I have often been asked if a photo has to have a focal point in its composition. Ask this question at a camera club and you will surely get a lively discussion. It is actually not an easy question to answer because … it depends!
Good photo composition is about creating an image that is clear and directly connects with the viewer (unless you are doing obscure fine art photography, which is a whole different discussion). That can happen with one focal point or many. Frequently, landscapes have either multiple focal points or none that stand out. The key is to create some sort of underlying structure to the image that shows clear relationships among the elements of the photograph. That simply means that the photograph is clearly understandable as to what it is about.
One composition might be muddled and unclear with multiple interesting points of interest, while another might be perfect. One composition might be muddled and unclear with one focal point (because of a distracting light or background that has no focal points, though), while another might be perfect.
The key is not to think "rules" - i.e., does it or does it not have a focal point, but instead to look at the photograph and see what it is really about. And then, is that clear. Photos often get muddled because the photographer did not made a clear decision as to what the photograph is about. This can happen even with a single, clear-cut subject when there is something else in the photo that the photographer wanted to include but did not integrate it into the composition or with the subject.
If you were to look at the work by Eliot Porter, the great nature photographer of the mid-20th century, you would find that very few of his photos had a single, clear-cut subject. However, everything in each of his photos belonged there and there were always clear relationships among the pictorial elements within the composition. Relationships are key.
Sometimes what is more important than a focal point are these relationships. They cause the viewer’s eye to move around the photograph (which also happens with a single focal point - there are still relationships). A viewer’s eye should move around the photo, but not to competing picture elements, but to related picture elements. That is important.
Research has shown that when a viewer’s eye moves throughout an image, the viewer will stay with that photo more and get more from it. That does not mean an eye moving from unrelated things that compete with each other. Then the viewer gets annoyed and moves on. That also tends to happen with centered compositions using a single focal point. What happens then is that the viewer sees what the photo is all about in a single glance, is done with it, and wants to move on.
Editor's Notes: Want to learn more about composition? Rob Sheppard teaches many excellent online photo courses, including Creating Storytelling Photos and Composition Boot Camp. BetterPhoto.com's digital photography school also offers many other online photography workshops on photo composition.