Photography Basics: Centering Your Subject :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photography Basics: Centering Your Subject

by David Peterson 7 comments

You have heard it from countless photography pros. They’ll tell you time and again that you shouldn’t place your subject in the center (and they're not alone - I . But is this always true? Is there ever a good time to place your subject right in the middle of the frame? Actually, there is, and you’re about to see it.

The Two Times You’ll Want To Center Your Subject

You only want to center your subject when it creates an interesting pattern. Usually, there are two ways this can happen. One of them is in the example above. When you are so close to your subject that it completely fills the frame, it’s okay to center everything.

Centering also works when you’re doing a portrait and there are no other elements in the photograph that might distract your viewer from your subject. Notice how the above photo is completely pristine. There is no whitespace around the subject. It’s just a very closeup section of a face. Because there is nothing to draw your eye away from it, the centering doesn’t stop it from being interesting to look at.

Center Your Subject When You See Symmetry

The above photo is also symmetrical. Whenever you can create a photo with symmetry, the symmetry takes over the image and becomes the main theme. It actually replaces the rule of thirds and gives your image it’s own kind of spacing.

If you haven’t heard of the rule of thirds yet, don’t worry. The rule of thirds is just a handy rule of thumb that photographers (and other visual artists) use to divide the space in an image. To follow it, you simply imagine that the frame is divided into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. You’ll want to place your subject where one of those thirds intersects another third. You can also choose to place your subject along any of the thirds, both vertically or horizontally.

But here’s the interesting part. When you center your subject, you’re breaking the rule of thirds. If your subject is symmetrical, the symmetry creates its own rules. If your subject isn’t symmetrical, there’s a chance that your entire photo will be disorganized and potentially unappealing to the eye.

To the right is another example of symmetry and centering in action. The image isn’t perfectly symmetrical, but it’s symmetrical enough to warrant centering the subject. Notice how this photo still obeys the rule of thirds in some respects. The clasped hands occupy the upper third while the elbows occupy the lower third. This is a good example of using centering in conjunction with the rule of thirds to create an interesting image.

What Is Your Subject? How Do You Decide What You Want To Center?

This image reminds me of another point that I absolutely need to make. Have a look at this picture again. What is the subject? Is it an arm? Is it one of the hands? If you chose either of those options, you would be wrong. The subject isn’t one thing. It isn’t just someone’s arm. In this photo, the subject is the one point where all of the action comes together. The subject is the dynamic created between the two hands struggling to beat the other person at arm wrestling.

The photographic term to describe the two clasped hands is a “visual focal point.” It’s a place in the image where all of the action occurs. You don’t know why your eye is naturally drawn to it, but it is. That’s why the photographer chose to place it in the center of this image.

This is something you’ll want to keep in mind when you’re trying to create photos with a centered subject. You might just find your subject in unexpected places. Don’t just look for conventional smiling faces. Try to photograph the spaces where all of the action is happening.

Never Center Your Subject By Default

I’ll close with this. Centering is only a bad thing if you do it by default. If you’re going to center your subject, at least know why you’re doing it, and your photos will be ten times more interesting. Yes, centering is unconventional, but sometimes the rules need to be broken. Now you know how to break the rules without ruining a good image.

Do you have an interesting image that uses centering? Have you broken the rules of composition and still created a photo that makes your friends jealous? I'd love to see it! Upload it to the Centering Your Subject section of the gallery.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. Rob says:

    On centering, if I am taking a well defined refection, such as say a city reflected in calm water, I tend to do at least one of my frames purposely, as the line of reflection cuts the frame at the halfway line, these images usually look good to me but I not sure that this is good photography. Any opinions??

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi Rob,

      Yes, if you are photographing a reflection, having the line of reflection in the middle of your photo is a good thing.. you're using Symmetry.

      And if your photos look good to you, then I would say they'll be fine. Photography is a subjective thing and most 'rules' of photography can be broken if you have the right circumstances.

      More on Symmetry:


      • Rob says:

        Thanks David, had a look at the Symmetry link and there is a reflection looking good.

  2. helal rahman helal says:

    good advice

  3. Peter Wyngaard says:

    Thank you for making our photographs better with your tips and insight. Love it

  4. luzia machado says:





  5. Alec Ward says:

    Sometimes one gets an insight into the blindingly obvious and you wonder why you hadn't thought of it yourself !!

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