Focal Point

Millions of years of evolution mean that we scan our surroundings constantly, looking out for the unusual -- which may spell friend, foe or the next meal. If we don't see anything that catches our attention, we can afford to dismiss whatever we are looking at, and concentrate on something else. The 'thing that catches our attention' is what we are talking about here when we refer to the 'focal point'.




Sunset, Lake District

Cover the dark little island with your thumb. The picture falls apart. It's just a monotonous set of reflections. But that island isn't what the picture is 'about'. It's really 'about' the hazy blue of early evening, the last traces of sunset in the sky, the peace, the calm: you can almost 'hear the silence'. So what is the island 'for'? Answer: it's the focal point...


Critique: captures the mood well but a bit low on contrast: it needs a contrastier lens/camera combination (than the MPP with 203/7.7 Kodak Ektar); or contrastier film (Fuji Astia from memory); or of course post-processing in Photoshop. It's also very blue, a consequence of the elderly lens as well as the time of day: an 81-series filter, even as strong as an 81EF, might have helped. Or it might not. The centre-line (about which the reflections are symmetrical) takes the place of the horizon, and is slightly below centre: Would it have worked better dead central? Roger thought not, or he would have composed it that way. Do you agree? But equally, any greater departure from symmetry would diminish the impact of the symmetrical reflections. The way the reflections form an arrow, pointing to the island, reinforce its strength as a focal point. A grey grad would have evened out the sky and reflection, but would this have helped? We think not.

The focal point need not necessarily be the principal subject. With a simple composition, the principal subject and the focal point may be inescapably one and the same, but where there is a lot going on in a picture -- or even in a picture that is subtle to the point of monotony -- the focal point is where you start looking at it.

In the picture above, the example is a landscape. For another, think of a garden. The subject is the whole garden. It can be flowers, lawns, topiary, the blue sky, anything. But unless there's one thing that stands out -- a tree, or someone in the garden -- it can be hard to appreciate: there's no one thing for the eye to latch on to. Put in a wheelbarrow, or even a garden fork stuck in one of the flower-beds, and suddenly there's a focal point. After the eye has rested on that, even if only for a fraction of a second, even without being aware that it has done so, it roams around the rest of the picture.


Arnolfini Bar



What's the focal point? He is. More specifically, his face. More specifically still, his eyes. But they are too dark. As it is, his nose is the real focal point.That's OK, but it's not perfect.

The out-of-focus jug and soda siphon provide a counterbalance to his face: cover them with your fingers and the picture is unbalanced. But this doesn't mean they are the focal point, just that they are part of the composition.

The tonality is pretty good, but overall the picture is slightly underexposed. This is on pushed Ilford HP5 (pre-Plus) rated at probably 1600. The true ISO (in the developer used) is around 650, so the darkest areas (the shadows on the suit, and of course the hat) are under-exposed. Today, a true fast film (such as Ilford Delta 3200) would be our automatic choice. On the other hand, shooting wide open (with a 58/1.4 Nikkor on a Nikon F) has given excellent differential focus with good out-of-focus effects (bokeh).

The print might benefit from a little more burning in the lower left corner, but it would be easy to overdo this and make it unnaturally dark. Likewise, any more burning behind his head might detract from the naturalness of the scene -- though you have to remember that if you were not there when the picture was taken. 'naturalness' can be hard to judge.







Although the focal point of a picture will normally be in sharp focus, that is not the same as saying that it is the point of focus, i.e. the point on which the camera is focused. 'Focal points' work as well with 'deep field' photography (sharp from front to back) as with those where selective focus is used.



Kitchen, Mision de la Purisima Concepcion, Lompoc, California

This is essentially a 'deep field' shot, which relies on everything being in focus -- rather like a painting. The 'focal point' is disputable: it's either the unplucked chicken hanging from the rafters, dead centre (not normally the preferred place for a focal point, though entirely acceptable in the right picture) or the open mouth of the oven. The latter is tonally very strong against the lighter tones of the rest of the picture, but it has to fight with the chicken (there's a thought) for dominance. This weakens the picture: the right centre is essentially rather empty, with the bowl at the lower centre left a strong intellectual contender but rather weak tonally. This distinction between what you think is important, and what looks important, is central to choosing a focal point -- and also, the pot is too close to the edge of the image area to have as much impact as you might like. Roger shot this with a 21/2.8 Elmarit-M (pre-aspheric) on Ferrania 1000D in a Leica M4-P.



On the Road

Frances's father Artie shot this in 1961 when he was crossing the country from New York State to California to look for work on the west coast. Unexpectedly, the focal point is that little bit of car in the lower right of the picture. Cover that up, and the picture is nothing, but with that in place, you are in the picture. We have no technical information for this photograph, and it had to be restored quite a bit using Digital ROC colour restoration software; but it well captures the sprawling emptiness of much of the United States, then or now.

The focal point and the 'thirds'

Placing the focal point 'on the thirds' is often held to make it more effective: 'the thirds' are the junctions of two equidistantly spaced horizontal lines, and two equidistantly spaced vertical lines, superimposed on the picture like a noughts-and-crosses (tic-tac-toe) board, as illustrated below. Like most of the old 'rules of composition' this is no more than a useful rule of thumb that can be jettisoned without a further thought if the picture looks better composed some other way. To rely slavishly on 'the thirds' is as foolish as to deny that surprisingly many successful pictures do indeed have the focal point 'on the thirds'.


Ruined mill


Often, there is a 'focal point within a focal point'. In this 13x18cm (5 x 7 inch) contact print from a negative that Frances shot with our Linhof Technika V, the mill is the 'focal point' and is positioned slightly off-centre: if it were dead central, the image would be too stolid, too literal. Then there are two other things that draw the eye: the door and (arguably more strongly) the timbers sticking out of the top.




In our opinion, the reason the timbers have a stronger claim to being the focal point is that they are 'on the thirds', or at least very close to the upper right third, the 'thirds' being as illustrated in the smaller picture on the left -- though the fact that the door is on the lower third but central makes it stronger than it would be if it were bang in the middle. In fact, as with the kitchen shot, above, the two (door and timbers) are rivals, and this once again weakens the picture slightly. One of the major strengths of this shot is the sheer detail and texture made possible by the large format, though this is much less visible on the screen than in an original print. The use of a yellow filter to darken the sky and bring out the clouds is also important.




Chapel cross, Moncontour


This is a much stronger use of 'the thirds' in an extremely simple composition, with the cross very close to the upper left third and the roof-line more or less along the line of the lower third. It is the first picture in the module to rely quite so heavily on 'the thirds'.

The very slight angle of the cross makes it 'loom' more out of the misty sky: imagine the reduced impact if the upright were truly vertical. The limited ability of the digital sensor to capture a long brightness range adds further to a sense of unearthliness or supernaturalism: Roger shot it with a Nikon D70. Finally, a soft-focus lens (90/4 Dreamagon) completes the unreality: the overall effect is somewhat like a dream, or perhaps a nightmare.

On the down side, the picture could easily be criticized as poorly exposed: simultaneously murky and burned-out. This is very much a matter of personal taste. We are reasonably convinced that the picture 'works', but it might have worked even better shot on film with the top right corner less 'hot'.

Devil's Bridge

One problem with this picture is that there is no really clear focal point, though the cobbled approach to the bridge on the lower right of the picture does adequate duty as the part of the picture you look at first -- possibly, by default, illustrating the power of 'the thirds'. The echoing shapes of the arches compete with one another, and are perhaps a little too central. Also, it's not very sharp. This was the first time we had seen the 13th century Devil's Bridge (near Tarascon in the south of France) and it was twilight: this is a hand-held shot (on Kodak Elite Chrome ISO 100) using a Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux. The lens was wide open and the exposure was quite long, so depth of field and camera shake conspired together. The colours have been 'cleaned up' a lot in Photoshop.



Children, Monastiri, Rhodes

What is the focal point here? The little girl in the centre of the picture. The power of eye contact to create a focal point is all but unbeatable. Yes, the bright white T-shirt of the boy on the right draws the eye momentarily, but the girl's direct stare immediately commands your attention.

Placing the focal point centrally is generally regarded as a fault, but as illustrated by this picture (by Frances, using a Nikkormat and Ilford XP2 printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone) it can create an immediacy and dignity that is hard to achieve in other ways, especially with portraits.

The picture would however be more successful if it had been shot with a 50mm (or longer) lens instead of the 35/2.8 PC-Nikkor that she used, because the perspective is a little forced. In particular, the boy at the front is too big and (because Frances's viewpoint was above his eyeline) too distorted: big head, little feet.

On the other hand, the composition makes excellent use of light-against-dark with the bigger boy's light shirt against the dark bench and the smaller boy's dark hair against the sunlit background; and the girl's face emerging from still darker surroundings is very powerful. Coming in closer would have lost the context; including any more background would have rendered the children too small a part of the composition.





Great Wall of China

The focal point could hardly be more obvious or compelling: the left-hand watchtower. On the other hand, the eye immediately jumps to the right-hand tower, having already taken in the ruins of the wall between the camera and the closer tower. This illustrates that a focal point can be no more than 'first among equals', and arguably, is often so in the most successful pictures.

Here, Frances has used stark, super-sharp black and white (6x9cm Kodak Tri-X in her Alpa 12 S/WA with 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Grandagon), accentuating the sky with a deep yellow Tiffen filter and exposing generously to be sure of shadow detail wherever she wanted it. Remember: just because you have the detail on the negative, you don't have to print it, but if you don't have it, you can't print it. A lot of the appeal of the picture, aside from the composition, comes from its sharpness, simplicity and timelessness; a colour picture, with the same equipment, would be less successful and a colour picture taken with a smaller format would be less successful still. She has also burned in the upper corners of the image to accentuate the vignetting of this ultra-wide-angle lens (the equivalent of about 16mm on 35mm).


Does the focal point have to 'mean' anything?

This is a more complex and interesting question that it seems at first sight. If the focal point is simply somewhere for the eye to alight, surely anything will do? A patch of sunlight; a chance confluence of tones; something unidentifiable?

We think (though we are not sure) that the answer lies in the last phrase: 'something unidentifiable'. In one sense, yes, anything can do duty as a focal point, as witness the cobbles in the Devil's Bridge, above; but equally, we think that the little girl's direct stare in the picture from Rhodes is much more powerful than the average focal point. So wherever possible, yes, the focal point should be something identifiable, even if it is neither especially important nor even particularly explicable.




Wall, window, graffiti



The classic test of a focal point is to cover it with your finger (or thumb, or hand, depending on the size of the picture, or indeed, the scene in front of you) and see what effect it has on the picture. Here, the scratched arrow -- truly sgraffito, or scratched, the origin of the word 'graffiti' -- seems to us to be more of a focal point than the window,

This is an intriguing illustration of the 'meaning' of a focal point. The window 'means' more, and is scrupulously placed 'on the thirds', but the arrow draws the eye more.

Then again, cover the window but leave the arrow, and the picture is weak to the point of vanishing. The picture is 'about' the window and the red-painted wall, but on their own, these might have some difficulty in holding our attention, at least in a 35mm shot: Roger took the picture with his Leica MP on Kodak Elite Chrome 100, but freely accepts that a super-sharp medium-format or large-format image would have a different impact again.

Add the arrow in the 35mm shot, though, and somehow the image is completed. Roger hastens to clarify that by 'add the arrow' he does not mean that he scratched it there...


Bicycle beside River, Bath


You can't always predict verbally the kind of thing that you will automatically notice as a focal point. A human figure normally draws the eye, but the man in this shot is poorly differentiated from the wall behind him, and too close to the edge of the picture anyway. Roger (who took the picture many years ago and cannot recall whether he used a Hasselblad or an MPP Microflex) would have done better if he had waited for the man to walk out of shot, but he simply failed to notice him (he's more alert nowadays).

The bicycle is much more immediate, for two reasons. One is the stronger contrast of dark-against-light, which always help pick out a focal point, and the other is the contrast of the roundness of its wheels with the linearity of everything else in the picture: railings, flagstones, benches, walls...

The tonality could be better, but as we say, it's a very old picture (late 1970s, or early 1980s at the latest) and we all live and learn.






Red Saree, Benares (Varanasi)

In a jumbled picture like this, the eye can dart all over the place unless there is a focal point, and Roger has used one of the oldest tricks in the book, a splash of vivid colour. Once again, the focal point is slap in the middle of the picture, and once again, that's not a problem. The 'thirds' can be useful, but they are not the be-all and end-all. The film was probably Kodachrome 64 (once it's been scanned and adjusted in the computer it's hard to remember); the camera was a Nikon F with 200/3 Vivitar Series 1.

The biggest single fault in the picture, in our opinion, is the young man on the left with the bright, almost burned-out shirt; but at that point, you really are casting around for something to criticize.



Normandy Beaches

Another 'splash of red' shot, again with the red dead central. But this is in a sense the opposite of the Benares picture above: it is precisely because it is so uncrowded, so spread out, that you need a focal point. Even then, the picture does not mean much until you learn that the background is the debris of the D-day landings in June 1944. Without the figures in the foreground, you probably wouldn't give it a second glance. Then you start wondering: what is it a picture of...? Roger used a Leica and (probably) 35/1.4 Summilux for this shot; film, by the look of it, was Kodachrome 64.

This is a typical illustrative, rather than pictorial, shot. To be brutal, it's not particularly interesting, even when you know what it is; but it's better than endless columns of grey text.

Frosty morning, Moncontour

It's a cold, frosty morning, with a heavy mist on the fields. It's bleak and raw. How do you convey this? Roger chose to compress perspective (with a 135/2.8 Elmarit-M on a Leica M8, the equivalent of a 190mm lens on full-frame 35mm), increasing contrast but reducing saturation via a combination of camera controls and Adobe Photoshop. The crossed wood is clearly a focal point, and in a sense, it's what the photograph is 'about'. But in another sense, the crossed wood is just a convenient starting point; something on which to hang the picture.




Barge museum, Faversham



Arguably, the three ends of rigging constitute a single focal point. This is yet another aspect of the question asked above, about whether a focal point has to have 'meaning'. The main impact of the picture comes from its numerous diagonals: with the exception of the building in the background, there is hardly a true vertical or horizontal in the picture.

Of course, in the traditional view of composition, diagonals occupy a similar privileged position to the 'thirds', and are equally the subject of superstitious veneration -- but that's another story.

The building in the background does slightly spoil the picture, but given the choice of an imperfect picture or no picture at all, it is usually best to go for the imperfect picture unless you can see that it is going to be so imperfect as to be worthless. Also, spotting the flaws in others' pictures as well as your own can demonstrate to you that an astonishing number of pictures can 'carry' minor flaws without any great difficulty; it does not do to be such a perfectionist that you stop taking photographs.


Roger shot this on Fomapan 200 (Paterson Acupan 200), using a Voigtlander Bessa-R and 50/1.5 Nokton with yellow filter. The print (by Frances) is on Ilford paper, selenium toned.


Arches, Sighisoara, Romania


The young man in the white shirt is the immediate focal point, though as soon as you look at him, you notice the others, and as soon as you have looked at them -- the result of millions of years of evolution, looking for friend or foe -- you look at their surroundings, which are much more interesting and are what the picture is 'about'. The people in a less interesting surroundings would not warrant a second glance; the surroundings, without the people, could easily be sterile, formal and dull.

Some picture libraries will tell you that people should not appear in pictures, because they date them too quickly, but this is really only relevant if you are trying to illustrate a tourist brochure and want it to look up-to-date. This could have been taken at any time from about 1970 onwards: in fact, it is 2005. Besides, few tourist brochures use this kind of shot anyway.

Yes, the poses could be better -- the man in the white shirt is slouching a bit, the person in the middle is at an odd angle, and the people behind them are slightly messy from a compositional point of view -- but as with so many pictures in this module, these faults don't wreck the picture, and they give you pointers on how to be more careful next time.


Of course the tonality helps: Roger was shooting Ilford HP5 Plus in his Leica M4-P (with 35/1.4 Summilux) and Frances made the print on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.





Armoured fighting vehicle, VE Day celebrations Prague

Clearly the olive drab was chosen for its camouflage benefits, but equally, the big white star was chosen for identification. Without it, many soldiers would not have known whether it was Allied or Axis, and 'friendly fire' (a wonderful euphemism) would be as big a risk as enemy fire. Cover the star with your fingers, and the shovel becomes the focal point. Uncover the star, and the shovel is pushed into second place but is in no sense competing with the star. Try a similar trick with your own pictures. Roger shot this with a Leica M-series, probably on Kodachrome 64, probably with s 90/2 Summicron.

the bottom line

Like every other compositional trick in the book, the focal point can be strained to the point of abuse. The most usual fault is that the photographer has tried so hard to Include A Focal Point that he or she fails to notice that the rest of the picture isn't worth looking at. Another problem, well illustrated with the picture of the kitchen, above, is that two (or more) potential focal points may fight for dominance, to the overall detriment of the picture.


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© 2007 Roger W. Hicks