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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.