After my previous, slightly unorthodox article on improving your photography, here comes another one. And, as you may have guessed from the title, I am about to say some nice things about a type of composition many consider to be downright boring. Here is what I say in return: cliché. When used well, I absolutely adore central composition, there’s nothing else quite like it.
Of course, there is a strong reason why so many photographers, when giving advice to beginners, start with the phrase “don’t put your subject in the middle”. So, in order to see central composition for what it really is, perhaps we should first understand why it’s so avoided. And the reason for it is surprisingly simple.
Everything Starts Here
Meet Joshua. He is a man in his thirties, your average Joe. He has a job, a beautiful wife and three adorable children – two boys and a girl. He’s never had much experience with photography aside from the usual snaps with his phone, but he’s just bought a camera to photograph his family. He picks it up to take a portrait of his youngest son, frames the scene and snaps a photograph. Now, tell me, where do you imagine his son, as an element of composition, is placed within the frame? Exactly. Dead center.
I cannot say for sure why that is, but central composition is the very first choice one makes when composing a photograph. Only a while later do we learn to deliberately place our subject off-center, and only some time after that do we learn to do it subconsciously. Perhaps it’s because one expects the camera to focus on the center portion of the frame without even thinking about it, perhaps because one expects to find something in the very middle. Perhaps because it is the most obvious point of intersection of lines that go from one corner towards the opposite one. I do not know.
All I know for sure is that this is what we learn to do first and foremost and something that takes quite a bit of time and effort to unlearn again. Because of this, “don’t put your subject in the middle” has become such a popular phrase and lesson. Place your subject close to the left or right third of the frame and voilà, your photograph instantly stands out from the crowd and looks more “professional” and creative. Some modern cameras even have such guides built-in whilst others, I hear, actually compose the image for you by recognizing the subject’s face in the frame and cropping the image accordingly. Scary.
The Good Bit
The problem – or, perhaps, solution – is that so many people (you may have noticed how many have taken up photography in the last decade or so) now avoid central composition, it has become the standout choice. Everyone knows the rule of thirds. Not that many people know how to properly compose the subject in the middle or when to do it. I will not claim I have learned to do so, but I certainly am trying to.
You all know the saying “less is more”. A few years ago, I remember talking to one of my lecturers when he voiced something I’ve been thinking for a while up until then. He said, simplicity is something one must grow and mature to like. Here’s a weird metaphor – it’s like olives. Some like olives, others can’t understand what is good about them, but most of those who like them did not at first. They had to grow to like them. And so with composition, at first it’s “oh, look at this, and that!”, and only later does it change to “don’t look, feel”.
Central composition is the simplest one of all. It’s less, which in some cases turns out to be more. Central composition is often calm, static, honest. By composing your subject in the center, you are basically placing him in front of the viewer as if attempting to introduce them. It’s… open, as in “an open book”. It’s naked. It also helps emphasize the space (assuming it’s there in the first place) around your subject as it becomes the very thing that leads the viewer’s gaze towards where you, the creator, intended it to go. Perhaps Ted Kozak’s portraits can support my point.
Now, I said simplicity and, by extension, central composition is something many need to grow to like. That is not to say there is something wrong with you if you don’t like it! One does not have to grow up, more like… grow sideways, if it makes any sense.
I am being very subjective here in my praise of such a way of composing your images. I adore it. It suits me, it suits my love for negative space, my choice of mood, subjects and locations. You could almost call it a whisper of a slowly emerging style. I do not use it all the time. If I did, it would become boring and predictable. Curiously, after writing this article and looking for image samples to support it – either those more serious or otherwise – I noticed I don’t use it enough. If I am to learn to master this type of composition, I ought to put more effort into it. And yet I use it. Your style, your taste might be completely different and that is fine.
The most important thing to understand is that, while central composition is often synonymous with simplicity, it has nothing to do with that which is basic. I’d go as far as say there is absolutely nothing basic about composition in general, it is something you learn, improve and change throughout your life as a photographer and an artist. Now, olives are olives, I am sticking with them. But composition, well, I certainly hope there is more to grow to like after this.