Directing the Viewers Eye: It's More Than Railroad Tracks

Directing the Viewers Eye: It's More Than Railroad Tracks

Composition is a complicated topic. It's easy to throw out the Rule of Thirds because talking about things like balance, rhythm, and focus can get overwhelming but, if you stop at the Rule of Thirds, you could be robbing your images of complexity

As simply as I can state it, composition is the arrangement of visual elements within a frame. There is no rule for what composition an artist chooses so long as it serves the artist's vision. Often, there are several elements at play in a composition and, if the photographer is paying close attention and understands those elements, they can be exploited to strengthen the image.

In the photographs below, the rule of thirds does come into play, but much more than that is happening in these compositions.

 Rule of Thirds on location with model Elise Tucker for designer Dacy Luneburg by Nicole York

This series of photographs was created for Boulder, Colorado designer Dacy Luneburg, who hails from Bujumbura, Burundi. The location was chosen specifically for the African artwork in the room, which played an integral part of this designer's story, so it was important to include as much of the space as possible. For that reason, I chose a wide-angle lens and open compositions.

An open composition is where elements from the image break the frame and move into or out of it. Those elements can be distracting if they're not included carefully and used purposefully, and could potentially draw the eye away from the focal point. 

When deciding whether to include elements within the frame, here are things I had to consider: do the elements fit the vision or message of the photograph? Are the colors, textures, shapes, and forms of the elements cohesive? Because it was important for the viewer's eye to stay engaged, I needed the elements to act almost like a frame, as a part of the story but not distracting from the main character. As a result, the elements that were included serve to add to the story, while also helping to direct the viewer's eye.

While choosing the angle, I needed to position myself to show the garment while using aspects of the scene to draw the eye toward the model. With the model's pose, the direction of the garment, and the way it connects to the elements in the room, the viewer's eye moves exactly the way I want it to.

Model Elise Tucker for designer Dacy Luneburg

What comes to mind at the mention of leading lines? A railroad track, or a path leading off toward the horizon? If that's all leading lines are to you, you're doing it wrong. Or, at least, not taking advantage of their full potential. A leading line is simply a line that draws the viewers eye into the composition and toward the point of interest. In the image below, the model, outfit, and angle have been positioned to cause as many lines as possible to draw the eye in to the models face, where her pose can bring the eye right back into a loop. This keeps the eye moving through the image and retains interest as well as highlights the point of interest: the model and lingerie design.

Leading lines doesn't just mean train tracks

If the image had been composed so that the lines lead away from the focal point or out of the frame with nothing to draw the eye back, the impact would have been greatly diminished. The viewer's eye would have nowhere to rest, and the sense of movement wouldn't have felt balanced.

These examples are fairly straightforward and, although more could be said, the thing to note is that composition is incredibly important to any visual medium. Composition gives the image shape, depth, it tells the viewer how to read the photograph, and influences their reaction the scene. A composition can create a sense of balance or a feeling of tension. Learning and understanding composition is a sure-fire way to strengthen your work and something that should be a goal for any photographer who desires to create compelling images.

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14 Comments

Trust me on this. NONE of the elements in the room could possibly draw my eye away from the focal point. Kidding aside, you did a wonderful job both composing the photos and explaining your intent.

Reginald Walton's picture

Some photos just don't need "directing" to the subject. IJS :)

Joe Healey's picture

Love the markup on the photos which totally drives the point home. This is a bookmark.

Nicole York's picture

Thanks, Joe, I'm glad it helps!

Here we go again . . .

Draw sufficient lines on to any image, regardless of how poorly, or otherwise, its composed and finally, one, or some, of them will align with something else and voila! You've got a masterpiece.

Looking at the photos on your site, no amount of lines would make any of them a masterpiece. Certainly nothing of the caliber of the photos in this article. Maybe you should read the article and take her advice. :-/

Entirely your opinion, of course but re-read what I wrote. It's undeniably accurate.

If all you ever shoot are snapshots (sorry, that's what your photos look like to me. Not bad but still, nothing I would post), you probably wouldn't "see" the planning and design that go into more deliberative photography. If you put a lot of thought into such things as I've done, but certainly not always, it's much more obvious.
Someone could get such a photo without having planned it but not consistently. She "drew the lines" before taking the photo. I've spent all day getting a single shot. I assure you, I wasn't taking a nap.

Again, your opinion and with all due respect, it matters little to me that it can take you a day, a week or a month, to get a shot. That's your prerogative.
The point that I made and to which you've yet to respond is that "If you draw sufficient lines on to any image, regardless of how poorly, or otherwise, its composed, finally, one, or some of them will align with something else and voila! You've got a masterpiece."
Try it. It works every time.

Of course I responded. There's a significant difference between drawing lines on a photo and composing a photo with lines, you've drawn in advance. Furthermore, drawing lines doesn't make an image a masterpiece. I've never seen lines drawn on "Girl With A Pearl Earing," and yet, somehow, everyone recognizes it as a masterpiece. Why is that, do you think?

William Howell's picture

How long does it take you to achieve, (in minutes), the composition, the pose for the model, the particular placement of the garments and the light? I really like the way it is lit and posed, it has a natural look. If I’m guessing right, you photographed with a smallish aperture, so I would think you lit it, but I can’t tell how.

The reason I would like to know the time is because I think I’m taking to long to set the lights. Do you shoot higher ISO?

Nicole York's picture

This series was photographed in natural light with a higher ISO. What took me the most time was deciding where to place the models, what angle to use, and where to move the furniture. I spent some time in the room deciding what angles I liked based on the light and the ability to use the room to make strong compositions. I honestly don't have a time in minutes.
Once the models were in position, we tried a few different poses until the model landed on one that brought the composition together, then we made small alterations to show off the garments and little adjustments to make sure the light was hitting their faces "just so."
I hope that helps!

William Howell's picture

Thank you, it does and it really helps that I know you had finagle the furniture around, that way I know not to feel like an idiot.

Nicole York's picture

Definitely don't feel like an idiot! I destroy almost everywhere I shoot, haha, because I'm always moving things and adjusting furniture.