interesting shapes, the triangle. In addition to being intrinsically interesting, triangles also point—in fact, they can point right to your dramatic focus point. Let’s go back to photo fantasy land and look at an example: a mountain ridge runs diagonally across the frame; at the right thirdsy line, there’s a prominent tree. Our example looks something like this:

Diagonal ridge line with thirded tree
Diagonal ridge line with thirded tree

Notice the triangle formed by the ridge, the tree, and the top of the frame. The intersection of the tree and the ridge forms a strong dramatic focus point, but there’s not really anything to look at once our attention is drawn there. To save this image, we need to apply…

Dr. Garth’s Prescription for Improving your Photography #1453

For a dramatic focus point to function properly, it needs two things: a compositionally strong position, and either something interesting in that position or a suggestion of something interesting outside the frame.

Let’s go back to our example. We’ve already established the strong position for our dramatic focus point. Maybe there’s a jackrabbit conveniently located at the base of the tree so that it’s silhouetted against the sky. That might work, but it’s too hard to draw. We’ll suggest that there’s something interesting just around the ridge by adding a trail which winds crosses the ridge near the tree and disappears. We end up with something like this:

What is around that bend?
What is around that bend?

The trail makes this a more interesting image in three ways. First, it strengthens the dramatic focus point by adding another converging line.

Second, it gives the viewers some food for thought as they imagine themselves walking that trail. What is beyond that ridge?

Third, it illustrates another one of those tools we can use to control dramatic focus: another interesting shape, the “S” curve. They give your viewers’ eyes a leisurely, flowing tour of the image.

A great way to draw your viewers’ attention to a small area of the image is by breaking a pattern, or more accurately, setting up a pattern, and then breaking it. To demonstrate this, let’s go back to our theatre analogy for a moment. An actor can emphasize a really important line is by using variations in his delivery tempo, volume, and dramatic pauses. Listening only to the pace of his delivery, we might hear something like this:

…fasttalkfasttalkfasttalkfasttalk…pause…REALLY IMPORTANT LINE…pause…fasttalkfasttalkfasttalk.

The actor sets up the pattern of rapid delivery, and then breaks it by setting the important line off with pauses, so everyone in the audience pays attention to the important line.

Back to photo fantasy land for another example: we’re shooting a photo which features ripples on a pond. The ripples form a series of curved lines across the frame. Conveniently located on the top right thirdsy intersection there’s a rock holding a weathered leaf in place. The break in the pattern creates an instant dramatic focus point. It looks something like this:

A leaf breaks a pattern of ripples
A leaf breaks a pattern of ripples

It’s pretty simple to use contrasting colors to control dramatic focus. Viewers’ eyes are naturally attracted to bright colors, especially when they contrast with a drab background. This contrast can look especially dramatic when combined with selective optical focus.

Strong and weak positions in an image

Just as there are strong positions and weak positions on a stage, there are strong and weak positions in a photograph. In order to compose our images well, we need to understand what makes regions of an image strong or weak. Many of these characteristics of strength are fairly obvious, others not so obvious. Let’s make a list.

Dark regions of an image are weak; bright regions are strong. The area around the junction of intersecting lines is strong, areas where the lines are far apart are weak. Sharply focused areas are strong; blurry zones are weak. The middle region of an image is strong; the edges are weak. Saturated colors are strong; drab colors are weak. Contrasty areas are strong; soft areas are weak.

Stronger is not necessarily better. If you have too many strong areas in an image, you wind up with a sort of visual overkill analogous to a stage full of ham actors all trying to upstage each other; too much action, but no interaction. The eyes of the audience flit about for a while, trying to make some sense of the jumbled, bombastic mess. Eventually, the audience members give up and go home.

The key is to use weak regions to emphasize the strong ones, giving the eyes of the viewer definite anchor points to focus on. That’s easier said than done, of course, but I hope the preceding chapter has given you the tools to begin to explore ways to create photographs that are not merely grabshots, but works of art.