Posts Tagged ‘center’
Good photographic composition is difficult enough to do, much less teach, but there is one very simple Golden Rule for arranging the elements in the frame.
Don’t Put Your Subject in the Middle.
Even if you have no natural ability for designing a pleasant or interesting looking picture, if you avoid the middle of the frame you’re off to a fine start. Accidental alignments and serendipity will happen and you will feel daring and innovative. You may actually look like you know what you’re doing.
Not so if you just plop it all smack dab in the center every time. The center of your viewfinder is a bit like a photographic Bermuda Triangle where potentially good and worthy images go to sink. Everything is trapped when it’s in the center. It can’t breathe. It has no place to go. It’s confining. I could go on and on, but I’m getting anxious just writing about it.
There’s this thing called The Rule of Thirds. It’s sort of a Betty Crocker Cookbook Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe approach to composition. It’s not inspired, but it’s pretty darn good. Basically, it’s a fancy way of saying “Do anything but put your subject in the middle.” The Rule suggests that you put your subject one-third the way in from the right or the left or from the top or from the bottom. They could have called it The Rule of Anywhere But in the Middle but that’s a little wordy. They could have called it The Rule of Just Play Around but that’s a little non-specific. There’s a mathematical elegance to dividing your picture into thirds and trying to use that formula to move people emotionally. One thing we know for sure—you will not move them if you always put your subject in the middle.
I know a bunch of you out there want to tell me you saw this picture in the Museum of Modern Art and it’s really famous and the subject was in the middle. I know, I know, I saw that picture, too.
Here’s the deal. You have to know the rules to break the rules. And believe me, I want you to break the rules. But I want you to know why you’re breaking them.
You break the rules when it makes sense—you need a reason. You use the rules when you don’t know what else to do. Don’t Put Your Subject in the Middle is solid ground. It’s a safety net. Try it, learn from it, and fly away, my children—away from the center of the frame.
If you casually let the horizon line in a photograph land where it may, you’ve put yourself at the mercy of one of the boldest graphic elements that will ever appear in your pictures. And it appears so often in photographs, you need to be in charge of it and use it to your benefit.
It’s generally considered that the worst place you could put the horizon would be smack dab in the middle of the frame—exactly between the top and bottom of the frame. It feels like somebody simply couldn’t make up their mind about where it should be, and so they tried to make everyone happy; the sad result being that nobody is happy.
If you follow the rule book—the rule-of-thirds book—you put the horizon one-third up from the bottom or one-third down from the top. This does feel like somebody put it there intentionally, so everyone can relax. You can’t go too far wrong with this. If you’re a horizon-in-the-middle-of-the-frame person, it’s time to branch out—or at least up or down— to the rule-of-thirds.
But when photo subjects, specifically people, enter the picture, there’s a whole new set of considerations. Is the horizon line above or below their head? If it’s above their head, there’s often a feeling that you’re looking down on a person, and if it’s below their head, there’s a bit of a we’re looking-up-at-them feeling.
And then sometimes you need to place the horizon line so it doesn’t interfere with the subject. It needs to be tucked away so it doesn’t result in some kind of unfortunate alignment. You probably wouldn’t want the horizon sitting right on top of somebody’s head, for example, or a raised hand landing right on the line. Tall photographers are at an advantage here, I think. They can bend their knees to get a little lower to adjust the placement of the horizon—not as easy for shorter photographers to get higher.
There are advantages to being a less-than-average-height photographer, but I can’t think of any right now. (OK, maybe it’s easier to get down to your children’s level. Now I feel better.)
All of a sudden your pictures take on a surprisingly shocking professional look. I actually remember the moment it dawned on me that I could compose my pictures any way I wanted to—that is to say “creatively”. My subject didn’t have to be in the middle of the frame. Eureka!
I was probably about fourteen. A local photographer was telling us about his job at a church youth group meeting. He had us each take a picture of the woman who played the piano for the choir and the next week he brought back a pile of photos and put them on the wall.
Mine was the only one that didn’t have the woman smack dab in the middle of the frame. I had daringly put her in the top left hand corner and tried to do something dramatic with the piano keys cutting a big diagonal through the picture.
Talk about a 180—I can remember feeling extremely insecure taking the picture and extremely proud of myself when he praised it. I felt like I’d something wrong or bad when I didn’t put her in the middle of the frame. It didn’t feel safe. It wasn’t what you were supposed to do. And when I got a public pat on the back for doing it?! Wonderful!
But it does feel safer to put the subject in the middle and I think that’s one of the reasons’s people do it. But there’s another more technical reason.
People tend to think of that little focusing square as some kind of aiming device. Once you get that little square on someone’s face and your camera has focused it’s tempting just to leave it there. Yes, you may take more sharp pictures, but it’s going to leave you with a pile of stilted rigid compositions.
So now you may reasonably ask why I’m not recommending that you shoot all of your pictures with the subject in the middle and crop later. It has to do with heart. I think it’s important that you see and feel the power of your compositions as you’re shooting them. It’s called “composing in the camera” and it’s what all good photographers do.
First of all, I want you to know that I asked Crystal’s permission to put her up for public ridicule and she said something like, “Hey, why not, every one else is doing it?” So I have no big problem just piling on. (In fact, join the fun! Send Crystal a really negative comment! You’ve had a bad day so just vent!)
This award is reserved for only the most blatant examples of why we should not put our subjects in the middle of the frame. It just feels stiff and confrontational. I think viewers of photographs are waiting for photographers to take them on a little visual trip and pictures like this are a bit like going down a dead end road—there’s just no place to go after you’ve been there.
But here’s where scientific research comes in. My data indicates that people do this because they simply lack confidence about how to focus their cameras. What they do is they just put that little focusing square in the middle of the frame on their subjects nose and then they freeze—they don’t re-compose. It’s sort of a deer in the headlight deal.
Well, my work here is finished. I have to believe there’s one more person in the world who won’t put her subject in the middle of the frame anytime soon.
Oh, and Crystal gets the good sports award, too.
P.S. Apologies to Crystal’s subject. You are a beautiful young woman and should demand a re-shoot.