The Much-Maligned Centered Composition

(© Ian Plant) We’re taught early on to avoid putting our main subject in the center of the composition, and perhaps with good reason. Too often, as beginners, we point our cameras right at our subject, leading to static, boring compositions. At some point, we learn the so-called “Rule of Thirds,” which teaches us to mentally divide our pictures into thirds horizontally and vertically, and to then place interesting subjects on the dividing lines or at their intersection—getting us away from the center. Although this is generally a good thing, as it turns out, the center can be a place of great compositional power.

Chess grandmasters know that control of the center of the board is vital to achieving victory, although the pieces in the center might not be the ones that ultimately trap the king. Often, a master chess player will use flanking attacks to maneuver into position for final victory, but it is command of the vital center that allows this to happen. When it comes to composition, you should learn to think like a chess grandmaster: the oft-maligned center now becomes a point of vital interest in your compositions. Just as in chess, you must carefully orchestrate the movement of off-center "flanking" pieces—in this case, compositional elements—with activity in the center. By creating off-center compositional interest, you can not only successfully place elements of strong importance in the center, but what’s more, make compelling and bold compositions which expertly draw the viewer’s eye deep into the image frame and don’t let go.

For example, the image below unabashedly violates the Rule of Thirds. I placed the most visually dominant part of the scene—the glowing sandstone wall—right smack-dab in the center of the image frame. When making this composition, I was careful, however, to orchestrate the placement of off-center elements with the centered subject. The leading lines radiating from the corners of the image, as well as the diminishing scale of repeating curving shapes, all help keep the eye visually engaged with the entire image, not just the eye-catching center.

I talk in great detail about centered compositions, as well as other compositional styles, in my new eBook Visual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition. The book spans several centuries and different artistic media in its quest to reveal the composition secrets of the great masters. Although the focus of the book is on nature photography composition, the techniques discussed within are easily applicable to other types of photography, and (more broadly) to other forms of two-dimensional visual art as well. To learn more about the book or to order, click here. I’ve created a special discount for OP readers; enter discount code OUTDOOR and get 10% off all purchases on my e-store.

Visual Flow:Mastering the Art of CompositionVisual Flow: Mastering the Art of Composition
by Ian Plant (with George Stocking)
287 pages
$24.95
For more information click here.

7 Comments

    As an industrial photographer in Mumbai; India, I really liked your composition and style of photography. Keep up the good work.

    Your article is truly thought provoking, as where we tend to see images that blindly follow the Rule of Thirds, but there are several exceptions that muct be kept in mind while shooting.

    I recently ordered your magazine and really appreciate the pointers even though I am not a proffessional photographer. Of course, I would like to take better pictures. I read the article concerning multiple-exposure and wanted to try it. But, I read the guide for my new Canon EOS 60D and I do not see that function. Is it possible to take those pictures with my camera or do I simply work on other pictures?

    Ian,

    Your sample photo is great! The photo just sucks one into the scene like a vacuum cleaner. “Suck” is not used in a negative connotation; the photo grabs you by the collar and pulls you in.

    Great rule breaker!

    Ian…I think your way of weaving different mediums together is exceptional! I would say you are the first of the kind and I appreciate it a lot. I have been reading about photography since 6 years, being a hobby photographer myself, but you make your point in a much different and reasonable way.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and knowledge. I hope to read your Visual Flow ebook soon.

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