How to Break the Rules with a Central Composition

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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.

Portrait of man sitting at a bench, photographed with center composition and off-camera flash - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

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”.

A shot showing the rule of thirds - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

A clear example of the rule of thirds being followed to a “T”

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.

A portrait of a man walking through the woods - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

Using Symmetry

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.

A man walked on a trail in the forest in a center composed image - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

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.

Square Shoulders

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.

A portrait of a man in the woods - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

The model is square to the camera, but it isn’t distracting as it matches with the central composition and vertical lines of the trees.

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.

Lines That are Lines

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.

How to Break the Rules with a central composition

The lantern is in the center of the image, but the lines of the steps aren’t horizontal. As a result, the image looks unbalanced.

How to Break the Rules with a central composition

The lantern is still in the center of the image, but this time the lines are horizontal and work to support the style of the shot, rather than to detract from it.

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.

A Touch of Minimalism

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.

A lantern on a forest path How to Break the Rules with a central composition

With a wide aperture, the background turns into smooth out-of-focus bokeh, eliminating any distracting details.

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.

busy background - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

This shot shows the messy and distracting background that the previous effectively removes with selective use of aperture.

Trying out Different Subjects

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.

Editing a Central Composition

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.

LR showing how to crop an image - How to Break the Rules with a central composition

This is the interface in Lightroom for cropping an image. Notice the grid lines which give a clear indication of when the subject is centered.

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!

To Each Their Own

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.

A nighttime portrait of a man on a dock, photographed with central composition

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!

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Frank Myrland is an avid photographer from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago he picked up a camera on a whim, and he's been hooked ever since. As an active and independent learner, Frank likes to continuously explore ways to make his images worth a second look. You can see more of his work by visiting his website, or by connecting with him on Instagram and Facebook.

  • KC

    Something else to consider: you’re not “locked” into 3:2 format. Sometime 4:3 works better, or any of the other somewhat common formats. Although I’ve shot miles of 35mm in the past, I was never particularly fond of 3:2 (or 1:1 Square, either, for that matter).

    The “Rule of Thirds” is more of a “guide”. There are a lot of composition “rules”. They’re meant to be interpreted. Central has it’s merits, and it’s worth the time to master. You might have to be a little more aware of perspective and depth, or an image can look flat, almost forensic. The subject has to be a bit more dramatic. It’s a great challenge and a lot of fun.

    I’m all for “breaking the rules”. It’s about time some new ones were discovered.

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  • Aloha! When it comes to composition I rarely center my subject. Thank you so much for creating this article, I love the photography! Aloha and Mahalo, Anthony Calleja Photography https://www.anthonycalleja.com

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