Composition: How to Find a Focal Point and Use Artificial Light in Nighttime Photography

Composition & focal points

It’s important to have an element in a photo that’s compelling enough to draw the viewer’s eye. Otherwise, it won’t hold their attention. But doing that during the daytime is easy—a colorful barn, a bright pink flower, or a model’s emotive eyes are about all it takes to create a focal point. In this chapter you learn how you can create interest and focus at night, which requires a bit more subtlety and creativity than during daytime.

What is a focal point?

The focal point in an image is the portion where your viewer’s eyes are drawn first.

Example of a focal pointPhoto by brian.abeling

In this image, the focal point is the building. Focal points serve two purposes: they attract a viewer’s interest in the photo and serve as a “home base” from which the eyes can wander.

After your eyes take in the focal point, they move on to the bright star above the building, then to the red light in the far-right corner, and then to the yellow margin line in the road before settling back on the original building. In this contained wandering, your eyes have taken in the entire photo.

Use contrast to create a focal point

Most focal points earn their name by being in sharp contrast to their surroundings in color, texture, shape, or some other visual element: for example, the only red apple in a sea of green ones would be the focal point in the scene. If you’re new to the concept of focal points, use the idea of “contrast” to identify your focal point.

Focal points are important because, to keep a viewer’s attention, their eyes need to have an element of an image that holds their interest and stands out from the rest of the image. Commonly, images written off as “bad” are perfect compositionally but simply have nowhere for the eyes to start their journey across a picture—and, thus, feel like they’re not of anything in particular.

How to choose a focal point and compose a photo

To start out, think of your focal point as the object, texture, or constellation that gave you pause enough to make you want to capture the scene in the first place. Your focal point and composition will change depending on what you’re trying to capture.

Landscape elements

When the focus of your photo is a landscape element (like the barn below), you’ll want to make sure that element is front and center. Make sure it’s perfectly in focus and frame it in such a way that the colors of the landscape and the elements of the sky compliment that feature.

So, in this image, the colors in the field tie into the colors in the barn, and the darkest part of the Milky Way seems to point at the barn, keeping the viewer entranced by that feature.

Barn against galaxy photoThe red barn is the focal point in this photo. Photo by Tim Donnelly

Constellations

When you shoot a colorful constellation like the one in the image below, you want to use the darkness surrounding those bursts of color to highlight the impressiveness of your subject matter. Keep any foreground landscapes (like the beach in this photo) dark to bring out the many subtle hues in the constellation.

Dark constellation with milky wayThe darkness of the foreground in this image causes the constellation to stand out, making it the focal point of the image. Photo by Digital Aesthetica

Images of both earth and sky

When your image is half earth and half sky (like the one below), your focal point will typically be the landscape element (the tree) that’s brightened or focused on. Then, the elements of that focal point that appear in the sky (like the similar yellow colors here) will draw your eye to the secondary focal point—the constellation that makes the photo unique.

In short, a visual relationship needs to be established between your landscape focal point and your background sky imagery. Similar colors, shapes, or levels of brightness that connect the two focal points will bring your visual elements together into a cohesive whole.

Tree with night skyYour eyes were drawn first to the tree before migrating to the similar yellow color in the sky, which draws your eye up to the primary subject matter: the constellation. Photo by Kenneth Snyder

What happens when you don’t have a focal point?

Dark night sky with starsPhoto by Robert Hoge

Sometimes, focal points can be subtle—a bright street light could be enough—but there has to be one. In the photo above, all elements are relatively uniform and there’s nowhere for the eye to rest or find interest. The photo doesn’t hold the viewer’s attention because it lacks contrast, a color relationship, and a specific subject (focal point).

How to use artificial light and focal points at night

Sometimes, even the rays of the moon or the glow from the stars just don’t cut it to highlight your focal point and keep your viewers’ interest. When that’s the case, it’s time to employ external light sources like flashlights, headlamps, studio lights, and camera flashes.

Choosing the right amount of light

Use portable studio lights or strobes at nightClever usage of artificial light. Photo by Álvaro Moreno Gómez

The right external light source depends entirely on how harshly or subtly you want to illuminate your focal point and how large that focal point is.

  1. Small flashlights and headlamps are perfect for two things: helping you scope out what your camera will see and adding a bit of hyper-targeted light to a dark scene. If it’s too dark for your camera to focus but you don’t want artificial light in your photo, flashlights and headlamps can come to the rescue. Just aim your flashlight at your focal point, allow your camera to focus on it, and remove the light just before pressing your shutter release. Voila! A perfectly focused photo.
  2. Studio lights and strobes are for when you need to illuminate a larger surface area very clearly; for example, you want to shed light on an entire building in the foreground or create a long line of light from camera to subject. Make sure you choose battery operated lights (there aren’t electrical outlets in the forest) and, if you can, choose a light with several brightness settings. If you want to disperse the light or create less harsh lighting conditions, bring along “shields” like sheets to dim and spread the light for a more natural effect.
  3. Your camera’s built-in flash is perfect for nighttime portraiture and, sometimes, photos taken in a city. Generally, you’ll want to turn it off for landscapes and astrophotography because it “blows out” the scene, masks the stars, and makes the entire photo look either flat or over-exposed. However, if you have an external flash, nighttime is the perfect time to employ it. Place it in a position to illuminate the area or subject in need of light; then, experiment with covering the flash with things like tissues and bandanas to create subtler light that doesn’t overshadow the light of the night sky.

Settings to start with

To create a compelling photograph, trust the way your eyes wander across a scene and learn to manipulate light to show your viewers what you want them to see. In the 5th and final chapter, you’ll learn how to put your newfound creative and technical knowledge to use to create close-up images of the moon, nighttime landscapes, the Milky Way, and more.

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