How to Improve Composition by Placing your Subject Off-Center

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You may be wondering – shouldn’t you always place your subject or main point of interest off-center? Isn’t that what the rule of thirds is about? If so, I suggest you refer back to my earlier article about creating strong compositions with a centrally placed subject. It makes the point that it’s perfectly possible to create a well composed image with the subject placed centrally.

Central composition

Equally, there are times when you should place the main point of interest away from the center of the frame. Not necessarily on a third, but anywhere between the centre of the frame and the edge, centered neither vertically nor horizontally.

I firmly believe that you should never ask yourself whether you should place the main subject or focal point on a third when you take a photo. There are much better questions to ask, such as:

  • Is there enough space around the subject to give it room to breathe?
  • Are there any highlights near the edge of the frame that take the viewer’s eye out of the photo?
  • How does the viewer’s eye move through the photo? This question may be partly answered during post-processing, where you can darken or lighten parts of the image to guide the viewer’s eye.
  • How do I make this photo as interesting as possible?

The answers to these questions influence the decisions you make in composition, and help you decide where to place the main point of interest. Let’s look at some examples.

Examples of off-centered compositions

I took the following photo in a historical building in Beijing called Prince Gong’s mansion. There was a courtyard inside, with Tibetan prayer wheels down one side. As people walked into the courtyard, most of them walked down past the prayer wheels, spinning them as they went. This boy decided to join in the fun.

Composition and placement

I placed him off-center because was shooting through some red tags (like the ones you see behind the boy) hanging from another structure. I used an aperture of f/5 to make sure the tags were out of focus. They create a frame that adds a sense of depth, and also pushes the eye towards the boy. It helps that his yellow T-shirt contrasts with the surrounding red hues.

The next image was taken in New Zealand. I found these beautiful stones by the sea, and asked my model Ashley to lay down on them.

Composition and placement

I liked the way the blue dress contrasted against the more subdued colors of the rocks. I framed the photo so that Ashley’s body formed a diagonal that takes the viewer’s eye from the right side of the photo, to the left. Her face, which is the main focal point of the image, had to be placed off-centre. If it was central there would be lots of empty space on the left-hand side of the image, and it would be unbalanced.

Incidentally, there is an idea that it is better to compose photos to work with the natural tendency to read a page from left to right. As this photo does the opposite and takes the eye from the right of the frame to the left, I flipped it so that you can see the difference.

Composition and placement

Which version of the photo do you think works best? If you have an opinion please let me know in the comments below. I know which version I think is better, but I’d be interested to hear it from people seeing the photo with fresh eyes.

The next photo was taken in the Great Mosque in Xi’an, China. The boy was trying to catch the cat, and I took a photo as he ran after it.

Composition and placement

The boy is the focal point of the image, and because he is moving from left to right in the frame he needs some space to move into – the empty space on the right of the frame provides this. If the boy was centered in the frame there would be too much space on his left.

The next photo, a close-up of a flower, is interesting because it has two focal points.

Composition and placement

The main focal point is provided by the open flower on the left. But the closed flower on the right is a second focal point that also pulls the eye. The result is that the viewer’s eye moves back and forth between the two points. When you have two focal points in a photo like this, it makes sense for them to be on opposite sides of the frame, and therefore off-centre, so that they fill the frame adequately.

I took the next photo at a concert in Auckland, New Zealand.

Composition and placement

I placed the guitarist off-centre so that I could show him in context. Behind him you have another band member on the keyboard, and three spotlights. You can also see some Chinese lanterns (this photo was taken at the Chinese Lantern Festival in Auckland). The lights also provide leading lines to draw the viewer’s eye to the guitarist.

For the next photo we return to Beijing, this time to the Forbidden City.

Composition and placement

I was sitting on a bench resting, when I realized that the doors and pillars you see in the photo lined up nicely when viewed through my 35mm lens. I waited, and took photos as people passed through, hoping to get a good image. Until finally the little boy you see in this image walked through the doorway and hid. A few seconds later he jumped out to surprise someone – as a man, presumably his father, walked through the doorway.

The boy is so small in the frame that you may not have noticed him right away. It is good for photos to contain surprises like this, as a kind of reward for the viewer when they finally spot it.

The colors in this photo also harmonize well. The yellow of the boys’ shorts echoes the yellow around the door frame, and the yellow tiles on the pillars. This is purely luck, but it’s the kind of luck that presents itself when you are present with your camera.

What do you think? What factors do you consider when deciding where to place the main focal points? Let me know in the comments.


Mastering Composition

If you’d like to learn more about composition then please check out my ebook Mastering Composition: A Photographer’s Guide to Seeing.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer and traveler. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks and runs The Creative Photographer photography blog. Join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image, What's New in Lightroom CC? and Use Lightroom Better!

  • Ron Meyer

    Great article Andrew. I do have a comment about the photo of the guitarist. I find the red lanterns to be a distraction for my eye, and if I crop the image below them, to me it makes for a stronger image of the musicians. Agree or disagree? I bet this would be a great B&W image. Thanks!

  • Steve Lee

    I think the original version of the model on the rocks looks much better than the flipped version. I think the left to right issue is more relevant to diagonal subjects, where top left to bottom right leads the eye out of the picture and bottom left to top right catches the eye movement in the frame.

    Since I did study Biblical Hebrew in school, I might be influenced slightly by my history of having read right to left, though.

  • Cropping below the lanterns would crowd the guitarist’s head room. You may be able to make the shot a vertical shot rather than horizontal cropping the lanterns out along with much of the left-hand side of the image; however I find the lanterns add a bit of color to an otherwise predominantly blue toned image. Goes to show there are as many opinions out there as there are photographers.

  • I agree, the color pop helps make this photo and also gives a sense of world thinking in terms of ethnicity. I think the photo is excellent just as is and with the framing the lights under the lanterns help fill the space putting me into the outdoor venue. As you say , there are many opinions out there, but in the end it is the design of the artist to show us the way they see and feel the world.

  • Here is another idea to contribute in the equation that I have seen no one really touch base on in reading images. I actually like the 2 image of the model that you flipped. I crop my thirds a lot this way as it always seems natural and occasionally will flip it the other to be different on myself. For myself it really has nothing to do with left to right or right to left, I have realized it is because I am right eye dominant and my natural tendencies lead me to the right side and since we are attracted to the lighter portions it feels more natural and comfortable to me. Curious if this has ever crossed your mind before Andrew?

  • Cynthia Wilson

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  • Hi Patrick, I’ve never thought about this and I don’t know if it might be true. I guess an optician or somebody who knows more about the physiology of eyesight might be better placed to comment. But I can say that I am left eye dominant, and I prefer the first image. I’ve no idea if the two are connected though.

  • Thanks for commenting, I prefer the first image too, and I haven’t studied Biblical Hebrew! To be honest I can’t think of a specific reason why I prefer the first image, I just know that I do. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to hear what other people think.

  • Hi Ron, it’s an interesting comment. As the other Ron said if I had cropped lower the guitarist would lack headroom. The lanterns also add context. But they are also red and potentially distracting, like you say. This is perhaps more a question of post-processing treatment than composition. If it was your photo, and you felt the lanterns were a distraction, you could make that area of the photo darker, or convert it to black and white, or even find another way to minimize or remove the distraction. And then somebody will come along and tell you that you should have kept them in! But that’s photography, it’s all subjective.

  • Stereo Reverb

    Are you not just talking about the Rule of Thirds? A little confused over the reason for the article (unless it’s to serve as a primer for anyone who wants to learn about composition and rule of thirds, as the title suggests it’s for beginners in photography). Sorry, hope this isn’t taken the wrong way!

  • The rule of thirds is very specific – it tells you to place the subject on a third. This article is more about placing the subject anywhere that isn’t central. The photo of the boy in the Forbidden City is a good example, he is off-centre but not on a third.

  • M i t h r a n d i r

    For the guitarist pic, if I have to decide, I think I’m gonna crop the photo vertically from the top until only two lanterns shows up. That way, it’ll probably give more balance to the elements on the right.

  • Howard Raver

    The photo of the model Ashley doesn’t do anything for me, in either orientation. The reason being is that she looks to be as stiff as a board. It just doesn’t look like a natural, or comfortable, pose

  • Mike Williams

    I like the original better. For reasons I cannot explain, when I look at the original I take in the entire photo, but with the “flipped” photo I look directly at her face.

  • Mark A Miller

    The first photo works better for me. The image feels more stable. The left to right orientation almost makes the model appear to be levitating. I could see taking advantage of this tendency, but it feels uncomfortable with this image.

  • beachedeesas

    For the same reason that 🙂 looks infinitely better than (: the first photo works better for everyone that reads from left to right. It just makes more sense…

  • Margaret Blevins

    I’m not a pro by any means but I do enjoy the articles from DPS. As for the lady on the stones, I prefer the first picture. The second seems stilted and unnatural. Thanks for the information!

  • Lesli Winnette

    Regarding the model Ashley: Mark A Miller used the word stable. It fits. The flipped photo makes her look like she is about to roll off the rocks and is trying to catch herself. Even though it is the same photo just reversed, the first one doesn’t do that.

  • I found both of the model / rocks a bit stiff and lifeless but prefered the first picture out of the two ( maybe because I am right handed??)

  • Thanks for your feedback, everybody. It’s interesting to hear that most people share my opinion about the orientation of Ashley’s photo.

  • Peter Ilott

    Your first photo of your model Ashley on the rocks with her head to the left of photo i found to be more pleasing to my eyes. I am not commenting at all on the overall photo – just on the positioning. I found this photo more pleasing than the second one as it follows the natural eye movement when scanning a page from top left to bottom right. Even though we read from left to right, the scan actually goes in the diagonal direction – which you learn to do when speed-reading. So Ashley’s body-line actually follows the scan direction. Just my observations.

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