Think of all the images we see every day — from images on TV, billboards, social media, the Internet, video games, magazines, websites, etc.
Just from the images we see on ads every day, it’s averaged that people are exposed to 4,000 to 10,000 each day.
That’s a lot of images and pictures!
With people being exposed to so many images, how do you make your image stand out from the rest of the pack?
That’s where emphasis comes into play.
If you’re looking to create images that stand out from the rest of the crowd in order to get more likes on social media, get more clients, or to build up your photography brand awareness, then this guide is for you.
I’ll be covering:
- What emphasis in photography means
- Why emphasis in photography is important
- Tips you can use to better emphasize your subject
With that being said, let’s dive in!
If you prefer video format, be sure to check out the video version:
Table of Contents
What is Emphasis in Photography?
Emphasis in photography is a technique photographers use to make their subjects stand out in order to quickly capture and hold the viewer’s attention.
As I’ll touch on later, however, emphasis is not achieved through just one technique but can be created by using many techniques and tips.
Why is Emphasis in Photography Important?
Similar to emphasizing a word in a sentence or on a screen, emphasis in photography gives a specific focal point or subject importance.
As photographers, we have the power to choose what we want to emphasize to the viewer.
This emphasis can also greatly influence the story that we want to tell through our image.
However, as mentioned in my article on Punctum this may not always be the case.
Although we can emphasize a specific person or thing in an image, the viewer may have a different story or emotion that they get from viewing that image.
So in other words:
As photographers, we can do our best to add emphasis to an image to drive a certain story.
But it’s still up to the viewer to what emotion or story they take away from the image.
In this image I took, I wanted to draw the main emphasis on the area with the yellow sunset using complementary colors and negative space.
However, the story or emotions they take away from this image could vary.
The story I wanted to convey was just one of a peaceful, relaxing beach session watching the sun go down:
Other stories viewers could have could relate to the people on the bottom right walking on the beach.
It could remind the viewer how they used to do that with their family.
The viewer may also notice the airplane streak in the sky and remind them of an airshow they went to when they were younger.
My point is:
The photographer should emphasize only one thing or focal point in an image but the viewer may draw many stories or emotions from it.
How Do You Show Emphasis in Photography?
In order to show emphasis in your own photography, it will require an understanding of composition, lighting, color, the technical know-how of your camera such as shooting in manual mode, and how the elements of the exposure triangle all work together to affect exposure (shutter speed, ISO, aperture).
While you may capture emphasis in an image accidentally, knowing how to capture it each time will allow you to take the guesswork out when on a photo shoot.
With that being said, let’s dive into all the tips you can use to emphasize your subject.
15 Tips to Emphasize Your Subject in Photography
1. Shallow Depth of Field
One of the most effective ways to create emphasis in your images is to use a shallow depth of field.
This involves you using a wide aperture (smaller f-stop) in order to limit the amount of the scene that is in focus.
This can draw your viewer’s eyes to a specific person or thing in the image.
When using a shallow depth of field, the subject you are emphasizing will be sharp and clear while the background will be blurred.
This is what creates that dreamy bokeh look.
The background blur when using a shallow depth of field will also create a sense of depth and distance.
This will help the subject or focal point you are trying to emphasize look and feel more isolated and separated from the rest of the elements in the scene.
Using this technique is most effective for any mid-to-close range photography.
Such as portrait photography, headshot photography, macro photography, food photography, product photography, etc.
How to achieve the shallow depth of field:
You first need to ensure you are using a lens that can achieve a wide aperture setting with f-stop numbers ranging from f/1.8 or f/2.8.
Set your f-stop to a wide aperture number.
This is where it’s also good to know the other two elements of the exposure triangle — the shutter speed and ISO.
You’ll need to balance shutter speed and ISO with the aperture settings.
This balance will allow you to get the perfect balance of exposure in the image and emphasis on the subject.
In this image, I used f/1.8 on a 50mm lens to capture shallow depth of field:
2. Crop the Image
The second way to create emphasis in your image is to simply crop the image.
Cropping will remove any parts of the image that you feel are not essential to the subject or story you want to tell.
By cropping your image, you can remove any unnecessary elements.
This way you can better draw the viewer’s attention directly to the person or thing you are trying to emphasize in the image.
Cropping can be particularly effective when photographing a scene that has many elements and potential focal points.
When you crop your image, however, make sure you are mindful of the aspect ratio of the photograph.
I recommend using the recommended crop aspect ratios when cropping your image in order to ensure you maintain a common aspect ratio
Maintain a common aspect ratio such as 4:5 or 5:7 or even 1:1.
Then when you export your image you, you won’t experience a loss of detail or sharpness in the final photograph.
3. Use the Rule of Thirds
The third tip to create emphasis in your images is to use the rule of thirds composition technique.
The rule of thirds is one of many photography composition techniques.
But I believe it is one of the first composition techniques every photographer should know and consider using.
The rule of thirds involves you dividing your image into thirds both horizontally and vertically to create a grid of nine equal sections.
You’ll want to place your main focal point or subject on one of the intersections of the grid.
The subject or focal point that is placed on the intersection will be the point of emphasis in the image.
I personally love this technique because it is a pretty simple composition technique to pull off.
It can create a more dynamic and interesting-looking image.
It can also be used in pretty much every photography genre from portraits to product photoshoots.
In this image, there are two trees in the scene.
The tree on the left at the intersection point is the one that most viewers are drawn to first and is the point of emphasis:
4. Use Framing
The fourth tip to create emphasis in your images is to use the framing composition technique.
Framing involves the use of elements within the scene to create a “frame” around your subject or focal point to draw attention to it.
Elements that can be used to create this frame can range from trees, arches, rails, doors, etc.
Framing can also be used to create a sense of contrast and juxtaposition which can create an overall more visually interesting composition.
Once you get the hang of framing down, then you can then try out a frame within a frame composition technique.
This technique involves framing within your current frame.
It sounds more complicated than it really is and most framing compositions are also frame within a frame photography compositions.
One other tip when it comes to framing is to try to avoid creating a frame that has too much going on in it.
It could take away from the impact of the subject or focal point within the frame that you are trying to emphasize.
5. Leading Lines
The fifth technique you can use to create emphasis in your images is to use leading lines.
This technique involves using lines within the scene to lead the viewer’s eye toward a subject or focal point in the image.
The point that the leading lines are being directed to is often the point of emphasis within the image.
When using leading lines, you’ll want to consider the direction and placement of the lines.
There are many things you can use as lines such as railways, railings, roads, streets, pavement, etc.
Similar to the framing composition, you’ll want to ensure that the objects that the lines are leading to are not too distracting.
Or else it could draw away from the overall composition and emphasis.
6. Using Triangles and Diagonal Lines
The sixth technique you can use to create emphasis in photography is to use triangle and diagonal lines.
I like to think of triangle and diagonal lines as leading lines that just form triangles and diagonals.
Just as the name sounds, this technique involves the use of diagonal lines and the shapes of triangles to lead the viewer’s eyes to a particular point in the image.
Similar to leading lines, the point where the lines meet should be the point of emphasis in the image.
In this image, there are triangles that all meet at the point of emphasis:
7. Breaking a Pattern
Pattern breaking is a powerful technique in photography that involves deliberately breaking established patterns within the scene.
This technique can be used to create a sense of surprise or tension within the photograph.
It can be particularly effective in creating a unique and visually interesting image.
The subject or element that “breaks the pattern” will be the point of emphasis.
When using pattern breaking, you can identify established patterns within the scene such as repetitive shapes, colors, or textures.
You can then deliberately introduce an element that disrupts or breaks this pattern.
This can draw the viewer’s attention toward the most important elements of the photograph.
Pattern breaking can also be used to create a sense of contrast and juxtaposition within the photograph.
When using pattern breaking, it’s important to consider the balance and composition of the image.
You should try to avoid creating a composition that feels too chaotic or disjointed, as this can detract from the impact of the subject.
Instead, focus on creating a balanced and visually appealing composition that draws the viewer’s attention toward the subject.
8. Using Texture
The eighth tip to add emphasis to your image is to use texture.
Adding texture to an image is a great way for you to add depth and interest to your image while also creating emphasis on certain elements.
Texture can be found in many different forms such as rough surfaces, smooth surfaces, or even in the patterns and lines of an object.
Texture can be used to create a sense of depth within your image which can create a more three-dimensional and tactile image.
Using interesting textures on the focal point within your image along with a background that has no texture can create a contrast that will draw emphasis to that area.
To capture texture correctly, you’ll want to strike a balance highlighting the texture and creating a balanced composition.
9. Keeping it Simple
The ninth tip to emphasize your subject in photography is to keep it simple.
Having a simple and uncluttered background and scene will allow the viewer to easily be drawn to the main subject in the image.
In order to keep the scene “simple,” you’ll first want to consider the overall composition of the shot.
Make sure that there are no unnecessary elements in the frame that could distract from the subject or focal point.
If your main emphasis is on a person, then try to remove any objects or other people that may detract from him/her.
Another way to keep the scene “simple,” is to use a shallow depth of field mentioned earlier.
10. Fill the Frame
The tenth tip to emphasize your subject is to fill the frame which is another effective compositional technique.
In order to fill the frame, just as the name sounds, you simply eliminate any extraneous details or distractions, leaving only the subject.
To go about filling the frame, you can either physically move closer to your subject or use a longer lens and then zoom in.
This technique is also especially effective when you are photographing smaller subjects or details such as with macro photography.
This is an easy way technique to use to incorporate emphasis into your photograph.
11. Use Negative Space
The next tip is to use negative space.
Negative space is another great technique to add emphasis to your subject in photography.
Negative space refers to the area around your subject that is intentionally left empty.
By leaving this space, there is a sense of isolation and minimalism that is added to the image.
This will draw the viewer’s attention to the subject and point of emphasis.
In order to use negative space, you must leave a significant portion of the frame empty.
This will create a sense of balance and allow the viewer’s eye to rest on the subject.
Using negative space in your images is especially effective when photographing simple, minimalist subjects such as lone trees, one to two people, or a single flower.
By leaving a large area of negative space, you can create a sense of solitude and contemplation.
This will not only add emphasis but will enhance the impact of your subject.
12. Analogous Colors
The twelfth tip to add emphasis to your subjects is to use analogous colors.
Analogous colors are colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel such as blue and green or red and orange.
Analogous colors create a sense of harmony and balance that can enhance the impact and add emphasis to your subject.
When using analogous colors, it’s important to consider the color of your subject and choose a background or environment that complements it.
If your subject is a blue flower, you could choose a green background to create a sense of unity and balance.
Using analogous colors is especially effective when photographing nature scenes, such as landscapes or flowers.
It’s important to note that using analogous colors does not mean that your photograph should only contain two colors.
You can use a range of colors within the analogous color scheme to create depth and interest in the image.
When using a color harmony such as analogous or complementary colors, the color that you want to emphasize should make up around 10-25% of the photo.
In this image the emphasis is on the orange which we can see is around 25% of the photo while the green in the image makes up the other 75%:
13. Complementary Colors
On the other side of analogous colors, we have complementary colors.
Using complementary colors is another effective technique to emphasize your subject.
Complementary colors are colors that are opposite to each other on the color wheel such as blue and orange or red and green.
By using complementary colors in your photograph, you can create a sense of contrast and tension that draws the viewer’s attention to the subject.
Similar to analogous colors, when you use complementary colors, you’ll also want to pay attention to the color of your subject (their outfits, makeup, hair color, skin tone, etc.) and the background or environment they contrast with.
In this image, the emphasis is on the red color, which again, makes up around 30% of the color while the green in the background makes up about 70%:
14. Using Contrast
Using contrast is a fundamental technique in photography that can be used to emphasize your subject.
Contrast refers to the difference between the light and dark areas of an image.
By using contrast in your photograph, you can create a sense of drama and emphasis that draws the viewer’s attention to the subject.
There are two types of contrast that can be used in photography: tonal contrast and color contrast.
Tonal contrast refers to the difference between the light and dark areas of an image.
Color contrast refers to the difference between the colors in the image (we covered this in the previous tip on complementary colors):
To use tonal contrast effectively, you can use lighting techniques such as side lighting or backlighting to create deep shadows and bright highlights.
This creates a sense of depth and dimensionality that emphasizes the subject.
To use color contrast effectively, you can use complementary colors, as mentioned earlier, or use colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel.
For example, a blue subject can be emphasized by placing it against an orange or yellow background.
Using contrast is especially effective when photographing subjects with strong lines or shapes, such as architecture or landscapes.
By emphasizing the contrast between the light and dark areas, you can create a visually striking image that captures the viewer’s attention.
15. Using Curved Lines
The final tip to add emphasis in your photography is to use curved lines.
Curved lines add a sense of flow and movement to an image which can draw the viewer’s attention to your main focal point.
I like to think of curved lines sort of like leading lines but curved.
To use curved lines effectively, you can position your subject in a way that emphasizes the curve of the lines.
This can be achieved by using composition techniques such as framing the subject with the curves in the background.
It’s important to note that when using curved lines, it’s important to ensure that the subject stands out against the background.
This can be achieved by using lighting or depth of field to separate the subject from the background.
Does Every Image in Photography Need to Have Emphasis?
Knowing how to capture emphasis in your photography is an important skill.
But I did want to note that you don’t necessarily need to have emphasis in every single photo that you take.
Emphasis can certainly add impact and interest to your image.
Sometimes though, a photograph can be effective even if there is no single element that is emphasized.
For example, landscape photographs often have a sense of balance and harmony, with no single element dominating the composition.
In such cases, the beauty and visual interest of the image comes from the overall scene, rather than from any particular element.
I hope you enjoyed this guide on emphasis in photography and took away something valuable from the tips.
Emphasis is a great way to add that extra bit of aesthetic interest to your images and turn a bland photo into a great one.
Emphasis should always be considered but as mentioned earlier, it’s not always needed in a photograph.
It’s a good tool to have in your photography toolbelt.
What effect does emphasis have?
Emphasis in photography draws the viewer’s attention to a particular element within the image, creating a sense of importance and impact.
What does emphasis draw attention to?
Emphasis in photography draws attention to a specific element within the composition, such as a subject or object.
Nate Torres is a portrait photographer servicing the Orange County and Los Angeles areas. He specializes in portraits of individuals, couples, groups and headshots. Nate Torres is also a photography writer and content creator and educates other photographers on portrait photography, composition, editing, gear, and business. You can find his content on his personal website, social media, and YouTube Channel, as well as on blogs such as Fstoppers, Photofocus, and Imaginated. Being a former SEO consultant, Nate also teaches other photographers how to use SEO to grow their own photography business on his educational blog, Shutter SEO.