Some of the most potent photographic tools are things that many photographers take for granted every day. You look at great works of art and masterfully taken photographs, and you wonder, what makes them so good? The answer is seldom complicated, but often it comes down to merely having a perfect composition.
But composition is a hard thing to learn. It’s where the art meets the technicalities of photography. Yes, you need to have a balanced exposure triangle and a sharply focused image. But how do you arrange the subject, and precisely how do you frame the scene? There are rules of thumb, and sometimes nature or your location gives you some big help.
An experienced photographer knows when things are going to be easy. They pick up on little tricks that work again and again. They know what their viewers look for in their photos, and they know how to provide it. And they know that certain qualities can help them consistently make beautiful photos. Do read our article on 12 photography composition techniques with rules, tips, and best practices to get started. Vanishing points are just one example of an item that, when used well, seldom fails to make a compelling image.
What is Vanishing Point Photography?
The vanishing point is a powerful compositional tool. It can’t be used on every shoot, but it is essential to understand when the opportunity presents itself. Not every scene has a vanishing point, and sometimes the photographer needs to go to special efforts to use what is there.
A vanishing point is part of the linear perspective found in many photos. Since photos are two-dimensional objects, our eyes use little clues to try to orient ourselves. When we approach a photograph or an artwork that we’ve never seen before, our brain tries to perceive it using references it knows from nature. Do read this article for an understanding of perspective in photography as an excellent way to up your photo game.
One of the first things that our eyes will gravitate towards is lines. Leading lines, in particular, are useful in picking up how a photo represents a space. If the lines are parallel, our brains know that they will appear to converge in the distance. Together, converging lines point to the vanishing point.
It’s important to note that the lines leading to the point don’t have to be complete. The point is often implied. It isn’t so much a specific item on the photograph as it is an area on the photograph. You can always point to it, but there is often nothing there. It appears that all lines emanate from this one spot. Another way to look at it—all roads and paths in the image lead there.
Vanishing points are useful tools that can help photographers add a sense of scale or even distort reality. They help add depth to otherwise flat compositions, and they built interest for the viewer. When used correctly, they can turn a mundane scene into an epic story.
Tips to Use Vanishing Points in Photography
Find the Leading Lines First
While the focal point of the image is what you’re after, the vanish point doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Something in the image has to point towards it. Most of the time, that thing is one or more leading lines.
Leading lines are lines that the viewer knows are parallel from their experiences in the three-dimensional world. If they were to look at and study the two-dimensional photo, they might think that those lines converge in the distance. But everyone knows that parallel lines just seem to converge depending on the angle from which they’re viewed. Without even thinking about it, everyone is a master at interpreting linear perspective.
But this is where the skill of the photographer can play a big part. By understanding how the audience will view and perceive the image, the photographer can draw their eye to the photo’s essential parts. This is precisely why leading lines and the point at which they meet is so important to understand. If you can control and place these elements in a meaningful way, you can instantly transform your photography.
Emphasize the Effect
Once you know where to look for the point and the lines, the next step is to ask yourself how you can emphasize them. More often than not, this is done by playing with the composition. You can move the framing around and try different placements of the vanishing point. You can try including more or fewer leading lines. You can try your image with a model in the distance or the foreground.
Find the Advantage
Vanishing points draw the viewer’s attention quickly, so the trick for a good photographer is to figure out how to use them to their advantage. Is the point the entire subject of the photo? The viewer’s eyes end up there, so it makes sense to make a statement. Is there another subject to the photo, like a model? Try putting them at or near the point.
Or perhaps the point in the distance is part of the story, and the subject is getting there. In that case, the subject needs to come sooner in the audience’s visual tour of the piece. They can be placed on a leading line, or in an otherwise unused area of the composition.
You may find that placing your subject or model right over the top of the vanish point works. But this arrangement creates a certain tension for the viewer. The lines and composition want them to look off into infinity, but then the subject is stuck there in a middle ground. A better arrangement is to have them separated by at least a little viewing space. Make sure that it will make sense in the end. Remember, translating the 3D world into a flat two-dimensional image isn’t always as straightforward as you might assume. What works there in real life is going to look starkly different on paper or a computer screen.