Photo Tip: Left of Center

As a photographer, it is tempting to see the world through your viewfinder as you would when simply looking at a scene in normal life - i.e. from eye level with the subject up smack dab in the center of the frame. While this mimics how we normally look at things, and achieves the admirable goal of giving the subject prominence, I want to share with you a way to create more dynamic and engaging photographs.

Our natural inclination is to place a subject in the middle of the
frame. I call this 'bulllseye' composition and it can result in rather
uninteresting images.

Let's start moving your subject off-center. How? Imagine a viewfinder that is equally divided into a 3x3 grid.

Dividing the image area into thirds along both the horizontal and vertical axes, the goal is to give equal compositional weight to each grid, with special emphasis on the intersections of the gridlines. As opposed to being positioned in the center of the frame, here our subject occupies the rightmost third of the frame. His eye (a main point of interest) sits at the intersection of two gridlines. This compositional technique is commonly referred to as the Rule of Thirds.

Experiment with placing your subjects along the various intersections of these grid lines. It may take some time to break the habit of centering your subject, but this extra attention to compositional detail will pay big dividends, taking your photography to a more professional level. Here are some examples.

The area of sharpest focus rests on the middle rider. Placing him, along with the other riders in the upper left portion of the frame directly affects the balance of the composition. It's as if they are riding out of the frame itself. This is an effective way to communicate dynamic movement. Placing the subject off to the side of the frame and using a wide aperture to blur a busy background creates a more engaging subject that draws viewers' attention. Notice that the composition places ample space in the direction to which he's looking. This would have been a much less effective shot had we placed him along the right edge of the frame instead.
With our subject set in the bottom
right of the frame, a large portion
of the image area is devoted to the
background, which in turn
creates context for the image,
a sense of place that adds interest.
The location of the subject
'weights' the image towards the
bottom of the frame, with the
blurred background serving as
a subtle, yet effective backdrop
without detracting from the roses.

To see more  examples of this compositional technique, simply open a magazine. Print advertising often features subjects placed off-center to make room for the ad copy; something to explore the next time you're in the dentist's office. Now let's see how to put the rule of thirds into action using a portraiture example. Eyes are very expressive and can often be the most compelling feature of the photograph. So careful attention to their placement in the frame can pay big dividends. Consider our compositional options for the following image.

Above is a classic "snapshot" example with the subject right in the middle of the frame. While this does tell the viewer that the child is the focus of attention, we're left with a static, uninteresting composition.   Moving our subject close to the left edge of the frame creates a slightly improved photograph, but to there is simply nothing of interest in the now empty area of the frame to warrant this change.
 
Shifting the subject to the right provides a much more balanced composition. Our attention remains on the child and the toy fire engine supplies a secondary area of interest that adds to the narrative of the image.

We've seen how easy it is to create a more dramatic composition simply by avoiding the center of the frame. Placing your subject near the edges does not diminish its importance. Just the opposite. It can now draw even more attention in a way that helps create a dynamic narrative. So before you press the shutter on your next shot, move things around for a more vibrant, engaging result.


Amadou Diallo is a technical writer at dpreview, photographer and author of books on digital image editing and travel photography. His fine art work can be seen at diallophotography.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 44
k4rtman
By k4rtman (Apr 24, 2012)

Well Said, your tips would allow me to click better pics...

Thanks

0 upvotes
Photo Maker
By Photo Maker (Nov 2, 2011)

well done & said...

0 upvotes
bbadgett
By bbadgett (Oct 1, 2011)

To the webmaster: If you aren't going to maintain the links, then pull the article down.

0 upvotes
c_henry
By c_henry (Sep 27, 2011)

All the pictures deem to be missing from this article. Any chance we could get the links fixed?

0 upvotes
Amadou Diallo
By Amadou Diallo (Oct 1, 2011)

The problem has been fixed. Our apologies for the inconvenience.

0 upvotes
KevCol
By KevCol (Sep 13, 2011)

I agree that the rule of thirds can add artistry to a photo, but more important is framing, which I think could be much improved on a few of these pics.

I like to see the subject offset provide the space for the subject to move into or to be able to look into. A frame edge can seem like a wall if placed wrongly and the half a horse and the girl look confined by the frame.

Also, tight cropping can look uncomfortable if it dismembers objects even to the extent I would not have trimmed the kids shoes or toy. This shot would look less bland and have more of a narrative if there was a hint the child actually had been able to play with the cart rather than it had been poked in a corner by a tidy adult.

Maybe his surrounds could have been improved by having him sitting on a rug and even have a cushion to cover some of that skirting.

I should say your child looks cute and I like the hint of natural lighting.

0 upvotes
Swashbuckler
By Swashbuckler (Sep 13, 2011)

I think the girl picture could be much improved if the photographer shot from the other side of the fence (producing almost a mirror-image of the example). The subject will always look a bit confined if the direction they are looking at is cut off abruptly by the frame.

But I think "dismembering" subjects in and of itself doesn't always amount to an uncomfortable composition, on the contrary, very tight portraits for example usually work well when you cut off the top of the head and chin (so that the eyes are on roughly the top "third" line).

An even more obvious example is a full-length portrait. Including people's feet makes the picture awkward, but if you cut them off say, mid-calf, it looks much better. Try it!

0 upvotes
Amadou Diallo
By Amadou Diallo (Sep 19, 2011)

One thing to consider when deciding whether to place your subject close to or far from the edge is whether you can see what they are looking at. With a subject staring off at something beyond the frame, leaving ample space can achieve a sense of purposeful ambiguity. If, however, the subject is looking at an object that's in the frame (ie the woman looking at her cell phone in the example photo, placing the subject near the edge can bring some order to the composition.

0 upvotes
rondom
By rondom (Sep 12, 2011)

here is an amateur, who could have benefited from this article...too bad, maybe next time:

http://artblart.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/josef-koudelka-france-1987.jpg

0 upvotes
Ray Soares
By Ray Soares (Sep 10, 2011)

Good article. Congrats!

0 upvotes
Mike Sandman
By Mike Sandman (Sep 9, 2011)

Mr. Diallo is a fine author - I have his book on digital black & white imaging. But I do agree with the comments that this article is a bit short and useful only for beginners. The suggestion by another poster that dPreview categorize (categorise?) articles by beginner vs. experienced is a good one.

0 upvotes
steveh0607
By steveh0607 (Sep 9, 2011)

A good article for the basics. But sometimes a charging horse looks more dramatic when it fills the frame and is coming straight for you.

0 upvotes
Swashbuckler
By Swashbuckler (Sep 13, 2011)

I would say with the charging horse one, it may look more natural to frame it so that the horses look like they are entering the frame rather than leaving (or in this case looking like they have already left) the frame.

Taking into account that most folks subconsciously "read" from left to right should also help in making a framing decision - good composition leads your eyes into the picture, not out of it.

An alternative way to indicate motion is to play with shutter speed/aperture settings. Either blurring the background or blurring the horses can work.

0 upvotes
David Chin
By David Chin (Sep 9, 2011)

Very effective example in this article - well-done!

0 upvotes
David Chin
By David Chin (Sep 9, 2011)

I meant "examples".

I learnt a few new things here - thanks!

0 upvotes
CNY_AP
By CNY_AP (Sep 8, 2011)

The shots of the first two kids look good to me - very natual framing to leave more space on the side they are looking towards. The boy's image on the bottom looks good too - by including more of the riding toy.
I dislike the shot with the woman at the fence. I would have put her on the left side looking across the frame, and used the fence as the left border. Seems odd to have the subject looking off the frame, or about to walk out of the image.
Does the rule of thirds apply to sports? The horses/polo shot has one horse cut off, and yet the main subject is nearly centered anyhow...i don't care for this image at all. PS: Not sure that others have said, purposely did not read other comments before mine.

2 upvotes
SPBImages
By SPBImages (Sep 8, 2011)

I agree about the image of the woman at the fence. By having her looking at the edge of the frame it takes the viewer out of the frame.

1 upvote
BitFarmer
By BitFarmer (Sep 9, 2011)

I thouth the same: "My" rule of thirds says that the empty third should be left so that the main subject is looking at this, so if the boy look left, place it on the right third, and vice versa.

As always, it is just a rule and can be happily broken from time to time!

1 upvote
Todd Taylor
By Todd Taylor (Sep 8, 2011)

Excellent article. Brief, concise, and plenty of good examples to clearly illustrate the point. I think the example of the boy does a good job of showing how to make a rather boring photo a bit more interesting by just moving the subject out of the center (and not to the side that would make the picture even more boring! :-) )

0 upvotes
ReluctantTorontonian
By ReluctantTorontonian (Sep 8, 2011)

Composition is a subjective thing. The "rules" are vague sets of directions that never apply across the board. It's something you "feel" more than you know. Still, everybody needs a jumping-off point and the basics described above are a great start.

Still, that said, the example images here are unconscionable for a tutorial. If good composition is about visual harmony, these pictures are about as out of tune as a high school garage band. These are before photos, not after photos. I usually hate needless criticism on the internet, but this article shouldn't have made it through the editors and I just spent ten minutes searching for my old dpreview password just to say that.

2 upvotes
Peet Venter
By Peet Venter (Sep 8, 2011)

Thank you for the time and sharing. Wish someone told me this in the first months I struggled to make sense of this awesome hobby. Sadly some may not benefit, and maybe never will, but truth is sharing even basic information is a gift never to be discarded.

0 upvotes
The Squire
By The Squire (Sep 8, 2011)

Seems like a lot of commenters here don't like being taught to suck eggs. Maybe these beginner photo tips aren't for you. Or rather than moaning, post links to a few of your own examples in your awesome portfolio or work. Please.

0 upvotes
Michele Kappa
By Michele Kappa (Sep 8, 2011)

Very nice, though a bit short, beginner's article. How about categorizing articles, dp? This could easily be put in "basics of photography", for example.It would help in order to avoid criticism from whom already knows the basics - or negative comments from who just has lots of time to waste, thus becoming really helpful and constructive for real beginners.

0 upvotes
bigzarelli
By bigzarelli (Sep 8, 2011)

Funny, I didn't think there were any rules in photography...

0 upvotes
SPBImages
By SPBImages (Sep 8, 2011)

There is only one rule in photography. You have to have light to make a photo. All the rest are suggestions. IMHO.

1 upvote
Debankur Mukherjee
By Debankur Mukherjee (Sep 8, 2011)

Nice Article......

0 upvotes
taotoo
By taotoo (Sep 7, 2011)

Low quality article masquerading as good advice.

Polo shot composition awful, and seems to follow the rule of fifths.

Camera way too high for shot of boy (though no doubt a 'how to shoot kids' article will appear in the future). Back to the rule of thirds, but forgot the vertical dimension.

Girl on pier - again the magical rule of fifths.

Flower image an utter mess.

Last shot - I'm drawn to the right foot and the front wheel. Can't think why. And would it have killed you to get your elbows down on the floor?

So much for the new 'articles' section.

6 upvotes
Ipsofoto
By Ipsofoto (Sep 8, 2011)

The polo rider shot is poor - it would have been much better and more dynamic if the three riders were in the middle of the shot. But the rest of it is fine, albeit basic advice. Your criticisms are particularly barbed bitter and unnecessary.

1 upvote
Anssi Kumpula
By Anssi Kumpula (Sep 7, 2011)

I'll argue that Golden Ratio is better rule to follow, though, it's not possible to show up on viewfinder as rule of thirds often is. But anyway you will get better if you composite a little to the center and not exactly to the first third. This is of course just a rule of thumb but anyways good to know because Golden Ratio is more flattering to the eye than Rule of Thirds.

2 upvotes
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Sep 7, 2011)

The author shows out centered or idealized shots of people or objects may not be the most interesting compositions. He is absolutely right that pro ads oftensucceed precisely because of clever off-center technique.

However, any off-center compositional charm is more likely to result from clever editing, or pure chance, than by conscious set-up in a viewfinder. When photographing action subjects, an off-center shot is likely to be off-focus, or succeed only by luck. The polo shot may have been a lucky exception, but would more often be something shot with the players at center, and then cropped.

0 upvotes
Bob Meyer
By Bob Meyer (Sep 9, 2011)

If you really think off-center composition doesn't happen in camera, then you really don't know much about photography. Thinking about the composition when shooting is the difference between making photographs and taking snapshots. And focusing on off-center subjects is easy in almost any modern camera with multiple focus points.

0 upvotes
danm_cool
By danm_cool (Sep 7, 2011)

let's be honest, for an article explaining composition the pics are a little be bit grandma style, like there was very little thinking from the photographer when taken (a lot of elements are cut out, the feet of the boy in the last pictures, the little toy car, the hair of the boy eating the doughnut, the horse rider, the roses) it looks like the author has just bought his first compact and read the first paragraph of a book about photography... it is not up to the standard dpreview has provided in the different articles before

5 upvotes
Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Sep 7, 2011)

Well, Grandpa, you are welcome to write up some ace article of your own.

Composition--as well as color and light--are key to any good photograph, and don't require anything more than a compact.

The cropping of the feet or head are very fitting. The idea that shots must be full body, seems to misss the donut for the sake of the hole.

0 upvotes
JackM
By JackM (Sep 7, 2011)

Nice intro to rule of thirds. However I agree about the polo picture. I'd delete it if I had taken it!

2 upvotes
WeBlah
By WeBlah (Sep 7, 2011)

Thank you for the article. Would agree with @JohnMatrix though - not liking the horse rider photo (http://www.dpreview.com/ContentResources/Articles/1936528529/250/Diallo_0588.jpg)

1 upvote
JohnMatrix
By JohnMatrix (Sep 7, 2011)

Am I the only one who doesn't like the composition of the horse rider photo? Looks terrible, and the horse on the left is cut in two!

8 upvotes
thanasaki
By thanasaki (Sep 7, 2011)

Well written article with comprehensive illustrations, very useful, I think, for the novice photographer.

0 upvotes
2482
By 2482 (Sep 7, 2011)

You should just be able to feel the composition !!!

0 upvotes
vlad_b
By vlad_b (Sep 7, 2011)

Good advice overall, but the big picture isn't about some rule or even the golden section, but about understanding the elements of visual design and their relationships. As of late, I'm finally breaking free from the rule of thirds. After being told repeatedly to place the subject of interest on the intersections of the thirds, that is how I would compose and crop my images. Now that I'm more confident, I can allow myself to break the rules, which often results in a more natural, less contrived image.

0 upvotes
WJD
By WJD (Sep 1, 2011)

Yes, rule of thirds, golden mean, fibonacci curve or spiral - many names, actually many concepts of achieving a balance pleasing to the human mind. The RoT is the simplest portrayal of asymmetric projection and it goes on from there to severely complicated. on occasion a more involved perception of composition is necessary to set the artists mind in place. Some need a grid, some use the 'rules' without knowing they exist...

1 upvote
Lukino
By Lukino (Sep 1, 2011)

One thing always puzzled me: over millenia, in traditional arts (painting, sculpture, architecture) the well know rule to archeive pleasing proprotions is the golden ratio. Isn't the rule of thirds just an oversemplification of the divine section?

0 upvotes
Thomas K.
By Thomas K. (Sep 7, 2011)

i'd say it's basically the same. even if the golden ratio is a bit closer to the centre than the rule of thirds it still means the same.

0 upvotes
Philippe R
By Philippe R (Sep 1, 2011)

The RULE of thirds !!! A MUST know for all photographers, painters...
That article goes right to the point.
Great example !

1 upvote
M Jesper
By M Jesper (Sep 7, 2011)

Meh, i did that already before i knew it was a rule. At least call it the Golden Mean or anything because i hate rules when it comes to creativity.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 44