Get out of the Middle!
Presented by Glenn Springer, TIF, RHCC

This article is about composing your pictures better
Warning: after this, you're going to need more disk storage space
because you'll be throwing away fewer pictures!

Keeping the subject away from the middle allows the viewer's eyes to move through the picture instead of being glued in one place.

I could give you lots of technical reasons why this is better than plunking the subject(s) down in the middle of the picture.
Or I could just let you look at it and decide for yourself.


It’s really tempting to put your subject dead centre in your picture. Try to break that habit! A centred image is static, often boring and ordinary. Think about this: if you hand a camera to a 6-year-old and tell her to take a picture, you’re going to say “put mommy in the middle of the picture and push this button”. If she does what you tell her, she might take a picture that a child will be proud of, an acceptable but very ordinary shot.


See how your eye is directed to follow the road? There's more than one reason for that, but one of them is that you subconsciously want to see where the bike is going. Give moving objects room to move.

This was shot at Cape Spear in Newfoundland, the Easternmost point in North America. If you've never been there, it should be on your 'list'. I've been there three times, twice by motorcycle!

Here's the "Rule of Thirds" grid superimposed on the picture. See how the bike is sitting on one of the four points where the lines meet? By the way, if you're ambitious, Google "Golden Ratio", or "Divine Proportion" or "Fibonacci Series". These are rules that Leonardo da Vinci followed! Yes, it's been around for a while.

Want to go to the next level? Move the subject away from the middle.


Where should you put it? Every picture is different, and often you want to break the rules, but a design rule that has been used for years, maybe for centuries, by artists and photographers alike, is the “Rule of Thirds”.

Picture a ‘Tic-Tac-Toe’ grid superimposed on the scene. Put your subject, the most important object or person in the picture, near one of the four spots where those two vertical and two horizontal lines meet. As a general rule, if the subject is a person, place him so he is looking into the picture, not outside it and if it’s something that moves, like a boat or a car or a snowmobile, place it so that there’s more room in front of it than behind it.

This keeps the viewer’s eye in the picture instead of drawing it out, and makes the image more powerful.



* Bruce Barnbaum's "The Art of Photography" is a great reference book. You can get it from Amazon. Get the full-sized one, the quality of the images is amazing!

Where does your eye go? OK, to the red canoe! But notice where it is, and where you look next.

While we're on the subject of canoes... rules were made to be broken! This canoe is in the middle of the picture, but it's on an angle so your eye moves along it. Both the bow and the stern of the canoe are on "Rule of Thirds" vertexes (vertices?).

This was also shot at the Frost Centre, on the same day as the shot at right.

You need to focus on your subject, though, so try this: most digital cameras will lock the focus if you press the shutter halfway down and hold it. So focus on your main subject, hold the shutter release, then move the camera to recompose the image.

If you have a more advanced camera, see if you can set the focusing to follow a moving subject. Or switch off the autofocusing and manually lock it in. You might be surprised, if you read the manual that came with your camera, that even many point-and-shoot cameras are capable of this! Try it!

If the canoeist had been in the middle, you wouldn't have seen the rocky shoreline on the left, which adds both depth and mystery to the image. It gives you a chance to add negative space — room for the subject to move into.

This was shot at dawn on St. Nora's Lake near Dorset, from the beach of the Frost Centre.

An unusual perspective. Well not really, all professional photographers know about getting low and shooting up!

"Engineers without Borders", learning to ride motorcycles at Humber College before venturing off on assignment to Africa


Another unusual perspective. This time the horizon isn't level but it's obvious it wasn't left that way by mistake!

Here’s another composition rule: try not to put the horizon in your pictures right in the middle. If the sky is more interesting than the foreground, put the horizon low. If there’s nothing to see in the sky, put it high. Right about on the lines in that imaginary tic-tac-toe grid is a good first choice. (Seet he motorcycle shot up above).

And either keep the horizon level, or deliberately put it on an angle. Just a little bit off makes it look like you did it by mistake and you didn’t care. Things that should be vertical in your picture should be, well, straight up and down! Sometimes you can’t; but in that case make it look like you did it on purpose.

Shoot from an unusual perspective. Look at experienced photographers around you when you have a chance: did you ever wonder why they’re always on their knees or even lying on the ground? Try getting way up high and shooting down – another professional point of view.

Breaking rules again? Maybe, but on purpose. If the sky is boring, put the horizon high. If the foreground isn't interesting, put it low. But in this case, they're both part of the story. And the barn? You can be sure I wasn't about to put it in the middle!

This HDR image was shot near Greenbank, just off Highway 12 enroute to the Highlands. It pays to go exploring (and to get wet in a rainstorm!)

People told me the boat should have been facing inwards. Yeah, well it wasn't! Live with it!

I tried. But I needed the cones in the image. Sometimes, you just can't. But the shoe is not right in the middle!


Remember, these “rules of composition” are made to be broken! The only rule I never break is the one my mother told me, “don’t run with scissors”!


No question, this breaks all the rules. But the symmetry is the story in this image and it was all done on purpose.You can break the rules, but you should know why!

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