Eye-catching shots

Photography expert Tom Langford explains how to shoot spectacular images: A strong focal point to attract attention.

Tom Langford photo examples GALLERY 465   2 (photo credit: Tom Langford)
Tom Langford photo examples GALLERY 465 2
(photo credit: Tom Langford)
Regular reader of this column will know that I make no secret of the fact that taking good pictures is not easy. It takes time to develop visual understanding, and lots of discipline and practice before it becomes instinctive.
Even after 20 years of professional shooting it’s still a challenge to take an eye-catching shot, thank goodness, and I’m just as excited today as when I first started.
By definition an eye-catching shot requires a strong focal point to attract the eye. Pictures that lack a focal point are just backgrounds. They don’t tell a story – they’re unmemorable and we pass them by. It’s hardly rocket science!
Let’s have a look at two shots sent for constructive criticism that fall into the background category and see if they could be improved.
This picture is by Ron Gordon, taken at a building site. It’s an excellent Visual Awareness shot – a careful and interesting composition of nothing! Most photographers wouldn’t even notice the way that the bent metal rods seem to throw their arms wide in appreciation of the wonderful sky and Ron gets top marks for awareness. In my classes we practice taking such shots - they train your mind to think like a photographer and sharpen you visual and compositional skills.
Most Visual Awareness pictures, however, are not strong enough in themselves to catch and hold our attention. What’s missing is a strong primary focal point to contrast with the background an turn it into a complete picture. You need to look around for something suitable, but often you will be disappointed.
In my retouched version, below, the bird now catches our attention, then our eye moves to the construction, then to the sky, and back to the bird. When your eye wanders around a picture the photographer has done a good job. They have attracted you into their world.
The next shot was taken by Teemu Liimatainen of Finland. I imagine that this was a beautiful scene but the picture lacks a strong focal point and does not hold my attention.
Digital cameras give us the technological miracle of an instant preview. A simple technique you can use to improve your shots is to take a careful look at the picture you have just taken and be critically honest – is the picture on the back of the camera as interesting as the subject is in front of the camera? If it isn’t, then we need to find a way to “make it so” as Jean-Luk Picard would have advised.
In this case a simple solution would have been to move closer to the rows of plants and use a stronger perspective to draw our eye into the scene. The retouched version below indicates the effect I would have tried to achieve. I have also adjusted the saturation and cropped the picture to suggest the breadth of the vista.
This improved shot is still too much of a background for my liking, so I would then have looked around for something to act as a strong focal point. Most likely I would have been disappointed and not be able to complete the shot. As you develop photographic skills you will become more frustrated as you understand what’s lacking in your shots.
In the version below I’ve included a strong focal point in the foreground. It could just as easily been some attractive flowers or birds, a characterful tree or a No Trespassing sign, etc.
The picture now tells me a story - I can imagine being there, feeling the sun on my face and the breeze in my hair.
See more examples of visual awareness shots how to tell a story with your pictures here: http://www.langford.co.il/courses/PhotoTips.html
Send me your picture If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback. Send one picture only, at a reduced size to [email protected].
Don’t know how to send a photo by email at a reduced size? See my Brief Guide to Picasa here: http://www.langford.co.il/courses/PicasaGuide.html
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, website designer, and professional retoucher. He teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at: http://www.langford.co.il/courses/