Focal Points and Their Hierarchies: A Guide to Guiding the Eye
Welcome back to the Lhalheva School of Photography! Before we dive into part one, do make sure that you’ve familiarised yourself with the overall layout of the series. You can find the overview and outline of the entire Art Fundamentals series in my introductory piece. If you’ve already done that (or you’re feeling spicy and enjoy a sense of mystery), let’s get started!
Again, please keep in mind that the vocabulary I’ll be equipping you with is not necessarily universal. It’s just the language I’ve been taught and that I’ve used for all my years as a visual artist. If someone uses different terminology, they’re not necessarily wrong–and don’t let them tell you that your terms are wrong either!
The Importance of Composition
As we’ve discussed before, composition is one of the most important building blocks of a great picture. What is composition, exactly? For those of you unfamiliar with the term, we can define it like this:
“Composition is a set of techniques that allows the artist to draw and direct attention.”
That said, the importance of mastering compositional techniques should be pretty self-explanatory. As /gpose users, photographers, and artists, we must able to draw and direct the attention of our viewers, because we are storytellers. And just as stories have a beginning, middle, and end, we need to be be able to guide our viewers through our pictures.
Okay, so we know from the definition I just gave you that we need to be able to draw and direct attention. That means first and foremost, we need to be able to draw attention. How do we grab our audience? How do we get them to stop scrolling down their timelines and say, “Oh wow!” How do we captivate people so that they want to take a closer look?
Based on what we know about the human eye and the human brain, there are 3 things that jump out at us and grab our visual attention most quickly. Let’s go over them in no particular order.
The first is motion–but since we’re presenting static images, we’ll have to use the indication of motion. In other words, one of the most attention-grabbing elements of a picture is action.
“Action can really grab the eye and pose a lot of questions, making your photo interesting.”
The second thing that draws the eye is contrast. This will usually mean contrast between light and dark, but it can also mean colour contrast (ex. red/green, gold/blue, blue/pink), and it can also mean shape contrast (ex. big/small, round/sharp, neat/messy).
“Contrast between light and dark.”
“Colour contrast between red and green.”
“Shape contrast between neat and messy.”
Typically light/dark and colour contrast are established through good lighting, so I’d recommend you check out the guide on /gpose lights from the Snaps team!
The third eye magnet isn’t any sort of artistic technique: it’s faces. Our eyes love seeing faces, or things that we can interpret as a face (usually just eyes and a mouth is enough). Facial expressions themselves can help tell a significant part of the story, too.
“Without my facial expression here, the story would be incomplete.”
However, even with these tools in your toolbag, it’s important to remember not to overdo it. Many times, less is more. Having one point of simple, but sharp, contrast is often enough to make a compelling image. Also keep in mind that when you have too many points of attention, something occurs called compositional clumping. That is, groups of similar things tend stand out less, and get pushed into the background. This can be a useful tool if you want to take emphasis away from something, but be careful that you don’t de-emphasise anything important.
“The little green lights in the upper left corner were actually duplicated in Photoshop. In the raw screenshot, there was only one of them, which drew too much attention by itself.”
Speaking of adding or subtracting attention to certain pieces of our pictures, let’s move on to the next pillar of composition: directing attention.
Once you’ve grabbed your viewer’s attention, you need to be able to direct it. You need to be able to tell a story–after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. Those thousand words won’t mean very much if you can’t put them in an order that makes sense, and keeps your viewer captivated.
We do this by establishing a read order. This is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the order in which the viewer should “read” the picture. As mentioned in the introductory guide, most images have at most 2-3 important reads, and the rest of the image is pushed back to act as a background.
“The first read here is the airship in the sky, and the second is me sitting on the boxes. Challenge yourself to see if you can figure out what techniques I’ve used to establish this read order!”
You already know how to establish your first read–that’s how we drew attention to our picture in the first place. The first read should be extremely noticeable, the very first thing to leap up out of the picture at the viewer. It does not necessarily have to be the most important thing in the picture; you can use a first read to set up a question, which you then answer with the second read or third read. However, if you’re just starting out, it’s always a safe bet to make the most important element of your image the first read, since that will guarantee that you get your main point across.
Establishing the second and third reads is very similar to defining the first read. All you need to do to tone down the extremity of the techniques that you applied to make your first read jump out. If your first read is marked by extreme light/dark contrast, then your second read can have slightly less contrast. Experiment with the tools you have, and don’t forget to lean back and judge your image as a very small thumbnail. Does your read order still work when you can’t identify the details of the image? This is the essence of good composition. Your picture needs to be compelling even if it’s too small for the viewer to see exactly what’s going on.
There is another technique for defining second and third reads, called guiding lines, but we’ll talk about that more in-depth in the next guide, which will cover framing. For now, let’s focus on applying the three attention-grabbing techniques I’ve provided you, and learning how to gradate them so that you have well-defined first, second, and third reads.
The Start of an Adventure
There’s a lot more to composition than I could possibly explain or discuss in one guide, but I don’t want to take away from the fundamentals by talking about too many details. As we progress through this series of guides, I’d like to stress that I don’t want to be the only person you learn from. I really encourage you to go out and learn how other artists set things up, even outside of /gpose and FFXIV. Of course, there are a lot of excellent artists and writers right here on FFXIV Snaps as well!
And don’t forget, the key to mastery is practice. I’m looking forward to all the great pictures from you all, and I’ll see you in the next guide!
Art Fundamentals Article Index
Focal Points and Their Hierarchies: A Guide to Guiding the Eye (you’re here!)
Framing the Shot: Concepts and Solutions for Camera Placement (work in progress)
Light and Dark: An Introduction to Contrast and Value (work in progress)
HSV and the Colour Wheel: How to Define and Arrange Colours (work in progress)
Warm and Cold: Injecting Meaning into Colours (work in progress)
Demonstration of Principles (work in progress)