The Tuesday Composition: Sometimes Centering Does Work

Badwater Reflections
Badwater Reflections

If you like this article, you can now get the book! Joe has expanded the “Tuesday Composition” series into an inspiring new ebook on composition, especially for nature photography. Check it out: The Tuesday Composition.

As I’ve said before (and will keep saying), these photographic “rules” we talk about are more like dozens of tools in a large toolbox, and the vast majority of your images will only use a small subset of those tools. In fact, often there are very good reasons to do precisely the opposite of whatever one of these guidelines might seem to suggest, sometimes the rules themselves are contradictory. Today’s column is a case in point. Last week I explored a number of reasons you’d usually be better off not centering things vertically or horizontally in your images. This week, I’m going to mention some exceptions, but those exceptions are no more hard-and-fast as the original “rule” was. As such, I hope that you’ll not only get some ideas about why images might work well centered, but also that you’ll get a little better idea of what I mean by the “toolbox” metaphor.

Early Sunset, Old Marina
Early Sunset, Old Marina

One of the more common situations which often works better centered are reflections and other symmetrical subjects. Images like these key off the relationship between the two “halves” as a subject of the image, inviting comparison (as in a water reflection) or contrast (as in a yin-yang symbol). Badwater Reflections is a really simple example of the former. Here, the perfectly smooth reflection the flooding of Death Valley is the subject, and both halves of the image make the photo.

Scenes with a dominant single subject can, at times, benefit from being centered horizontally, although this is far from always the case. While it’s impossible to generalize, there are a few ways that images like these sometimes seem to win with a centered subject placement.

Sand Tufa
Sand Tufa

Occasionally, centering will lend a landscape image the sense that its elements are part of some mystical ritual or event. Early Sunset, Old Marina is a great example of this. The almost symmetric left-right nature of the image is at least as (if not more) important to creating a sense that something unnatural is happening here as the vertical symmetry. Sand Tufa is another example: this small formation was turned into a mystical giant by a combination of carefully plotted viewpoint and centered subject placement.

Aphid and Desert Sunflower
Aphid and Desert Sunflower

Similarly, centered placement will sometimes lend a landscape image an element of formality. That I don’t have any personal examples of this in my portfolio probably says more about my personal style of photography than anything else.

Finally, sometimes it’s as simple as wanting to really come in close with a subject and a centered placement is occasionally the only way to achieve that effect. Try as I might to crop the left or the right of Aphid and Desert Sunflower, I never did find a crop that I liked better than one that put the flower petals centered. But the diagonal line of the stem–and even the aphid itself–help to keep this image from feeling as static as it might otherwise.

So all this advice on how to compose themes is a toolbox of ideas. The toolbox can be useful when you’re trying to find a better composition for a scene in terms of generating new ideas. Moreover, your toolbox can sometimes help you figure out why a particular image just doesn’t quite jump off the page. Sometimes.

PS: Booray Perry had a great piece last week on this whole “photography rules” thing, which I think complements my own thoughts on the matter. If you haven’t seen it already, check it out!

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Thanks! Nice series, colors my Tuesday morning coffee 🙂

    I would like to stress a point which is only hinted in the end where you discussed the sunflower photo:

    Symmetry can be very harmonious with asymmetry. It actually enhances and amplifies the effect of the asymmetrical element in the photo. At the same time, asymmetry helps eliminate the boring static feeling in a totally symmetric composition, by adding a little movement that breaks it. So they complement each other.

    All of the examples in this post (except maybe the first one) demonstrate it very strongly.
    In the sand tufa photo, it is the little half-moon that breaks the symmetry (and amplifies it at the same time) and makes the photo what it is (Remove the little moon and the magic is gone IMO).
    In the old marina photo, it is the asymmetric rock placement that complements the symmetry of the moon and the horizon. This photo wouldn’t work as effectively without either the rocks or the moon and horizon.
    Finally, as you said, the diagonal stem complements the symmetric placement of the petals in the sunflower photo.

    Keep up the good work 🙂


  2. Noam: Thanks!

    Indeed you’re right, one of the things about trying to do a moderately readable chunk a week is that there are inevitably topics left on the cutting room floor, or at least for future episodes. One of my favorite examples (because it’s so direct and clear) of what you’re talking about is this guy:

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