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When you started your journey to become a photographer, it’s likely you quickly encountered the famous Rule of Thirds. This rule is a fantastic guide for how to achieve a balanced and visually-pleasing composition, which is why most photographers use it – from newspaper editorial images to action shots to portraits.
It’s also a very safe way to take photos. However, a central composition has a fascinating way of catching the viewer a little off-guard.
At its core, photography is about boldly pushing limits and demanding attention. And the centrally composed image is one that definitely demands attention – although not always necessarily for the right reasons.
Give a camera to someone unfamiliar with photography and they tend to put the subject right in the exact middle of their picture. Interestingly enough, it’s almost our default position. But over time we learn to compose according to the “rules” and a central composition then becomes a “mistake”.
But why is it that the same style of composition can look so amateurish sometimes, and then so dramatic or fascinating at other times? Let’s take a closer look at some of the challenges – and benefits – of breaking all the rules and giving a central composition a shot.
One of the strongest reasons to use center composed images is to exaggerate or make use of the symmetry in a setting. Symmetry is when both sides of a picture look like a mirror image of each other – or at least very similar.
Humans are naturally drawn to patterns – and the art of photography is a way to capture or display a pattern. Showing symmetry requires a bit more thought when choosing your camera angle so that the different elements of the picture function together as one.
One thing about using symmetry in photos is that it quickly creates a very distinct style. Filmmaker Wes Anderson is famous for his use of center-composed, wide angle, symmetrical shots. It’s a distinct flavor that makes his movies instantly recognizable and adds a charm that his audiences love.
An interesting quirk of using central composition for your image is that you can more easily get away with portraits where the subject’s shoulders are square to the camera – in other words, their body is facing the camera directly.
Typically, a model can slightly turn their body or drop one shoulder to appear more flattering in the image. Because center composed images accentuate lines so strongly, your model can be completely square to the camera without it detracting from the picture.
Center composed images benefit from having strong lines. These can be either strong horizontal, vertical, or leading lines that pull towards the center of the image.
Recognizing the natural lines in a setting and using them to your advantage is important for keeping your center composed shot from looking unintentionally amateurish.
Paying attention to the lines isn’t important only for a central composition. Generally speaking, it’s a good rule in photography to make sure lines that are horizontal in real life are horizontal in your pictures.
The center composed image thrives on being simple, clean and clear. Your subject is the singular focus in the shot. Cluttered backgrounds or distracting foregrounds may often hurt your image.
Using a wide aperture to achieve a narrow depth-of-field goes a long way to decluttering an image. By letting the background fall into soft and creamy bokeh, it pulls more attention visually to your subject.
A central composition isn’t just for portrait shots. You can try it out in nature photography, car photography, detail shots or whatever your heart desires. All of the same rules apply.
Hunting out interesting symmetrical patterns in nature, whether they are in the veins of a leaf or a straight forest path through a tunnel of trees, can make for a very satisfactory center composed shot.
Trying to figure out if your subject is smack dab in the center of your frame? This is a good time to break out the cropping tool in your photo editor. Your preferred photo editor will come equipped with a grid that will let you carefully ensure that your subject is in the right spot.
Having your subject just a hair off of the center line could be an irritating little distraction for your audience. So it’s best to get it right!
Photography is heavily subjective – it depends on personal taste. A picture that doesn’t earn a second look from one person could be another person’s favorite shot.
The key for becoming the best photographer you can be is to continuously learn and explore. Discover new methods, tools, and skills that give you the creative freedom to approach a familiar subject from an unfamiliar direction or a new perspective.
That’s why it’s a great idea to keep central composition handy in your photography toolbag, for those moments when you can use it to demand your viewer’s attention.
Who knows? Maybe it will even become your distinctive style as a photographer!