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, centered composition can be a place of great 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
For more information click here.