Center of Interest

The most successful pictures are composed around one main point of interest. Whatever it is — a group of trees, your best friend shooting pool — it is the main subject of the photo.

Having a strong point of interest or main focal point in a picture draws the viewer's attention and focuses it on the point you want to make. Compose a picture with more than one strong focal point and you'll confuse the viewer and make the picture's message and meaning less clear.

The point of interest doesn't necessarily have to be just one person or one object; however, the other objects in the picture shouldn't detract from it. Its placement within the composition should move the viewer's eye back to the main subject.

Placing the Center of Interest

Putting the center of interest smack in the middle of a picture is an effective way of focusing the viewer's attention on the picture's subject, but it is also just about the most boring way possible to compose a picture. Though in some instances it may be necessary, this composition should be avoided wherever possible. Try experimenting with a shot of the subject dead center as opposed to one shot with the subject slightly to one side to see for yourself what a dramatic difference a shift in positioning can do.

Given that it's almost always best to put your center of interest somewhere besides the center of the frame, where do you put the subject? Simply moving your subject off-center is one way to create a more pleasing composition. Putting it at one of the power points of the frame is even better. In the photo of the landscape at sunset in the color insert, the clear center of interest is the stark image of a tree contrasted against a blazing sky.

Going to the Points

This is a very simple compositional tool. Imagine a tic-tac-toe board on your blank composition that divides the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically. The four intersections where the lines cross are your power points. Objects placed at these points make your photos more dynamic.

A single object can go at one of the power points. Place a vertical object (a seated or standing figure) on either of the two vertical lines. A horizontal form (a long building) goes on one of the horizontal lines.

If you have two subjects — a car and its owner — use one power point for the main subject (what the picture is about) and the diagonal power point for the secondary subject. This is a simple example of composition expressing a definite relationship between objects. After you grasp the concept, implementing it becomes virtually automatic and effortless.

Can I put two unrelated objects on two diagonal power points?

Yes, but you might want to think twice about it. Doing so creates a photo that doesn't succeed. However, this type of composition can also tell the viewer that you see a relationship between two seemingly unrelated objects and want to express it.

The Rule of Thirds

Dividing the image area into thirds for the purpose of centering your subject is also called the rule of thirds. This rule governs where you should place your horizon line in scenic pictures, too, as the lighthouse in the color photo demonstrates. Putting it at the center is just like putting your main subject there.

Your pictures will be greatly improved if you move the horizon line to the upper or lower third of the frame. Avoid cutting your pictures in half by having the horizon in the middle of the picture, which produces a rather boring and static image. When you want to accent spaciousness, keep the horizon low in the picture; when you want to suggest closeness, position the horizon high in your picture.

Make sure the horizon is level. Nothing gives away an inexperienced photographer more quickly than a noticeably tilted horizon line. You can easily correct this annoying mistake with digital images. Sloping horizon lines are easily straightened out using the rotate feature, and digital cropping can also ensure that your horizon is positioned correctly in the frame.

If your composition includes strong vertical lines, such as the edge of a building, it's also better to place them off center. Use the rule of thirds to guide their placement as well.

The rule of thirds can also be used to compose pictures when subjects are moving. You typically want anything that's moving through the frame — a running animal, for instance — to have space to move into. How much space will depend on the overall composition of the picture, but you would almost never want the object to be so close to the edge that it looks like it's moving right out of the frame. Using the rule of thirds to put space in front of the subject allows the viewer to visualize the subject moving forward into that space. Subjects moving toward or away from the camera also need room to walk into.

It's also generally poor composition to have a single subject looking out of a picture frame. When your subjects are not looking directly at the lens, they will need room in the frame to “look into.” Put the subject off center to leave room for the subject's gaze.

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