Table of Contents
Visual interest is one of my favourite things to find for taking photos. So many of my photos just centre around something visually interesting! It is what inspires many of my images in the first place.
Many, or almost all of my photos started by me looking around and saying: “Ooo, that’s interesting!” or.. “Look at that… colour/light/texture/shape/curve”.
In this lesson you’ll learn: what I mean by “visual interest”, what it is, and how to use it in your images.
What is visual interest?
Visual interest is anything, well, visually interesting in our scene. It is what can set a photo apart from “just another photo”. It’s what we can build a story around, or what can ground our dog in their environment. It doesn’t have to be something immediately pretty; dead grasses, branches, and leaves can work amazingly well as visual interest!
The thing to keep in mind with visual interest is:
- Why are you choosing this thing?
- Does it add to the story/help the dog in some way? Or will it detract from the dog?
- What kind of mood will this thing add?
- How will you tie it all together (location, dog, visual interest, lighting, etc) in a way that is cohesive?
So, being purposeful with what you choose to use as visual interest is key.
What types of things are "visual interest"?
- Moss (my favourite)
- The texture of a tree trunk
- The mottled colours of a tree trunk
- The way the sun sparkles through the tops of some grasses
- The soft pale yellow of some grasses
- The eerie hanging moss in a swamp
- A stone wall
- A snail
- A feather
- The way the light is doing something unexpected
- A V-shaped tree
- The soft aqua-green of some fir tree
- The way a branch or tree trunk curves, like the curve of the dog’s neck or body
- The curl of a leaf
- The lines of the city
- The lights of a city
Some Examples of "Visual Interest"
As you look through these photos, try and spot what “interesting thing” caught my attention.
Does this mean you have to have “something interesting” in every single photo?
No of course not! Sometimes we just want a simpler photo. Sometimes the light is so pretty that all we need is a simple location without anything to interfere (though in this case, the LIGHT is often the “interesting thing”.)
This is a great example. In this case, the photo was all about the light and the light rays. I didn’t ALSO need to find moss, or sparkly grass, or ferns. Loki, with brilliant shining light and a hint of light-rays, in a golden forest, was more than enough. To try and add any more would be to overcomplicate things.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking photos without something “in” them. The story you tell will be different, and the mood may be different. At times we may simply be limited by snow, which tends to squash all visual interest and just turn everything white. So then we can find other interesting things! A curve of a path creating a tunnel behind the dog… warm golden backlight… A cute pose or trick, or accessory even!
But if you just sit your dog in the middle of an open space, covered in snow on an overcast day, and expect an outstanding photo (I’m hoping none of you would!) then you might need to consider how and why you would expect it to be outstanding in those circumstances.
This photo is fine, and I’m sure a client would LOVE it. Happy dog, strong pose, nice clean location… with a bit more editing it would probably be lovely. But is it going to have the “wow” factor? Probably not. Does every single photo NEED the “wow” factor?
Make sure you check out the lesson on client vs. self mindset, and why it’s important to keep in mind when looking for locations.
How to Find Visual Interest, and Why Use It
As for the how, it’s simple enough:
begin to notice.
On your walks, begin to notice shapes, colours, textures, the way the light interacts with something. The curve of a branch. The colour of a rock. A patch of flowers. A feather with hints of blue-green. See if the area has good light, a good background, something of a foreground – remember, the photo doesn’t always have to have everything, but it’s worth checking.
As for the why, this is a little more complicated.
You could use some aspect of visual interest because:
- it just looks cool/pretty/nice/interesting/seasonally appropriate. Mushrooms look cool. I will always take photos if I find mushroom logs.
- certain things have connotations. USE them. Moss is magical, fairy-tale, storytelling, enchanted. Ferns are mysterious. Springtime flowers are joyful, hopeful, bright.
- it is the same colour as the dog/dog’s eyes (or the opposite colour!)
- it has an interesting shape that you want to mirror with the dog, or position the dog amongst
- you have an idea for how it could contribute to a “story” (and I don’t mean it has to have some grand narrative behind it, just that there has to be something more than: “I am a dog looking at a camera standing on a log.”
- its texture is similar to or completely contrasting the dog’s fur (eg., something sharp or rough would be interesting next to a very fluffy dog).
- its texture somehow mimics some part of the dog (I can imagine rocks flecked with red, matching Journey’s spots. I was once on a pebble beach and the shapes and colours in the rocks perfectly matched my blue merle aussie)
- you can use it to bring out some part of the dog’s personality
- it’s a fun creative experiment (eg., a snail) and the opportunity to do something a bit different.
Things to Consider
Does using visual interest in our photos mean we just find the nearest tuft of sword grass and plonk our dog in the middle of it, and start shooting?
Remember, the visual interest is one of the elements that contributes to the overall image, its mood, its story, its purpose.
Having some deep, rich green moss is going to invoke very different feelings, tell a different story, and have a different mood than vibrant pink and purple flowers.
Therefore, as with everything else, the other elements of your image need to tie together with the visual interest you’re using (along with the light, pose, dog breed, expression and so on.).
Think about what kinds of feelings your visual interest invokes through the colours, textures, shapes, lines and so on, and see if you can choose an appropriate pose and expression to go with it.
Green moss vs. pretty wildflowers. A very different aesthetic!
Also consider how to include the visual interest in the scene in a way that doesn’t feel “forced”.
The image on the left was originally supposed to include more of that strange black stump beside Journey. I liked its colour and texture. But, getting home, it felt so out of place and seemed so strange for him to be lying next to this super random little stump, so I completely changed the composition of the image so it was hardly featured at all. As a result, the image on the left has basically no “visual interest” and just feels a little strange.
The image on the right has a lot going on 😂 There’s the fern, which curves over Journey’s head. The mossy tree trunk. The backlight. The leaf. Is it too much? Maybe. Does it feel forced or strange? I don’t think so. If the fern had been more prominent – on the same level as Journey, it may have been a problem. Lots more detail, a question as to why he’s lying amongst all this shrubbery… but as it’s sort of part of the background, it just becomes part of the scene.
And the leaf… well, that’s just Journey.
It is important to think about how to utilise the interesting thing and your dog together in a way that’s cohesive. Just because you found an interesting patch of flowers by the side of the road, lying your dog beside them and taking a photo might not make the most sense. Maybe you need to do a much closer photo, to not be able to see the road.
Similarly, if your “visual interest” is something down low, a standing pose may not help your audience SEE the interesting thing. Mushrooms on a log, for example, might get missed if the dog is standing on the log.
Or… if your “interesting thing” is higher up, a standing pose, or even a trick, might be a way to integrate the interesting thing and the dog.
In this case, my “visual interest” was this U-shape of ferns. If Journey had been standing, he might have been too tall to really see them. If he’d been sitting, it would have felt a lot more “posed” and less like a little creature in the woods. By lying him amongst them, he feels like a little forest creature in his home, while the ferns kind of embrace him from either side.
Here, the visual interest was this large tree trunk and kind of undulating tree roots, and seeing Vibe from quite a distance.
Because she was so far away already, to have her lie down or sit would have meant she was much too small and would get lost. Standing & looking to one side meant she could also have a kind of mysterious, observed story.
Most of the photos at this location didn’t work. Why? Because it was a bush that they couldn’t get into, so all of the photos look like: “Dog posed sitting next to flowering bush. Dog lying posed next to flowering bush.” There was no CONNECTION between the dog and the location. It was like we’d found this flowering bush, put a dog next to it, and taken a photo (because we had.)
This is the only photo I love from the shoot, because of how he’s ducking his head under the flowers, looking up at them, and they’re filling the frame.
The visual interest here was the crazy backlight, and although I have edited this to add some spots for symmetry, the idea would have been the same. Firstly, I needed her to sit in order to block the sun. Lying down would have been too low.
Secondly, I wanted her sitting, looking straight ahead, to keep this as simple, powerful, and symmetrical as possible. Standing could have had power too, but she was also on a stump & probably would have looked much more awkward than when sitting.
Here, the visual interest was about both the mossy tree trunk, and the ivy twisting around it.
If I’d had Journey standing or sitting next to it, he probably wouldn’t have been close enough, especially for those delicate little ivy leaves. Standing may have felt a bit awkward as the tree trunk leans away from him. I could have stood him up and curved him around the tree, but then half his both would be cut off.
Sitting would have had him even further from the tree and feeling even more awkward.