Eye Contact; Sure, I Take Travel Photographs, But What I Really Like To Do Is Direct

All Photos © 2004, Jack Hollingsworth, All Rights Reserved

I was talking with an editor friend of mine recently. He sees a lot of photographs--most of them taken by professionals, but some by amateurs. Every once in a while he's involved in judging amateurs' photos for online photo contests. He was telling me that many of the contest pictures he sees are ruined by distracting backgrounds. He said, "Don't people know how to compose?"

In this photo the background was supposed to be the subject, but I was stuck with a pretty dismal day, gray and overcast, at the Great Wall of China at Bedaling. The first thing I needed to do was add some color. Fortunately, there was a vendor nearby, so I bought a blue umbrella and placed it in the corner of the frame so it would catch the viewer's attention and then lead the eye right up the steps of the wall. So the subject became the background, and I composed the picture to direct the viewer's eye just where I wanted it to go.
I held onto the umbrella, packed it in my tripod bag and took it along, and I got to use it again on that trip, this time in the photo of the young woman on a street in Beijing. Where she's standing is the key to the picture. She's off-center for a more dynamic composition, and your eye goes right to her--and then is led to the color and pattern of the background.

Most of the time I don't think it's a question of deliberate compositional choices. I think that people who take pictures with distracting backgrounds in them just don't notice what's going on behind their subject.

One sure way of eliminating the problem is to think about where you want your viewer's eye to go. Directing the viewer's eye forces you to be aware of your subject's location and what's going on in the background. Successful photographers know how to create compositions that lead the viewer's eye exactly where they want it to go. They compose to draw attention to the subject, and they use backgrounds to enhance the picture to be neutral.

A background that could have been distracting becomes complementary in the photo of these two women at the table in Singapore. I couldn't get rid of the riot of color behind them, so I used it by making them large in the frame to instantly draw the eye, and then blurring the background so it becomes all about color and not any individual item or form. The same thing goes for the photo of the woman in the market, also taken in Singapore. She's the main attraction, and the background adds to the mood and feel of the place.