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  • Writer's pictureGary Holpin

10 ingredients of a great landscape photo part 1 - find a focal point

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Welcome to the first installment of my new series where I introduce you to my guide to 'The ten ingredients of a great landscape photo'. I hope that over the next ten editions of my blog I will be able to bring you some insight on how you can learn from my experiences and take some practical steps to improve your landscape photography. Did you miss the introduction to this series? If so you can find it here. The chart below summarises what I believe to be the ten main ingredients that go into making a great landscape photo. In this edition, we look at the importance of building a focal point into your photos.



Why do photos so rarely do justice to a beautiful view?

I'm sure we've all stood looking at a beautiful view, pointed our camera at it and snapped the shutter, only to get home and realised that whilst the view was beautiful, the photo is just plain dull! The reason for this is that we are used to seeing with our amazing binocular vision which sees the world in in three dimensions. As soon as we lose a dimension in creating a two dimensional photo, this view can immediately lose its essence. Put simply, a two dimensional representation of a beautiful view can be really boring!

So, how do we make photos interesting?

To make a two dimensional landscape photo more interesting, it's necessary to use a number of tricks, to build interest into the image. In a 'point and shoot snap' of that beautiful view, there is likely to be little to grab the interest of the viewer, and they are more than likely to glance at it and then look away (which equals boring!). Instead we want to move away from making a snap, and move towards composing an image which grabs their attention and pulls them into, and through the photo. This journey forces them to look longer at the photo, and immediately makes it more interesting to look at. We'll be looking at improving your composition and creating visual journeys in later editions, but as having a focal point is so important to making landscape photos interesting, we're starting with this as the first key ingredient of a great landscape photo.

What's a focal point and why does it matter?

A focal point is just what it says on the tin, it's where you want your viewer to focus. It's an anchor to your composition, which can be a destination or just a stopping off point on the viewers journey through your photo. Without a focal point (especially without some of the other composition tricks that we'll cover in later editions of this series) your viewer simply doesn't know where you want them to look, and you could have lost them before they even start a journey through your image. In a portrait, or wildlife photo it's often obvious what the focal point is (the person, or animal) subject, but in a landscape they can be less obvious, but by building one in you'll be ticking off the first box on how to create a great landscape photo. The best way to show how important they are, and explain how I use them in my landscape photos, is through looking at some examples.


A lone building makes a great focal point!

The church on the hill is a pretty obvious focal point, but it really helps to anchor the viewer in the image. It's pretty hard not to look at it, right? Although the building in this example is in the centre of the frame and very obvious, buildings can be used as a focal point anywhere in the image (although some places are more effective than others - we'll cover this when we look at composition!).


A landscape photo of Brent Tor, Dartmoor by Devon Photographer, Gary Holpin Photography
Brent Tor Church, Dartmoor

The sun can be a focal point!

The image below, showing a field of rapeseed at sunset is lovely, but can you imagine it without the setting sun? It wouldn't be obvious where you wanted the viewer to end up, and they might just drift around the image. By including the sun in the image (and using a small aperture to give a sunstar effect) I've made a powerful focal point that almost forces the viewer to end up there, whatever journey they've taken through the photo.


A sunset over a field of Rapeseed, by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Sunset over a field of Rapeseed

Focal points can enhance beautiful scenery

The photo below shows a beautiful winter scene, but can you imagine it without the tree? It's a beautiful scene but without it, it would be pretty boring. As well as being beautiful in its own right, the tree is a strong focal point which anchors the photo, and actually enhances the beautiful scenery around it.


A lone tree in a winter landscape by Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography
A lone tree in a snowy landscape

Focal points can be subtle

In the previous examples, the focal points have been very obvious, but they don't have to be to be effective. In the photo below, I have intentionally waited for a person to wander across the beach, to act as a tiny focal point and anchor the image.

Another advantage of having the small figure in this photo is that two dimensional photos often lose the sense of scale that we get with our three dimensional view of the world. By including a person (that our brains instinctively know the size of), we also get a sense of the huge scale of the wide expanse of beach that they are on.


A lone figure on Saunton Sands beach, by Devon photographer Gary Holpin Photography
A lone figure on Saunton Sands

You can have more than one!

Although I will generally look for one strong focal point for my images, you can sometimes get away with having two. In the photo below, the waterfall at the back of the photo is a focal point, but I have intentionally built in a second focal point with the fern in the foreground. Rather than being a single focal point, acting as an anchor and destination for the eye, I have use the fern as a stopping off point, before the eye drifts back to the waterfall (and second focal point).


Venford Falls waterfall, Dartmoor, by Devon Photographer Gary Holpin Photography
Venford Falls, Dartmoor

Focal points don't have to just be objects

Although effective focal points are usually objects (a house, a person, a tree or the sun), there are other things that can also work in particular circumstances. As the eye is generally drawn to brighter areas, and brighter colours, a simple patch of sunlight on an otherwise uniform landscape can also act as a subtle but effective focal point.


Focal points aren't always easy to find

In many landscape photography situations, it's not too difficult to look around and find a candidate object to act as a focal point. However, in some situations this can be tricky. One of the main ones is in woodland, where there is lots going on, and lots of clutter, making it very difficult to find a focal point - and this is why so often photos of woodland are not very interesting to look at! The key is to find a contrast, such as the last tree with its autumn leaves amongst a backdrop of bare trees, ot to use the sun poking through the trees as a focal point.


Before you press the shutter, look for a focal point!

So, for your homework on this topic, go out to a beauty spot to take a photo, but before you do think about where you want the viewer to look, make sure you identify a focal point, and build it into your composition. Good luck!


Want to learn more about my ten ingredients of great landscape photos?

I now use this model of landscape photography to shape my photography training, and my training classes consistently get fabulous reviews on Google. So if you're a beginner photographer who is local to the South West and looking for Devon photography training , check out my range of 1-2-1 training courses. Alternatively why not make a weekend break of it and attend one of my weekend photography courses - either my beginners landscape photography workshops for those starting out in photography, or my intermediate photography workshops for those who already understand the basics and want more practical help progressing their landscape photography.

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