When we look at a photograph, our eyes travel around the image from
one place to another. It’s therefore essential that you understand –
and direct – the way a viewer’s eye traverses the frame. With
deliberate placement of graphic elements in the composition, you can
create a more dynamic, engaging photograph. It’s also important that
the viewer’s eye remains within the frame. Directional lines or
distracting elements near the edges of the frames can actually draw
the eye out of the picture.
The most basic graphic elements in a picture are points and lines.
Points are spots where the eye lands and/or changes direction, and are
also formed where lines intersect or change direction. Points can also
be visible graphic elements in the picture, such as the small lights
in the above photo of the Brooklyn Bridge and New York skyline. A
strong photograph will usually have a main focal point, or center of
interest, where the eye comes to rest. This is the most important
point in the photo.
Lines connect points. Lines in a photograph can be visible or
invisible. When the viewer’s eye traverses between two points, this
creates a line, even if a physical line is not present. A good example
of this: when a photo includes a person or animal that appears to be
looking in a certain direction, there is an invisible line created at
the subject’s eyes and extending outward in a straight line. A viewer
will nearly always follow their gaze along this line to see what’s at
the other end.
Lines can also, of course, be strongly visible in many photographs.
These lines have several effects. First, at the places where lines
intersect, points are created. Also, the edges of lines create shapes.
Most importantly, a viewer’s eyes will tend to travel along the lines
in a picture.
Lines have significant psychological connotations and convey a wide
range of emotional and intellectual concepts. Take for example the
“s-curve”, well-known for its strength as a design element. An s-curve
in a photo imparts a gentle, carefree, meandering feeling. This is due
to the fact that the line is taking its time to get to the end,
instead of following a direct, straight path.
Straight lines can seem solid, stable and grounded, such as with a
wide, flat line like a horizon. Alternatively, a vertical line
strongly subdivides the picture frame and depending on the other
graphics in the photo can appear to be unstable or about to topple
Angled lines can contribute a great deal of energy to a photo. This is
especially the case with crooked, jagged lines, which resemble teeth,
broken glass, knives or other sharp objects humans have related to
As a photographer, your challenge is to create compelling pictures
through the careful placement of elements in the composition. Your
decisions about the design of an image must be in harmony with your
intention and/or message of the photograph. For example, if the theme
of your photo is peace and tranquility, try not to include elements
with jagged lines.
When you’re composing a photograph, take the time to identify the
points and lines that affect the eye travel and consider the effects –
both obvious and subconscious – these elements will have on the
viewer. Your photos will be much stronger when you apply good design.