Composition: A Note on Subject Placement


It’s easy to fall into the trap of producing boring images.  We all learn from an early age to position our subject in the center of the frame.  Unfortunately, this makes for a stagnant and extremely boring image.  When you place your subject in the center of your frame, you divide your image in half.  You break up the background and often freeze any action that may be taking place.  This approach will dull even the most interesting of backgrounds.  Never fear!  There are two very simple methods to help you fight this bad habit and fix your compositions forever.

An example of the Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds

The first method, and the one that I use most in my own photography, is the rule of thirds.  With the rule of thirds, instead of dividing your image in half, divide your frame into thirds (that was obvious wasn’t it?) both horizontally and vertically.  The frame that results will have have 4 intersections.  By setting your subject directly on one of these 4 intersections, you will be able to keep both your foreground and background interesting.  Most digital cameras offer a “grid” function which divides your screen into thirds for you.  This should help you to compose your images until you get used to working without a visual aid.

An example of the Diagonals Method

The Diagonals Method

The second approach is the diagonals method.  This method states that you should first divide your screen diagonally between any two corners.  You should then choose a third corner and divide your screen again so that the resulting line intersects the first at a 90 degree angle.  The point where the two lines intersect is where you should place your subject.  While I have also found this composition to be visually appealing, my personal preference remains with the rule of thirds.

There are countless ways in which you can compose your photo.  The best thing to do is to take as many pictures as possible and find which way is the most appealing to you.  Most photographers eventually develop a pattern based on their own personal preferences.

While it is important for every artist to develop their own style, there are a few “rules” that will help you on your way.   First, unless you are going for a specific feeling that requires this, try not to photograph your subject’s back.  It gives the appearance that you missed the shot and the subject turned away.  Second, do not frame your subject so that they are looking out of frame.  A subject looking out of frame makes the viewer more interested in what was missed than what was captured.  Third, try to choose only one subject at a time.  Clusters of subjects can work if they are close together, but try to keep your images simple.  Fourth, don’t cut off part of your subject.  Portraits get away with cutting people in two since the subject is not the person so much as their face.  Make sure not to cut off anyone’s head, arm, legs, etc.  Finally, make sure your subject is well lit.  A poorly lit subject can result in muted details, muddy colors, poor contrast, and white skies.  I once had a professor who refused to photograph a subject that wasn’t in direct sunlight.  Given that he would only shoot for about 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the evening, this wasn’t a terribly practical approach.  A quality flash, studio lighting, or a few small spotlights pointed in the right direction can just as easily illuminate your scene.  Remember, these are “rules”, not rules.  If you’re creative enough, you can still play with them, but in the mean time, they should help you improve your form.


About Author

Brent recently left the United States Navy and is working as a software engineer in New England. His photography is on display in small galleries around Massachusetts and online at Brent Mills Photography. He also shoots portraits and weddings across New England on a semi-professional basis.

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