Don’t put your subject in the middle of the frame

by Nick Kelsh

posted Saturday, March 14, 2015 at 1:32 AM EDT

It may seem perfectly logical to put the red focusing square on your subject when you push the button, but the unfortunate result is perfectly centered subjects and boring compositions.

It’s one of the most basic of amateur mistakes and one of the most satisfying to correct.

All of a sudden your pictures take on a surprisingly shocking professional look. I actually remember the moment it dawned on me that I could compose my pictures any way I wanted to—that is to say “creatively”. My subject didn’t have to be in the middle of the frame. Eureka!

I was probably about fourteen. A local photographer was telling us about his job at a church youth group meeting. He had us each take a picture of the woman who played the piano for the choir and the next week he brought back a pile of photos and put them on the wall.

Mine was the only one that didn’t have the woman smack dab in the middle of the frame. I had daringly put her in the top left hand corner and tried to do something dramatic with the piano keys cutting a big diagonal through the picture.

And the same goes for verticals. Put some space above or below your subjects to make the image feel more dynamic.

Talk about a 180 — I can remember feeling extremely insecure taking the picture and extremely proud of myself when he praised it. I felt like I’d something wrong or bad when I didn’t put her in the middle of the frame. It didn’t feel safe. It wasn’t what you were supposed to do. And when I got a public pat on the back for doing it?! Wonderful!

But it does feel safer to put the subject in the middle and I think that’s one of the reasons’s people do it. But there’s another more technical reason.

People tend to think of that little focusing square as some kind of aiming device. Once you get that little square on someone’s face and your camera has focused it’s tempting just to leave it there. Yes, you may take more sharp pictures, but it’s going to leave you with a pile of stilted rigid compositions.

It makes sense, and feels right compositionally, to leave space for subjects towards—even in still photographs. It’s all psychological and important to the success of any photograph.

So now you may reasonably ask why I’m not recommending that you shoot all of your pictures with the subject in the middle and crop later. It has to do with heart. I think it’s important that you see and feel the power of your compositions as you’re shooting them. It’s called “composing in the camera” and it’s what all good photographers do.

(An exceptional educator and a world-class photographer, Nick Kelsh is the founder of How To Photograph Your Life, an excellent source of affordable photography training and tips. Nick’s courses can be conducted by yourself in your own time, or with feedback from Nick and your fellow students. If you appreciated this article and want to improve your photography, visit How to Photograph your Life and sign up for a course today!)