Guest Photo & Post By Nat Coalson

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 viewers eye traverses the frame. With the 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 subjects eyes and extending outward in a straight line. A viewer will nearly always follow their gaze along this line to see whats 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 viewers 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 over.

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 throughout history.

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 youre 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.


Nat Coalson is the author of Nature Photography Photo Workshop and  Lightroom 3: Streamlining Your Digital Photography Process