Drawing the viewer’s attention to the main subject in your photographs will help them understand your story more clearly. If you have a busy scene with no clear focus point it will possibly give your viewers an overall idea of what you were photographing, but they may not scrutinize it for long. Adding a clear center of attention will help you create better storytelling images.
Particularly when you are photographing a locality with a lot going on you can seek to isolate or draw the viewer’s eye to one main subject within your composition. By using this technique, you can develop a style which may become easily recognizable in your photographs.
Lessons from documentary photography
I first learned to make photographs like this while working as a newspaper photographer. My task was to illustrate and support the journalist’s story with my pictures. Making photos that compelled people to stop and look was always my priority. We wanted people to take notice, look at the photo, and read the story.
Photos of broad, general scenes will not achieve this so well as people will typically just flick past them.
Creating a photo essay to tell of your travel experience, an event you attended, a parade, etc., you will be aiming to convey what you saw and how you felt to best engage your audience. By creating a series of images where you have focused in on one main subject in each image you can build an overall illustration communicating to the viewer what it was like to be there. That is storytelling at its best.
There are various techniques you can use to draw attention to one part of your composition. Using a shallow depth of field to isolate is one method. Using the contrast in light between your subject and the background, and various composition methods you can obtain pleasing results.
Play with the background
All of the photos I am using to illustrate this article are from a street parade in Chiang Mai, Thailand. With a lot of people, often cluttered backgrounds, and no real control or means of setting up photos, it’s a challenging situation in which to shoot.
Finding a dark background to help isolate your subject is not always so easy, but when you can it will produce some great photos. In this photo of the boy playing a large drum, I positioned myself so the background was totally in shadow and therefore underexposed.
This has achieved isolation of my main subject and you easily focus your attention on him. My timing to capture a smile and interesting positioning of his drumstick also helped. On its own though, this photograph does not do much to illustrate the parade and environment.
Coming in close to the French horn player (with a 35mm lens on a full frame camera and a wide aperture) I was able to isolate him and at the same time convey more information about his activity and location. Making him the center of attention and at the same time leaving him in context helps tell the story.
Had I used a longer lens it would have included less background and it may have been even more blurred, further distorting the detail and therefore the context of the story would be lost.
Using compositional elements
Using different composition methods such as framing or converging lines you can help draw your viewer’s attention to your chosen subject.
Often during our workshops, I find people want to include too much in their photos. I encourage them to include less and take more photos build up a story that way.
While it is good practice to create a photo essay which has a varied selection of wide, medium and close-up photos, trying to capture too much of what’s in front of you can often produce rather uninteresting photographs. Bringing one part of your composition to the foreground as the center of attention is a more effective means of holding a viewer’s focus.
Single or multiple photos
At the newspaper most often each story was accompanied by a single photograph. So the challenge was to produce one image supporting the narrative of the story. Not always so easy, especially with an event like a parade.
I often encourage people to photograph as if they are shooting to cover a story for a magazine. The aim being to come away with a series of photographs that together will tell the story of their experience. To finish up with 6-10 photos having a clear center of interest in each one and conveying the overall experience of the day.
If you produce a small collection of photos most social media and photo sharing sites have means to display them together in an album or gallery so it’s a great way for you to share your stories and your experiences.
You can see some of these tips in action in the video below. Please share your tips and thoughs on creating more storytelling images by having a center of attention in the comments below.