Exposed! :: Mary Primary and Scott Secondary ::

© Copyright 2008. All Rights Reserved.


She's someone you can't help but notice. She's always vying to be the center of attention. He's the strong, silent type. Quiet, handsome, happy to stand on the sidelines. He adds to the party but doesn't overpower the fun. Together they make a powerful couple.

I am talking, of course, about a photo's primary and secondary focal points. In this month's Exposed! we meet Mary Primary and Scott Secondary of the photo world and consider why you should include them in your photos!

The Attention Seeker

Let me first introduce the attention seeker - Mary - aka Mary Primary. She is the primary focal point. You immediately recognize her as the centre of attention. She is hard to miss and tugs at your eye when you first look at the photo. Without her you might get lost, asking yourself, "What's the point of this photo?" and "Where am I supposed to look?" Mary Primary sets up your photo and gives it direction.

The Supporting Role

Scott - aka Scott Secondary is the supporting actor - the secondary focal point. He plays a minor but important role in developing your photo's identity. He will add information, balance the playing field and support the point Mary Primary is trying to make. Placed well, he adds impact to the visual story.

World Cup Ice Climbing Event

World Cup Ice Climbing Event

A Powerful Team

Mary and Scott can represent any element in the photo - human or otherwise. Mary Primary is a powerful player and can achieve ample impact as a solo player. Sometimes, though, two 'people' can create more than twice the impact. And this is where Scott Secondary is asked to enter the scene.

Making Mary Primary

How do you make Mary the primary focal point? How do you set her up to demand your eyeball's gaze?

There are a number of possibilities:

  • Colour and contrast - Mary should wear brighter or more brilliant hues than the surrounding landscape.
  • Size - She should be the most prominent feature in the scene.
  • Focus - Mary should be perfectly in focus.
  • Isolation - There may be nothing else in the viewfinder to compete for her attention.

To increase Mary's presence stack these elements together. She will be impossible to miss!

Creating Scott Secondary

How do you create Scott, the secondary focal point? How does he register a solid second? Easy - use the same elements above while making sure not to upstage Mary!

  • Colour - Tone down the colours.
  • Size - Make sure Scott is smaller in the scene (a function of perspective).
  • Focus - Scott could be out of focus.

Including Scott?

Mary Primary is very capable. She doesn't always need the support of a handsome back-up. Sometimes, though, Scott can add the extra zest that will make your viewers smile wider. He should be invited to participate when:

  • A wide angle lens (ie 35mm or less) is used. Placing Mary in the foreground and Scott in the background will add important depth to your photo!
  • You are telling a story. A secondary subject can add important details to your visual tale.


Your task this month is to look at photos from a magazine. As you quickly flip pages circle Mary and Scott in each picture. You should be able to peg the primary and (possibly) secondary subjects instantly. Spend only one second per photo. Keep circling until it comes naturally. Next time you are creating photos take time to place Mary and Scott appropriately!

Pro Perspective

What can I say? In the world of stock and assignment work elements of composition become second nature.

In the photo above I was perched atop a man made tower on Quebec's Plains of Abraham shooting a World Ice Climbing Competition. I had very limited mobility but instinctively knew the shot I needed. Mary Primary was near the top of the tower. Scott Scondary is the collective group of people at the bottom. The story is all about Mary, the ice climber, while Scott fills in important secondary story details.

Students sometimes tell me their specific compositional successes were unplanned. That's a sure sign they have developed good intuitive composition!

Final Frame

Look out for Mary and Scott. She's a powerhouse. He's worth his weight in gold. Acting alone or as a pair they can help you create better pictures!

Take photos. Have fun!


Samples of our work

Creative Business Seminar
April 2008

Creative Fundamentals
Photo Workshop
May 2008