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.
Sometimes we all find ourselves in a rut. The next time you want to freshen your creative process, try turning the camera on its side. This simple change in the framing requirements forces you to broaden your field of view just a bit and reorganize all of the important stuff. Even if you know you want a landscape-oriented photo, in the end, it's still an excellent way to help you spot things you might have missed in the scene.
Some photographers like shooting this way better when presented with the perfect vanish point image. Shooting vertically gives you more real estate in the frame with which to invest in building the lines. The longer the leading lines in the frame, the more powerful they are. So it only makes sense that a vertical photo would provide the perfect medium.
Try Different Compositional Guides
There are many little tips and tricks photographers use along the way to help them get reliably great photos. One of the first compositional tips photographers learn about is the Rule of Thirds. The Rule of Thirds divided the frame into nine sectors, using two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. The resulting intersections of the lines give the photographer an idea of where to place important elements.
Both the lines and the intersections are essential points in the photograph. Having the horizon on the upper third line or lower third line is more visually attractive than having it right in the middle of the frame. For a portrait, having your subject centered on one of the thirds lines makes a more compelling image that if they are centered.
The Rule of Thirds works because it helps the photographer visualize how their viewers will perceive the photo. The last thing a photographer wants to do is create a static image where the subject is centered, and the viewer's eyes settle immediately in one spot. As photographers, we want to take our audience on a journey through the scene—to make them feel like they're there and looking around.
To apply the Rule of Thirds to vanishing points, remember that the point doesn't have to be in the center of the photo. Try putting your point off at one of the third line's intersections. Don't center the horizon, instead try to rest it near one of the horizontal lines.
Another great compositional tool is the Golden Rule, also known as the Golden Spiral. This pattern is based on the famous Fibonacci Sequence, a repeating mathematical pattern found in nature. Imagine a spiral that starts wide at the edge of the photo and progressively gets smaller towards a focal point.
The Golden Spiral is especially useful in vanishing point photography since it too centers at a distant point. Don't get bogged down in the mathematics of the spiral. The rough idea is plenty to get you started.
Use a Wide-Angle Lens
Vanishing point photography works well in wide-angle images. The image distortion that is present in all wide-angle lenses helps make them more pronounced. Many lenses accentuate the effect towards the edges of the frame. That might not sound like a great thing, but if what you're doing is trying to make use of vanish points and leading lines, then it does a fantastic job of it. You might otherwise hesitate to use lenses like super wide-angles and even fisheyes, but they are often perfect for this image type.
Shoot From Down Low
Often, the lead lines of your photo are on the ground, like railroad tracks or the stripes on a highway. If this is the case, then getting the camera angle as low as possible will emphasize the image's perspective. The lines will seem to get even larger and farther apart in the foreground. The greater you can emphasize the angles involved as the lines disappear towards the vanish point, the greater the effect will be on your viewer.
Keep an out for unintended consequences, however. When shooting from low to the ground, it's easy to distort things that you hadn't wanted to. Trees, buildings, and humans can start to look freakishly tall. If they're messing with the whole image, try backing up even more or using a smaller focal length lens.
Focus and Depth of Field
These two camera controls and settings are vital to the success of this kind of photo. A shallow depth of field isn't going to work here. Likewise, if you focus in the wrong place, then even a broad depth of field may result in some areas being softer than you'd like.
The spot at which you focus your image is going to depend on exactly how you compose it. If there's an obvious subject, like a person, then that's where you'll focus. But if it's a scenic view with a broad focus, it's more like shooting a big landscape. Set the depth of field as wide as your camera and the lighting conditions will allow. Try for at least f/11, if not f/16.
An excellent focusing technique to set your lens to the hyperfocal distance. This is the point at which your lens is set to infinity but still close enough to keep the foreground in focus and the image sharp. It works exceptionally well with wide-angle lenses, but it does take a little practice to find the idiosyncrasies of each lens you work with.
Become Familiar with Examples
This tip has two fundamental parts. One of them is that you need to know where to look for leading lines. There are common examples that leap into everyone's minds. Roads, footpaths, railroad tracks, and buildings are all examples of leading lines that disappear at a vanish point. These all have pronounced and apparent lines that run perfectly parallel to one another. They're perfect for this type of photography.
Be sure to differentiate between human-made and natural lines. Natural lines are all around us, but they're much harder to spot. Shorelines, geologic formations, and horizon lines are examples that can be used similarly to great effect.
The second part of this tip is a familiar one. Look for inspiration. Look at the works of the masters and other photographers that you admire. Take a stroll through some art galleries, or go on a virtual walkabout online. Spend some time looking at vanishing points in various images. Once you've started studying them and taking a few pictures with leading lines and vanishing points, you'll start seeing options everywhere.
While we often think of vanish points disappearing into the distance along the horizon, they can occur anywhere. One creative way that you can use them is to create them from skyscrapers. Stand on a street corner and point your camera to the sky. The buildings create converging lines that will lead to a point above.
Multiple Vanishing Points
In the right circumstances, it's possible to have more than one point per photograph. It happens most often in street or architecture photography. With a wide-angle field of view, you can stand at the edge of a building with each side sloping away from you. The result is that lines converge away from the center and towards the sides of the image. Two points are created, one where each set of lines leads.
Wrestling two focal points in one composition isn't easy, but there are certainly times when you can make it work. It's just another example of how photographers need to keep their eyes open for new and creative possibilities when they're exploring new places.
Perspective is a helpful topic for all photographers to understand. Vanishing points play an important part in why some compositions work and others do not. The only way you'll be able to tell is with a little bit of trial and error. Since each scene is different, and each photographer is trying to tell a different story, no hard rules about vanishing points will work. But once a photographer starts paying attention, they can find them pretty much anywhere and put them to work.
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