When I shoot environmental portraits, I usually place my subject off center. However, I've seen instances where the photographer has intentionally centered their subject. Here is an example: http://lightbox.time.com/2012/02/07/the-life-of-lucian-freud/#1 Personally, I would have framed it so the person is not in the middle in order to create some tension and dynamic balance. What is your opinion as to why the photographer would have centered the subject in the attached example? What are some instances when using the center of the frame is a better compositional choice?


6 Answers 6


Whenever it makes sense to. The "rules" of composition are not rules at all, and many of them are derived (sometimes tortuously) from examining pictures that people have found pleasing for one reason or another. That there are so many "rules" to choose from is an indication that there are many, many different ways to create a picture that is either pleasing to the eye or tells the story you want to tell. It's nice to learn the various rules, but don't take any of them too seriously. (And leave the art critic vocabulary to the art critics -- they can see things that no ordinary, reasonable person can, or at least come up with a scientific-sounding explanation of why a good picture is a good picture, even if it means making up a new compositional rule.)

  • Fuly agree. In this case the background is pretty boring and plain, hardly an environment at all so creating a more formalised portrait with the subject in the middle works. That brush in the hand would (IMHO) just look odd with an off-centre placement.
    – epo
    Feb 8, 2012 at 10:51
  • 4
    Its like the pirate code - "the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules".
    – rfusca
    Feb 10, 2012 at 6:47

When you stand in front of a mirror to shave... do you stand centered in mirror or do you compose yourself by the rule of thirds?? The point of centering, at least what I am interpreting, in this image is to create the effect that he is looking in the mirror shaving. As though we, the viewers, are viewing from inside his medicine cabinet mirror. And so you decide where to place your subject based on the story you're telling... if there is no extra effect such as mirror view -- then go ahead and use rule of thirds but don't be so bound to rule of thirds (or other rules) that it blocks the creative potential that another composition could serve. Start from the rule, if you like, then ask is there another story I could tell with different placement! No matter what always consider other placement because otherwise you are not even open to the possibilities. Be open to the possibilities!


The subject is horizontally centered in that image but the focal point, the face and eyes, are still sitting on the one-third line down from the top so it still falls within the rule of thirds.

  • I hate to say it, but this is the perfect example of what Stan is talking about in his answer. ;) Personally I'd say the point of focus is about 60/40, or Golden Ratio...but its all rather moot...its highly unlikely the "rules" were applied at the time the photo was taken.
    – jrista
    Feb 8, 2012 at 6:00

I agree that this photo may have been more appealing, especially on a subconscious level, if it was off-center. Personally, I would have cropped out some of the extraneous things on the one side in particular. However, the final decision made by the photographer was most likely made simply because it "felt" right. We've probably all done it.


I personally agree that the photo probably would have been slightly more appealing had the photographer shifted the subject from the center. It would have balanced the photo and added a little bit of tension. Generally these are the reasons a composition like this is not framed with the subject in the center.

You can, of course, center the subject in many situations. If your subject is filling the frame, centering the subject often allows either side of them to fall on these 'balancing lines' (thirds, golden ratio). This is aesthetically pleasing.

If your subject is perhaps lying down perpendicular to the camera (on a bench or a couch, for example), having the feet on one side and the head on the other side will feel balanced.

As well, a symmetry in the surroundings of a subject may also allow for an aesthetically pleasing centering of a subject as given by the rough example.

The composition is balanced because of the overall symmetry.

enter image description here

In general, it should come down to what feels right as you're framing your shot. I often find myself "falling" into these guidelines I've talked about in this answer (and other general guides in composing) because they intrinsically feel good. I found these to be pleasing before knowing what they were called or why they are used.

  • I agree in general, but I'm not sure shifting the subject from the centre would be more balanced - I would say the opposite. More tension, yes. More dynamic and interesting. But not more balanced unless there is something in the other two thirds to balance the subject. Against a bland background, an off-centre subject isn't balanced in my mind.
    – MikeW
    Feb 8, 2012 at 5:39
  • For me, I tend to view the desirable composition of a photo like the example given to be on a see saw. If the subject is on either side, it's at rest. If the subject is in the center, it could go either direction and has the potential to feel like you're not stable. Maybe tension isn't the right word, maybe 'dynamic'. That's probably the best analogy I can think of for my own point of view. Feb 8, 2012 at 5:48
  • It has a lot of tension now. Is he heading into the light through the door? Or receding into the dark shadows? Both have the same visual weight so it's up to you to think about where he is going, metaphorically... Feb 11, 2012 at 8:54

It's about creating an effect, right? Centering the subject and having him face the camera creates a sort of dramatic confrontation with the viewer.

In my mind, if you want the subject to confront the viewer, a centered, full-on view might be appropriate. As noted above - this does't preclude also using the rule of thirds or another composition technique as well.

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