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.