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Dead Eye on Dead Center

Reuben the Rabbit shows you how to make your pictures stronger by placing the subject somewhere other than square in the middle of the shot.

Photo by emperornorton

I had an especially cruel instructor once — a gearhead and a protégée of Ansel Adams — who nevertheless taught me a excellent principle. She conditioned her students to mock anyone who put the subject of the photo in the photo by shouting “Dead Center!”. I think I had pretty much figured that out for myself before — my rabbit photos were all taken before I took her class.

Now when you are speaking of square format, there’s not much elsewhere to place the subject — but it can be done — but 35mm offers a dramatic tension that most people overlook. You can take in a whole scene and build some interesting bokeh or other interaction with the scenery.

The trouble with the center, as I see it, is that it treats your subject as a bullseye. It rapidly becomes an affectation. All your pictures of people, animals, etc. begin looking pretty much alike. I’ve seen people place people in the middle of Sprocket Rocket and Horizon shots. The composition looks decidedly odd.

There are three solutions:

1.) If you have to put your subject in the middle, fill the frame with it:

2.) Offset your subject slightly from the center:

3.) Best of all, slide your subject over to one side or the other or put it in a corner. First focus on the subject, then move your field of view:

Like all rules, these are made to be broken. But I guarantee that you will see a rise in the dramatic tension that you bring to your pictures if you experiment around them.

written by emperornorton


  1. melissonline


    Nice article, especially 'cause there is a bunny in it. <3

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  2. ginny


    Cutest photos ever!

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  3. natalieerachel


    Bunny! So cute!!

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  4. stouf


    Great shots and great model !

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  5. simonh82


    Nice photos. Was the bunny stuffed or just very docile?

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  6. emperornorton


    @simonh82 Heh. He was quite alive when I took these photos.

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  7. nobodyowens


    The shot of the ears is by far my favourite.

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  8. emperornorton


    @nobodyowens Mine, too!

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  9. laurasulilly


    You are sooo right about that. I often tend to forget this and everytime I see the end-result with the dead centre I go: Nooooo, not again. I think I will remember some day, though :)

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  10. laurasulilly


    Oh, and one more thing, just to see if I got it right: if I take a portrait shot which fills the whole frame it's ok to put the subject in the centre, right? Like you did with your cute bunny under point 1.

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  11. emperornorton


    @laurasuilily I find getting close negates the rule. What you want to avoid is the bulls-eye effect (nicely illustrated by the first photo in this article). Getting close generally creates a sense of intimacy that is lost when you get too far away.

    And mark my words here: sometimes it is OK to put the subject dead center. Vanishing point pictures (where you are looking down a road or a bridge) often employ dead center to dramatic effect. But we get in trouble when we photograph people, animals, or flowers using this viewpoint.

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  12. nick_a_tron


    The rule of thirds: It's there to be broken.

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  13. odax


    Love the photos!

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  14. ihave2pillows


    Especial thanks to Reuben :) Could you give him some extra carrots for us please!

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  15. pzjo


    well written, great article

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  16. ihave2pillows


    I'd love to see you winning the new "Zone System Rumble" for great textures in black and white pictures :)

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  17. emperornorton


    @ihave2pillows It's a thought.

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This is the original article written in: English. It is also available in: Français & Nederlands.