Santa Monica, 2009
Santa Monica, 2009

Imagine a boat at sea, that is swaying in the ocean. Without an anchor— it would float away (and possibly be captured by pirates).

What is your “visual anchor” in your frame?

Seoul, 2009
Seoul, 2009

Treat the same metaphor to your photos; your viewer is looking at your image. What is the “visual anchor” which keeps their attention from swaying? What is the one thing you want your viewer to focus on in your image? If you make your photos too complicated, your viewer will become frustrated, and move on.

You want one central visual anchor for your viewer’s eyes to settle on — to keep their intrigue. That can be a single eye, a single hand-gesture, a single color, or a single subject.

If you look at paintings, there tends to be “visual hierarchies” in terms of subjects. Generally the subject in a painting that is biggest and closest to the viewer is #1 (in the foreground). Then someone in the mid-ground who is a little smaller is #2 in terms of the visual hierarchy. Then someone in the background (the smallest person) is #3 in terms of the visual hierarchy. I generally find that having 3 subjects is the ideal number of subjects in a frame, to have enough interest, without having too much complexity in a photo.

Creating a visual-hierarchy

Santa Monica, 2010
Santa Monica, 2010

How would you create a visual hierarchy in your photos?

I generally recommend having a primary subject in your photos. To identify your primary subject, ask yourself:

  • Is the primary subject in-focus?
  • Is the primary subject well-lit?
  • Is the primary subject sharp and not blurry?
  • Is the primary subject the most colorful person in the scene?
  • Is the primary subject making eye-contact with me?

Then once you’ve identified the primary subject, you can just let the other secondary and extra people linger around somewhere in the background.

What are visual anchors useful for?

Downtown LA, 2009
Downtown LA, 2009

Does a photo always need a visual anchor? Not necessarily. But I often find the best photographs have a strong visual anchor.

Often you can identify the “visual anchor” while you’re shooting. Other times, you identify it after-the-fact when you’re looking at your photos at home.

Whatever it is, visual anchors are a potent technique when it comes to “editing” (choosing your best photos).

Learn more

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For street-photography specific articles, check out Street Photography 101 >