Five Ways to Hold Your Viewer’s Attention

We are bombarded with photographs every day from our social media feeds to adverts in magazines, holiday photographs by friends and relatives and pictures that relay the news or give us information. Within the context of all of this “image noise” we’ve become very adept at discarding anything that visually doesn’t hold our attention or at least attract our attention very quickly. Think how you almost instantly make a decision on an image when you see it to decide if it’s worth lingering over. It really takes something very special in today’s visually over rich culture to make us stop and pause for a moment.

There are a number of things that might help to hold the viewer’s attention ranging from the combination of colours in the image, a specific moment or subject that resonates with them or the quality of light, through to how much time they have and how creatively receptive they are at that particular moment. The photographer has control of some of these and some s/he doesn’t. However, there is one overriding element that the photographer does have control of in every picture that can have a really strong bearing on whether or not the image holds the viewer’s attention – and that element is composition.

So, here are five compositional tips that, whatever the light, colour, mood or subject of the image will go a long way to helping hold the viewer’s attention and hopefully lead them to experience your images more fully.


Shoot through things

Look for ways of framing the main subject of your image by shooting through things. Avoid the obvious cliches like doors and window frames and look for much more interesting ways of adding texture and depth. Maybe shooting through foliage, through a gap between other objects or trying to shoot through something that will put the main subject more fully in context and tell a bit more of a story.

Generally speaking you may well want to use a relatively shallow depth of field for this technique so that whatever you are shooting through is a little out of focus and is more of a suggestion than a clear object competing with the viewer’s attention with the main subject.

Remember that you don’t have to literally “frame” the subject all the way round – you can shoot through something for part of the frame to give the desired effect. It also doesn’t have to be immediately obvious what the frame actually is – a bit of mystery goes a long way to holding the viewer’s attention and shooting through something that simply provided shape and texture is fine.


Let the eye explore

In the West we generally read from left to right and we like it if our eyes can have some sort of journey to undertake when looking at a picture. It often works well if there’s an obvious “lead in line” on the left of the image which takes the eye through the image working from left to right and leads naturally to the main subject.

The obvious example is a fence leading to a building or something similar but, we like any sort of picture where the eye is lead to explore. Lines and shapes just beg to be followed  –  the least interesting pictures are ones where the eye just remains static and all there is to look at is the subject.

Try to find ways in your composition where lines, shapes and patterns interact and intersect. Look for strong graphical elements and see if you can get them to fit together to make a logical satisfying flow. Remember, left to right is the most obvious but it can be much more interesting to turn this on it’s head and encourage your viewer to read the picture in any direction!


Use complimentary subjects

It’s great to have a good subject in your image but much better of you can have the main subject and also a secondary, complimentary subject in there as well. Visually, it’s just much more interesting and the interplay between the two is much more satisfying!

Often one will be in the foreground and the other in the background. This also gives the image depth and draws the viewer in and again gives context to the main subject. There’s nothing more boring than just having a straight forward picture of your subject set in isolation on it’s own! Having the two things going on at the same time can potentially enable the viewer to imagine the relationship between the two and use their imagination to map out the interplay between the two.

This is a really hard technique and it’s often extremely difficult to engineer a picture like this.


Get on the floor

Often the least interesting, most predictable pictures are taken at eye level. It is, after all, how most of us spend most of our day looking at the world! To make things more interesting and to hold your viewer’s attention you need to get down on the floor, stand on a chair, look up at your subject, get super close or super far away.

In some ways it doesn’t really matter where you take the picture from but avoid the obvious viewpoint and avoid taking it at eye level if at all possible. This often needs a “working the scene” approach. Try different angles of the same subject, take several frames, try things out. Many frames won’t work but then you will get a really interesting angle that suddenly does work. This takes time and effort and your persistence will be rewarded by a much more interesting image.


Avoid the middle ground

The middle is boring, predictable and static. Try to position your subject almost anywhere in the frame apart from the middle. Our eyes need to be made to work and we enjoy the challeng of the unusual. Often a great picture will take work to appreciate and there will be a sudden “ahhhh – I get it now” moment.

Try focussing on your subject and holding the focus either with the shutter button half pressed or with the back button on your camera. Don’t take the picture but now move the camera so that the subject is in a different part of the frame, move again and reframe and again. You can also change from landscape to portrait format and do the same giving you a huge number of possibilities as to where the subject is in the frame. Remember there isn’t a right or a wrong, you can put your subject wherever you think it works but in the middle is boring!

Many photographs follow what is known as the “rule of thirds”. This basically means that the subject is places on the line of the third if the frame was divided into three both horizontally and vertically. We much prefer this placement visually and a subject placed on the third has a nice balance to it and avoids the static predictability of the middle of the frame.

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