Composition Tricks and Tips: Make the Subject the Brightest part of Photograph

In photography, we love it when someone appreciates and enjoys our photographs. We sometimes forget this, that the point is have the viewer keep their eyes in the photograph for as long as possible.

Watch someone as they look at a photograph, or a painting, or any other 2D form of art. Their eyes initially wander through the work of art, in this case a photograph, and the more their eye’s wander through the image, the more interested they are in the photograph. If there is enough visual interest within the photograph, the more successful that photograph becomes.

It is well known that the eye is first attracted to those areas of the photograph that are the brightest. The eye, when viewing a scene goes from the darkest areas to those areas of light.

It is a distraction having bright areas that compete with the subject of the photograph. This competition of bright areas of the photograph fight for the viewers attention and often leads to confusion of the viewer in trying to figure out what is the subject of the photograph.

For instance, look at the photograph below. How long does your eyes stay within the photograph? How interesting do you find the photograph. What is the subject of the photograph?

Unprocessed photograph of early morning at Point Imperial on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Unprocessed photograph of early morning at Point Imperial on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Now look at this photograph after some post processing to emphasis the subject. Is the subject more obvious? Is there more visual interest in this version of this image than the unprocessed image?

Processed photograph of early morning at Point Imperial on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Processed photograph of early morning at Point Imperial on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

If you are like most people, you find the second photograph to be more visually interesting, and it keeps your interest longer than the first. You can most likely more easily identify the subject of the photograph as opposed to the first image.

Sometimes you find yourself in a lucky situation where you can account for this human propensity for going from dark to light by ensuring that your subject is the most brightly lit part of the photograph. This is easy for portrait photographers as they can control the lighting of their subjects. It is more difficult in landscape photography where we often cannot control the light but rather find ourselves having to work with the light we have.

If you can’t get that bright subject at the time of capture, you can do things in post to help ensure that the subject of the photograph is the brighter than the supporting elements of the photograph. This is where dodging and burning, the use of vignettes, and using a gradient filter are helpful.

Dodging helps to lighten an area within the photograph, whereas burning helps to darken an area within a photograph. This lightening some areas and darkening others provides some visual interest for the eyes and helps the eye move through the photograph.

Processed in Lightroom, but no burning and dodging.

Processed in Lightroom, but no burning and dodging.

Remnants of a volcanic plug outside of Monument Valley, Arizona.

Photograph processed in Photoshop with dodging and burning to bring out the mountain.


Vignettes are often used as a way to keep the viewer’s eye within the photograph by darkening the edges of the photograph. This can be useful but sometimes is used too heavily and ends up becoming obvious and a distraction.

Any vignettes you may use should be natural looking and help the image, not provide a distraction. If the vignette is obvious, it is too much.

Another technique that can be employed is to use a gradient filter to lighten or darken large areas of the photograph. If you have bright yellow grass (common in fall) you can use a gradient filter to drop the exposure of the filter to reduce the brightness of the yellow grass.


A gradient filter is needed to darken the foreground. This is necessary to draw the eye to the aspens which are the brightest part of the photograph (or will be after processing, see below).


Golden aspens amongst the spruce at the Arizona Snow Bowl, Flagstaff, Arizona.

Adding a gradient filter helps to darken the foreground and move the eye to the brightest area of the photograph which is the golden aspens in the background. There was also some dodging and burning applied to provide some depth to the photograph.

All of these techniques can be done in either Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop. I personally find that the dodging and burning is much easier in Photoshop, and that using the gradient filter is quicker in Lightroom. If the photograph has bright areas near the edge that I don’t want to compress, I will use Photoshop, otherwise it is just as easy to use Lightroom.

The point of employing these techniques in post processing is to help the viewer’s eyes to remain in the photograph. These tools are used to help the viewer explore the photograph and to travel around it and in the end enjoy the photograph the way we intend the photograph to be appreciated.


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