How to Create a Strong Composition by Centering the Subject

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Central composition

I’m a strong believer that there are no rules when it comes to composition in photography, only guidelines. The rule of thirds is misnamed (but guideline of thirds is not nearly so catchy), and while it is helpful for newcomers to photography realize that you can often improve composition by placing the subject off-centre, it is not a rule.

The rule of thirds, and other similar guidelines that you may read about (golden section, golden triangle, Fibonacci sequence, etc.) are really about placement. The question you are looking to get answered is, where in the frame should the main subject be placed? Secondary questions are how large should the subject be in the frame, and how does it relate to other elements that may be included?

In simplistic terms: sometimes the best place for the subject is in the centre of the frame, and sometimes it is not. In this article we’re going to look at some examples where the subject is centred, and talk about how that central placement actually makes the image stronger, not weaker.

Central composition

In the photo above I placed the girl in the centre of the frame (horizontally) because that was the best way to include the metal statue she was sitting on. If I moved the camera to the left (to place her on a third) then the statue’s head would be cut off. If I moved the camera right then there would be an empty space to the right of the statue’s head.

Here, the question of whether or not to place the subject (the girl) on a third, is the wrong question to ask. A better question is – What’s the best way to include everything that needs to be in the frame, and nothing more? Different question, and a different thought process.

The image also shows a strong use of tonal and color contrast. The girl’s white clothing contrasts against the surrounding dark tones, pulling the viewer’s eye to her. The eye also moves between the girl and the pink umbrella lying on the ground. The pink tones (umbrella, shoes, wristband, hair ribbon) stand out because the rest of the scene is fairly monochromatic.

Central composition

The photo above is interesting because it utilizes symmetry. I asked the model to stand at the corner of concrete structure, built into the base of the cliff. The sides of the walls, the textured pattern on them, even the way the pebbles lie against the base of the walls all mirror each other. She is placed in the centre of the frame (horizontally) so she doesn’t break the symmetry of the background. The model, however, is not symmetrical. I asked her to put her weight on one foot, creating an S-curve with her body, to break the symmetry created by the background.

Consider also the size of the subject within the frame. If I had placed her on a third by moving the camera to the right or the left, I would have both broken the symmetry and been left with a large area of empty space. This can work when there is something interesting in that space, but it doesn’t always, and should be considered when deciding where to place the subject.

Central composition

In this portrait you can see that the model’s sharp eye, is right in the centre of the frame. There’s a good reason for that – I took the photo with an EOS 5D Mark II, which has just one cross-type autofocus (AF) point in the centre of the frame. When you are using wide apertures, as I was in this case (f/2.5), it’s essential to use a cross-type autofocus point, as it’s the most accurate. One of the weaknesses of this camera is that it forced me to base my composition of portraits around its central AF point.

That’s the practical reason for using a central composition, but the portrait works. I moved in close so there wasn’t much empty space in the photo, The central composition takes the viewer’s eye to her face, eyes and hair, which are the important parts of the image. If I had moved back a little and placed her face on a third, then there would be a lot more empty space around her, and less emphasis on her features.

Central composition

This close-up photo of a flower (above) is another example of using a central composition for impact. I focused on the flower’s stamen and let the petals go out of focus. Visually, you can divide the photo into three. At the centre there’s the stamen, which is the sharp part of the image. Around that is the petal of the flower, and around that the green leaves. If I moved the camera further away and placed the flower on a third, rather than the centre, then it would lose impact and be a completely different photo.

Central composition

The final example uses the square format. You’ll see central compositions in the square format, far more than you will with a rectangular aspect ratio, because the square format lends itself to strong, graphic compositions that utilize shape.

In this example the domes of the Venetian church (centered horizontally) are the strongest shapes, and the focal point of the image. It helps that the lines formed by moving boats from the bottom right of the frame pull the eye towards the church in the distance.

What do you think? Are there times when you use central composition or do you prefer to place the subject off-centre? Let us know in the comments below.


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, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. He’s written over 25 popular photography ebooks and is the creator of the Lightroom Secrets Email Course.

  • Tony Bassman

    Thanks for this article, I’m a strong believer in having guidelines and not rules! Here’s a photo of some beach huts I took one winter, I think the shot works even though the huts are centred.

  • Tim_M58

    Thanks for the article, and the amazing images. after looking at all of them I find that maybe my interpretation of the rule of thirds might be different than yours. In almost every one of your images I find that you have placed the part of the subject that is of most interest on one of the third’s lines or 1/3 intersections. Even the first one of the blossom puts the central Focus area at the bottom third of the image. The full length portrait has the woman’s face on the top 1/3 line. The close up of the flower pistil has the pistil centered, yes, but the shallow DOF puts the focus on the top 1/3 line… am I missing something? Is my interpretation of thirds somehow flawed?

  • Hi Tim, good question. The photos are centered either horizontally or vertically, but not always both.

  • Wayne Robert Crofford

    Great article; could you have ‘focused and recomposed’ the photo of the ‘blues eyes then allowing for her to be moved to one side of the other? Just a question for my own photography.

  • Possibly, it depends on the aperture setting. If it is very wide (say from f1.8 to f2.8) then the narrow depth-of-field means that the eye will go out of focus when you move the camera. Plus, you may also lose the model’s expression in the time it takes to focus and recompose.

  • kenneth

    Rule of third is to guide you into better photography but is not a rigid rule should always to follow. placing subject in the center with bokeh clean background is giving another feel. Good article, Thanks.

  • Wayne Robert Crofford

    Thanks for the added clarification.

  • CeeJayJon

    The huts may be centered, but your image (which I like) follows the rule of thirds. The red hut on the rightmost third is the most obvious, but take a step back and you will see more rule following. The sky, huts, and snow hit the top, middle, and bottom thirds perfectly.

  • Tony Bassman

    Yes, I see your point. Thanks for the comment.

  • Angelfire

    Wow, I really, really, REALLY like this photo! It’s amazing!

  • SueWsie Wils

    Sometimes central is the only choice that works

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    Centering the subject is often ok with portraits, but I rarely use centering with anything else. It generally looks like a snapshot taken by a newbie.

  • Marty Dunajsky

    Cross Composition is a rule that places the object in the exact center of the frame. It is a very useful composition “rule” and as Leslie Hoerwinkle mentioned, I prefer this in portraits. In a landscape, where a mirror image exists, this rule also applies.

  • pete guaron

    It’s a relief to know I am NOT barmy, and that these “things” were never meant as “rules” – but as “guidelines”. I can continue trying to be creative, with a clear conscience.

    In my mind, they were all like wine glasses – a flute is perfect for champagne, but awful for cognac – and if you drank table wine out of brandy balloons, you would have terrible liver problems. None of these things is a sort of “Swiss army knife”, leaping out of a book and solving all the problems of composition in a single blow.

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    All these photos respect the rule of thirds. Nice try 😉

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    Shut up

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    Centering the faces in portraits is almost never ok

  • Claudio

    Could you explain this? Sorry, I’m newbie in photography, trying to learn by myself composition.

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    I don’t understand what you asking me to explain. Try to be more specific.

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