In defense of the center

In photography there’s very few things that fall under “always do this” or “never do that.” One of the things that seems to have become an absolute over time is “never put your subject at the center of the picture.”

The goal of every composition should be to lead the viewer’s eye its subject in an interesting, yet efficient way. The reason that some advise against the middle is that pictures centering the subject can look a bit static and boring.

The rule of thirds, golden ratio and other techniques were created in part to address keeping your subject out of the middle, but all “rules” of composition are less like laws written in stone and more like guidelines. There are some times that putting your main focus in the center can work for you. Centering your subject is good for those configurations that are, or nearly are, symmetrical.

True center.

One of the problems that having the subject dead center in your photograph is that many times it’s combined with another photographic sin: being too far away. Not being close enough is a common problem that exacerbates the boring effect of centering. You don’t want to a lot of space for the viewer’s eye to wanter around. If you’re going to center you subject, then make sure that you fill the frame with it.

If you have a subject in motion, a bird in flight perhaps, you can center it with your fine-feathered friend going left to right (or vice versa). It’ll give the impression that the direction it’s headed in has a little more visual “weight.”

You can also have leading lines directing the composition to the subject at the center. Think the converging lines of railroad tracks or lines on a road leading off into the distance, for example.

You can also create a visually asymmetrical look with a center subject by adding other elements to one side or another. Maybe an off-centered shadow or reflection can throw more weight to one side of the image. Foreground or background elements can have the same effect as long as they aren’t too distracting.

The off-center center.

It may sound like an contradiction, but you can have a centered subject that’s not completely centered. That’s there are two dimensions to a photograph: Height and width. You can have your subject in the middle of one and off-center in the other. Place your subject at the center of the frame horizontally then position it/him/her below or above the centerline vertically, or the other way around, then you can have your cake and eat it too.

Centering gets a bad rap, sometimes deservedly so, but with a little thought and practice you make it an important part of your compositional skillset.

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