Less philosophy and more actual photography this time, leading the eye into a scene is one of the tenets of composition (at least for me) and there is a multitude of ways in which this can happen. An image of something or somewhere can be a more rewarding experience for the viewer if they are led into, through or across it, spending longer to absorb and take in the scene. Advanced photographers will (I hope) forgive the simplicity of this article; I am no kind of expert on composition but I thought I would share some ideas.
Firstly, the subject or location itself may have convenient leading lines or geometry to direct the eyes along. This may be something as simple as railway tracks or a stream converging on their vanishing point in the distance.
Roads and coastlines also offer a convenient set of leading lines, reaching and then disappearing into the yonder or towards a mountain or sea. Whenever I’m in the passenger seat I’ll always have my camera on my lap, ready to capture the journey through a landscape.
In fact, leading lines are ubiquitous, externally on architectural features such as bridges and tall buildings or internally on patterned floors. Tilting the image, as I have in one of the examples, emphasises the directional lines beyond the scene, disconnecting the viewer from the actual location and instead making the lines more relevant.
Stairs. They always lead somewhere and within an image they can lead the eye to their destination or onto a larger landscape. The eye will follow a winding staircase or travel down some steps into an open space. In each instance, you are helping the viewer travel somewhere.
The placement of the horizon line can also influence how the eye is led across a landscape. A high horizon line will ask the viewer to draw across the land, taking in the features en route and making the experience more gratifying.
In much the same way, placing your focal point or main feature higher up in the image will also encourage the viewer to travel across the image to get there. Interesting features in the foreground will slow this process down and give them a reason to navigate through.
A foreground interest will provide a starting point or frame of reference, or even a sense of scale. This does not, of course, have to be achieved with just a wide angle lens. A longer focal length can still help you frame the image accordingly, while perhaps adding a little more compression to the elements within the scene. A narrow aperture or hyperfocal distance may be necessary to keep as much of the scene in sharp focus.
Many photographers will use an ultra-wide angle lens deliberately to achieve a forced perspective, exaggerating the foreground relative to the background in order to lead the eye towards the vanishing point. This is a perfectly legitimate way to achieve a composition but be aware that it can make the image somewhat front-heavy.
Indoors, one can draw the viewer through a room and not necessarily by capturing its entirety. Often, a tight field of view can be just as effective, giving a sense of the space, its contents and placing the viewer within it; a wider angle may make the viewer simply feel like an observer at the side. The height of the capture is important here too, as too high may show too much from above without drawing the eye more horizontally through the scene, and too low will obviously not give enough depth. Again, having something in the foreground to nudge the viewer on their way along the various features would help. To keep as much as possible in focus, a narrower aperture would again be indicated, and if light were at a premium then a higher ISO would be necessary to assist as well.
Not everything in a scene has to be in focus of course, and where you place the focus will obviously direct the viewer’s eye to it, especially if this in-focus area is in the middle or background of an image. Using a fast lens at a wide aperture, this is a very simple way of giving a sense of place while directing the eye exactly to where you want it to go.
Leading the eye isn’t just about physical features. Light is fundamental to any photography and it can be used to judiciously guide the eyes through a scene. The relationship of light to dark can be exploited to grab the eye and take it through the image. I find this is particularly effective in black and white, but colour itself can perhaps be used in the same way, with bold colours leading the eye into lighter or pastel tones. In post-processing, this effect can be accentuated with selective dodging and burning.
Back in my youth I learned from studying graphic illustration that the inker provides as much meaning to the scene as the pencil artist, often supplanting the fine detail by bold strokes of black, simply to add greater contrast and direct the reader’s vision. Important parts of an image can be subtly framed by deep areas of black, directing the viewer toward the lit subject.
Light and shadow can also create layers and depth to a scene, with fading contrast giving a sense of and leading the eye across a great distance. Hills and mountains in the early morning mist (or even midday sun) can provide such opportunity.
Having a person in the scene can also be a useful means of directing the viewer’s attention. As I indicated in a previous article we are often compelled to follow someone else’s gaze or simply the direction implied by their body or behaviour or movement. A person or persons can provide a point of interest or scale and in turn influence how we view the scene.
Well, I have skimmed through what is undoubtedly a much broader and complex subject. But I hope I have provided a few ideas on how to use the elements of your image, whether it is physical features, light or people, to direct the viewer’s attention and lead their eye through the scene. Considering these aspects may help to make your compositions stronger and more interesting, and I hope it will give you something extra to look for the next time you’re out shooting.