Center Field - 9 Acceptable Ways For Breaking Rule of Thirds in Photography

Center Field – 9 Acceptable Ways For Breaking Rule of Thirds in Photography


When starting, most photographers tend to shoot all subjects center-frame. As they learn more about photography and composition, they learn that centering a subject is not appealing and that they must follow the ‘Rule of Thirds’ to have a good composition. What if I suggest breaking Rule of Thirds?

The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is taking a frame and dividing it into three equal sections both horizontally and vertically, creating a rectangular ‘tic-tac-toe’ box. Framing a subject so that it falls on one of the four intersecting points of that box can sometimes make an image more appealing to a viewer engaging with it.

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Implementing the Rule of Thirds.

While you may not perfectly frame your subject to fall within one of those four points, if your subject falls on one of the four internal lines within the box, in most cases, it still gives a better appeal than a centered image.

When It’s a Good Idea to Center Your Subject

1. Centering as a Compositional Tool

Placing your subject dead-center can work to your benefit if the subject still tends to comply with the Rule of Thirds guideline. Such as, when more than one point of focus falls on more than one line within that ‘Rule of Thirds’ box as shown in the image below.

The sets of pillars fall on one of the two vertical lines in the frame according to the Rule of Thirds even though the entire image is centered.

2. Place Focus on Your Main Subject

Sometimes when there is a busy foreground or background, placing your subject dead-center helps to draw the viewer’s attention to it. While the image below shows much texture, centering the stool brings focus to it.

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Bring better focus to a subject by centering.

3. Emphasize Symmetry

You may sometimes run into a subject that has a symmetrical value to it. The item could include columns at a building’s entrance, a person’s face or something with repetitional characteristics. Centering the subject, in this case, allows the viewer to relax because the order in the image makes sense.

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This nonsymmetrical image is not as appealing as the image below.

In the next image, there is a sense of order due to the equal number of pillars to the right and left of the fountain, producing symmetry.

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This image represents symmetry.

4. Draw the Viewer’s Eye Inward

One of the most common goals for a photographer is to draw a viewer’s attention into the image instead of out of it. Straight roadways, paths, or sidewalks are great examples that keep your viewer’s attention within the frame – by drawing the eye inward.

The hall and chandeliers are centered taking the eye inward into the photo.

5. Create a Sense of Size and Space

Centering a subject can often showcase its size, especially when surrounded by people, buildings or other objects that serve as a comparison. Such as in the image below.

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Centering a subject can sometimes emphasize the size of a subject.

Centering a subject can also give a sense of space. A good example is when there is water or cityscape in the foreground of an image and a clear sky in an upper part of the image. See an example below.

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Centering the Eiffel Tower in this image works to show a sense of space.

6. Square Image Format

A great way to justify centering an image is when you use the square image format. A square has all equal sides in length, so placing a subject dead-center works well. I also like it because, in most cases, it’s an equal distance from the subject to all edges of the sides.

Centering the Eiffel Tower in this image works to show a sense of space.

7. Shooting With Shallow Depth of Field

When you open up your aperture and shoot with shallow depth of field around your subject, it creates a more three-dimensional feel, adding depth to your image. In this case, centering your subject works because it washes out distraction around your subject, as in the image below.

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Shooting with a shallow depth of field.

8. Overcoming Location Difficulties

Sometimes the location of a fixed subject makes it difficult to capture a stunning shot. During these times try to get creative, as I did in the image of the clock at Grand Central Terminal in New York City below. I could’ve taken that shot from any number of directions or angles. However, for a better shot, I centered it at an angle that included the American flag in the background.

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Center a subject to overcome location difficulties.

9. Simplicity

You know the saying, ‘less is more?’ While placing a subject off-center adds tension to an image, placing a subject dead center can give a calm and orderly feeling. In addition, placing your subject in a central position is like opening a book to its story. You are making it the most important element in the image. A natural environment, a natural face – it’s an open book. What is your subject’s story that you are introducing to your viewers?

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Tying It Altogether…

Some ‘rules’ are meant to be broken. The Rule of Thirds is not the only way to guarantee a good composition. As long as you understand why you’re breaking the rules and foregoing guidelines with a specific intention, your images can be as compelling subject-centered as with your subject off-center.

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Dawn Wayand Dawn Wayand is a photographer, curator, and educator specializing in studio work, exhibiting, travel and creative photography. She teaches workshops through Dawn M. Wayand Photography. Sign up for her free newsletter to learn more about her private workshops in New York City here.

  • dabhand

    There is no such thing as a RULE of Thirds, it is merely a compositional guide and continuing to call it a RULE is doing a total dis-service to photography in what could be a fantastic age photography, images adhering to that particular ‘rule’ are fast turning the results into parodies of themselves – it is becoming the equivalent of the Dog, Butterfly, Flower Crown or Cat Snapchat filters.

  • Jack Ellis

    It is based on a mathematician who knew nothing about art using statistics that was setup in such a way that the one-third point was inevitable. So essentially it is meaningless!

  • Thanks for your point of view. It’s always great to hear how people feel about things that are taught to and used by photographers. Even though it has been taught to photographers for years as The “Rule” of Thirds, I generally like to think of it as a “guideline”. I have found some truth in the appeal of my images when placing my subject on an intersecting point or grid line even when doing so unintentionally. For me, it does provide some sort of balance to the image, however, for the reasons I’ve stated in my article above, I have found centering a subject can also be just as appealing.

  • dabhand

    Dawn – If you haven’t already, take a look at this years winners in the various categories of the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year in particular the winner in Animal portraits – The golden couple by Marsel van Oosten, from The Netherlands or the winner of Creative Visions – The Ice Pool by Cristobal Serrano, Spain. These are the type of images I would rather aspire to rather than to some arbitrary ‘rule’ perpetuated by those who want conformance so that their mind is not challenged.

  • Albin

    Most of these seem right, apart from the fountain – don’t think it’s fair ball to expose the asymmetrical view so differently (darker, ashy grey versus sparkling white spray) and push the large spout farther right than R3. Looks like putting circling around enough to put the two properly exposed spouts on grid lines would be interesting.

  • Peter

    Except for the caption for the flower lol

  • Geoff

    Thanks for the thought-provoking article, Dawn. The conclusion seems to be that ‘centre field’ is often a better solution (than ‘rule-of-thirds’) for many landmark and urban views; maybe it’s no coincidence that only one selected image features a person. The b-side of this approach is the lack of surprise… the predictability, if that’s not putting it too bluntly. I’d suggest that avoiding both ‘rules’ can often create much more interesting – or at least controversial – results (as in my own example).

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