One of the first things that we hear when learning compositional techniques in photography is this: Don’t put the subject in the center of the frame. Ok. Sounds good. But why not? And is it ever ok to put the subject in the center?
The human brain is geared around seeing “order.” We’re hard wired to being able to recognize certain patterns in nature, and picking things out that don’t seem to belong. When things don’t belong, they catch our attention, namely because they’re either something that we needed to catch and eat, or something that can catch, eat or hurt us.
When we look at a scene and recognize some sort of pattern or regular order to the world, our mind relaxes and we move on. OK- nothing else to see here, let’s move on to the next thing. Likewise, when you place your subject in the center of the frame, you’ve created a “bullseye” that draws the viewer right in as if the subject were a target. The human eye locks onto the subject, finds that perfect order that’s inherent in a centered subject and then says, Ok, found it. Done. Let’s move on. Next photo.
However, when you place a subject out of the center, at some “random” point in the frame, the viewer looks at the photo and tries to discern a sense or perfect order about it. When they don’t see it, their natural instinct is to remain alert and keep scanning the frame, looking for order. They’ll eventually see your randomly placed subject, and since it doesn’t fit with a natural order, they keep move on and keep looking around the frame.
Here’s the kicker, though. The subject obviously has some importance, or else it wouldn’t be there, right? This unspoken fact causes the viewer to keep coming right back to the subject, just to make sure they’re not missing something. They might do this a few times before finally settling on this new, random order, before finally moving on.
By using this very simple yet effective technique, you create a much more dynamic viewing experience for your audience. Does this mean that you should never place subject in the center? Of course not, but do so sparingly when the situation or feel of the photo calls for it.