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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Liberate Static Subjects from the Center

When it comes to consistently composing interesting photographs, we all have to fight our bad habits. One of the things I constantly have to fight against is my tendency to simply place subjects smack in the middle of the frame. It's surprising that I'm so susceptible to this because I think one of my best talents in photography is having a good eye for composition.

I think part of the reason that I fall victim to this so often is that I grew up with cameras where the metering and focusing indicators were always in the middle of the frame--so it became necessary to put the main subject in the middle, at least temporarily, to frame and meter it. Today, of course, most cameras have matrix metering that covers the entire frame and multiple focusing indicators so that no matter where the subject is, the camera will meter and focus correctly. But, hey, old habits die hard and I still find myself nailing things to the middle of the frame.

Creatively speaking, however, the center of the frame is a dead zone. Because your subject is surrounded by equal amounts of space both horizontally and vertically there is no spatial tension, no sense of impending motion on the part of your subject. Your subjects just hang there in the middle like the bullseye of a target.

Over the centuries artists have devised methods for finding more dynamic and pleasing subject placements. The most familiar of these, of course, is the "rule of thirds" that you've surely read about. To use this method you simply divide the frame into both horizontal and vertical thirds and then place your main subject at one of the intersections of those lines. The red-wing blackbird shown here, for instance, is roughly at the point where the left third line (vertically) and the bottom third line (horizontally) intersect. It's a simple method for off-center subject placement and it really does provide a good mental guide for subject placement. Some cameras even have a grid on the focusing screen though I think that's a bit of overkill--the rule of thirds is a creative guideline, not a precise instruction.

Another method that many artists used is a somewhat more complex (but related) design technique that is based on the "Golden Mean" or the "Golden Section" as it's sometimes called. The principle is based on a mathematical ratio that, again, divides the frame into a pleasing gridwork into which you can place your subjects. Entire books have been written about the Golden Mean and it's a fascinating subject. Watch this YouTube video for a very basic summary of using the principle as a design tool. For a more mystical look, watch this video.

Taking the main subject out of the center of the frame will immediately improve almost all of your photographs and you'll find yourself creating much more interesting and pleasing designs.

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