04 March 2011

When to Break the Rules: Centering

When first starting out with a camera, we are often admonished for placing a subject smack dab in the middle of a frame.  For good reason: many centered compositions will look static, lifeless and boring.  None of those attributes typically lend themselves to a successful image.

But, it seems so obvious.  After all, when we look at something usually we are looking straight-on, not askance.  But a photograph, no matter how all-encompassing, is a very small and contrived slice of the world.  Even if you are the ‘straightest’ of photographers, when you snap that shutter you have altered the perception of the world via that image.  That’s why photographs are different than seeing and this should be the first revelation that photography is not merely recording a scene, but instead presenting it.

Of course, it does depend upon what your intent is with the composition you are creating.  Perhaps you want a static scene.  Maybe even a boring one.  I’ve certainly seen plenty of images that fit in that category and in some cases that may even have been the intent of the photographer.  But, the composition with the subject matter plopped in the middle of the frame will often look unbalanced, bothersome, the result of a snap-shooter.  But, sometimes it also works.

In my searching for lines, angles, and patterns, I will often shoot a scene straight on.  Sometimes it makes perfect sense, intuitively.  And, the images work.  It wasn’t until an art professor stated the obvious, that it clicked why these compositions are successful: symmetry.  Often we can create dynamic tension (usually a good thing!) in a photograph by shifting our composition to reflect the aesthetic logic of the Rule of Thirds or the Golden Ratio.  But some subjects and scenes do well to be presented in a centered fashion.  This works when symmetry is achieved and the centering is performed on a dominant subject with strong leading lines.

The concept of symmetry we can understand pretty readily, but the caveat of subject dominance is equally important.  Imagine a rock spire or tall building viewed from afar.  The scene might work quite well if composed with the subject (assuming the spire or building is the subject) off-center.  But center the subject and even with a very symmetrical landscape, the image will likely appear static and uninteresting with the subject lost in panorama.  Now, move in on the object and really make it the subject of interest and centering will work.  This is especially the case if there are strong lines leading to and/or radiating out from the subject.  Our eyes move into and out of and back into the scene.  Dynamism is created!

Some subjects lend themselves naturally to this kind of treatment because they are imbued organically with that essence of symmetry.  Trees, buildings, shadows, and even people can be perfect fodder for centering.  However, a blanket straight-on approach to subjects will not work.  You need to be able to see the symmetry that is unique to every subject and scene in order to express it via an image.

Bottom-line: don’t be afraid of creating centered compositions. Just know the ‘rules’ so you know when, and how, to successfully break them.


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