EYE 2: Placement of the Subject

This article is part of my series on the study of ‘The Photographer’s Eye’ by Micheal Freeman.

Our second essay will begin discussing the placement of the subject within the Frame. We will begin with a rather broad overview and then several essays on subjects with fairly plain backgrounds and different ways to divide the frame. Rather than post one large essay, these mini-essays will be cohesive and develop the whole concept of subject placement within an image.

Centering a Subject

Centering is one of the most common placements for a subject within an image. I believe centering occurs for two reasons. The first reason is a learned behavior and the second is the physical makeup of a camera.

Centering as a Behavior

First, centering is automated behavior or a ‘habbit’. Most beginning photographers are looking through a camera viewfinder and tend to center the subject they are looking at. When we look at someone, we center our view on their face. When we look at a building, we center our view on the building and then begin looking up and down at the building. By our very nature, we square ourselves up in front of things that we look at. We don’t stand sideways, turn our head and have a conversation with someone. This behavior needs modified in order to create an image with the subject located away from the center of the photograph.

Centering Because of Equipment

Second, equipment and technology has directed many photographers to use centering through design. This cause of centering is physical rather than behavioral and comes from two different eras of technology. The first era is the creation of glass lenses used in cameras. Early lenses were made without the mechanical precision used today and each lens was slightly different even though the maker tried to keep them exactly the same. Early lenses were made first and a camera was built around the lens. Today, lenses are made with such exacting specifications that the lens is made to fit the camera.

The result of early lenses was that the center of the lens typically had a very sharp focus while the edges of the lenses were rough and out of focus. Even today, cheaper photographic lenses have less resolution and contrast at the edges when compared to the center. While lens errors are well beyond the scope of these essays, the point is that early lenses and even less expensive lenses today force the photographer to center an image so it will remain sharp.

The second era in technology that pushes centering of images is the digital camera. Digital cameras typically focus by default in the center of the viewfinder. Some digital cameras allow for off centered focusing, but the technique is to focus in the center, recompose and shoot the image. Many beginning photographers do not recompose, they simply focus in the center and shoot.

Results of Centered Subjects

While there are arguably cases for an exact centering of a subject in an image, the vast majority of cases call for a subject out of center. If a subject is only slightly off center, the image can look like an error or extreme lack of experience.

In addition, as we will be discussing throughout the remainder of these essays, art is viewed not as a whole, but in pieces as the viewer’s eyes wander the image. A subject contained in the center of an image causes the viewer’s eyes to typically remain in the center, static, without movement. This is boring and dull.

However, placing a subject off center to the image as a whole allows for the subject to have space with which to move. The empty space causes questions about what the subject will or has done. The empty space causes speculation from the viewer. These questions and speculations are the cause of tension and eye movement, which is part of the essence of great art, and hence photography.

Conclusion and Exercises

The question now remains – where and how do we offset a subject within the image to best cause tension and eye movements throughout the image? This will be the topic of the next few essays.

For now, as an exercise, choose three fairly stationary subjects and shoot at least six or more images of each. For each subject, shoot one image with the subject as exactly in the center of the image as you can. Then shoot one just barely off center. Shoot the remaining four or more images with any type of offset that you care to use. Compare each of these groups of images making notes about how the centered subject strikes you compared to the offset images.

As a second exercise, go through a few of your favorite magazines. Look at the images in the advertisements as well as the articles. See if you can find any images that have centered subjects and try to determine if this was done intentionally. Record your impressions of the centered and off centered images clipping out the pages to put with your notes if possible.

Go back through the results of these exercises as we continue moving forward to see if they strike you differently.

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