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Emphasis in photography

Emphasis in photography is the subtle art of guiding the viewer's eye, using light, composition, and focus to spotlight the soul of the scene...

What is emphasis in photography?

Emphasis in photography is a technique photographers use to make their subjects stand out and 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 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 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 emphasize an image to drive a certain story. But it's still up to the viewer what emotion or story they take away from the image. For example, in this image, I wanted to emphasize 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:

Beach photo with people walking in sand.
Sunset on beach

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, which reminds 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?

To emphasize your own photography, you will need to understand composition, lighting, and color, as well as 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 accidentally capture emphasis in an image, knowing how to do so each time will allow you to eliminate guesswork during a photo shoot. With that being said, let's dive into all the tips you can use to emphasize your subject.

1. Shallow depth of field

One of the most effective ways to emphasize your images is to use a shallow depth of field. This involves 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 emphasize will be sharp and clear, while the background will be blurred.

Oftentimes: 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: First, you need to ensure you are using a lens that can achieve a wide aperture setting with an f-stop number between f/1.8 and f/2.8. Set your f-stop to a wide aperture number.

This is also good for knowing 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 exposure balance in the image and emphasis on the subject.

For example, in this image, I used f/1.8 on a 50mm lens to capture a shallow depth of field:

Man standing in white shirt with background blur.
Shallow depth of field portrait

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 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 will help you 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 with 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 won't experience a loss of detail or sharpness in the final photograph.

Graphic showing the common aspect ratios for cropping.
Common aspect ratios for cropping

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. However, I believe it is one of the first composition techniques photographers should know and consider using.

The rule of thirds involves dividing your image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, to create a grid of nine equal sections. From there, 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 almost every photography genre, from portraits to product photoshoots.

For example: In this image I took in Japan, I have the sun aligned at the bottom left intersection:

Mountain and setting sun in Japan using rule of thirds.
Rule of thirds

4. Use framing

The fourth tip to create emphasis in your images is to use the framing composition technique. Framing involves using elements within the scene to create a "frame" around your subject or focal point to draw attention to it. Trees, arches, rails, doors, and other elements can be used to create this frame.

Framing can also be used to create a sense of contrast and juxtaposition, which can create a more visually interesting composition overall. 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 you are trying to emphasize.

Man reaching hand between bars framing him.
Frame within frame composition

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.

You can use many things 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. Otherwise, it could draw away from the overall composition and emphasis.

Woman walking down road that is leading lines.
Leading line composition

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 triangles 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.

For example, in this image, there are triangles that all meet at the point of emphasis:

Woman walking down bridge.
Before triangles
Woman walking down bridge with triangle lines.
After triangles

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.

Islamic book in the middle of pink flowers.
Pattern breaking

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 to add depth and interest while also emphasizing certain elements. Texture can take many different forms, such as rough surfaces, smooth surfaces, or even an object's patterns and lines.

Texture can be used to create a sense of depth within your image, making it more three-dimensional and tactile. For example, 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.

Woman touching water creating a ripple.

9. Keeping it simple

The ninth tip to emphasize your subject in photography is to keep it simple. A simple and uncluttered background and scene will allow the viewer to be easily 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.


Ensure that there are no unnecessary elements in the frame that could distract from the subject or focal point.

For example, if your main emphasis is on a person, 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, as 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 fill 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 technique to incorporate emphasis into your photograph.

Girl with face tattoos and white hair for a headshot photo.
Filling the frame

11. Use negative space

The next tip is to use negative space. Negative space is another great technique to emphasize 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.

Beach photo with people walking in sand.
Negative space

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 emphasize your subject.

Analogous colors on color wheel.
Analogous colors

When using analogous colors, it's important to consider the color of your subject and choose a background or environment that complements it.

For example:

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 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.

Woman on hill with analogous colors.
Analogous colors portrait

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.

Complementary colors on color wheel.
Complementary colors

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.) or focal point and the background or environment they contrast with.

Wave in the ocean with complementary colors.
Complementary colors wave

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):
Side by side photos of tonal contrast and color contrast.
Tonal contrast and color contrast

To effectively use tonal contrast, lighting techniques such as side lighting or backlighting can create deep shadows and bright highlights. This creates a sense of depth and dimensionality that emphasizes the subject.

To effectively use color contrast, you can use complementary colors, as mentioned earlier, or colors 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 to your photography is to use curved lines. Curved lines add a sense of flow and movement to an image, which draws the viewer's attention to your main focal point. I like to think of curved lines as leading lines, but they are curved.

To effectively use curved lines, you can position your subject to emphasize the curve of the lines. This can be achieved by using composition techniques such as framing the subject with curves in the background. It's important to note that when using curved lines, the subject should stand out against the background.

This can be achieved by using lighting or depth of field to separate the subject from the background.

Woman walking down road on curved leading line.
Curved line leading lines

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 put emphasis on 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 come from the overall scene rather than any particular element.

In conclusion, 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.

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