The Tuesday Composition: Highlights

Crashing Waves, Bandon Beach
Crashing Waves. Bandon Beach

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

This is the first installment of my delayed promise toward writing a weekly post about photographic composition. Unlike many basic elements of photography, such as depth-of-field or ISO, composition is something that is not easily taught in in a top-down, linear fashion. Even the most frequently cited “rules of composition” are ideas that are more often ignored in an excellent image. And very few people can even begin to construct an effective image through an abstract understanding of even dozens of such rules. Instead, photographers learn composition and how and when to apply these rules, through trial and error, through practice, through looking at other photographers’ work, and through guidance and feedback from skilled eyes. So think of this series as a starting point, not an ending point, to learning composition. Now, let’s get started by talking about highlights.

In this series we’ll often talk “how the eye moves” around a picture,   alternately we may talk about the eye being attracted to part of an image. Statements like these are not entirely metaphor. Scientists, as well as artists, have studied what happens when we see a new image or new scene.

One of the things they’ve found is that, when first looking at a photograph (or painting, or real-world scene) often the first things you will notice, that is, the first things your eyes will be attracted to, are the highlights. There are many exceptions, but if you make a photograph–particularly a color photograph–one of the first places your viewers’ eyes will focus on and examine will be the brightest parts of the image. This observation suggests a few simple corollaries.

First, make sure those highlights are interesting. If the most interesting thing in the photograph is also the brightest part of the image, you’ll get a free assist from human perception towards having a more effective photograph.

Second, make sure those highlights aren’t blown out. At first, one of the strangest asymmetries in thinking about digital imaging is how often blown highlights ruin a photograph, but how rarely fully-black silhouettes (“blown out blacks”) do. The eye-grabbing nature of highlights helps explain this (and thus expose-to-the-right digital metering rules). With blown-out highlights in an image, the eye is attracted to that part of the image but upon reaching the highlight, finds no detail or interest.

Pogonip Sunset, Mono Lake
Pogonip Sunset. Mono Lake

Because the eye often travels to highlights first in viewing an image, those highlights can often serve as the “anchor” for some other feature for the eye to travel along, perhaps an S-curve or diagonal that our eye might want to explore. We’ll talk about this sort of interaction between different rules more as we get further into this series and build up a longer list of “rules” we’ve talked about.

Portrait (and wildlife) catch lights provide a final example of this rule. We’ll talk more about eyes being important in portrait photography in a future installment, and a common tool in both sorts of images is the use of a tiny bit of flash, not enough to affect the lighting of the subject in general, just enough to create a pinpoint highlight in the eyes of the subject. These pinpoints are typically small enough that it is okay for them to be blown out, but bright enough for them to pull the viewer into seeing “eye-to-eye” with the person being photographed.

So, that’s the first installment.

I welcome questions or suggestions on the series, or images that you’d like feedback on. I’ll try and get to an image per week as part of this column if people are interested, I really do believe that working from your own examples is an important part of learning photographic composition.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. rules though exist to be ignored, but you must no what you ignore)

  2. Jane: Exactly. It’s through lots of examples, practice, and feedback that you learn when.

  3. That’s a great idea Joe, definetely. I really love your blog and shots and I can’t wait for next post, really! When speaking about composition the same rules are usually said (the rule of thirds, empty space usage, etc).. Of course they’re important, especially for beginners, but when you’re neither a beginner or a pro it’s difficult to find these kind of tips. For example, I really didn’t know about human eye behaviour before reading this.. Thank you a lot, I’m looking forward to next Thursday (ooops I’ll be in Scotland shooting next week 🙂 )

  4. these pictures are amazing 😀 and it’s cool to know the reasoning behind what appeals to the eye

  5. I´ve found this post very interesting.

    I´m spanish and my english is horrible…. When you talk about blown out highlights do you mean an excesive highlight which doesnt allow the spectator see any details but a simple white bright spot (for example a picture of the sun at midday). In ither words a blown out highlight is a “burned” highlight?

    Thank you very much.

  6. Fernando: Yes, that is it exactly. Thank you for the question!

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