Portrait in horizontal orientation with composition according to the rule of thirds
© Amaury Descours

The reflex by far the most frequent among novice photographers is to put their subject in the very center of their photo. The direct consequence: you will not arouse any interest in your photo. There is a very simple technique to make your subject attractive: the rule of thirds. Why that ? The best answer comes from emotions!

I will share with you:

  • Why we tend to center the subject of a photo
  • What is the point of decentering a photo
  • An introduction to the theory of emotions
  • Emotions caused by a centered subject and an off-center subject
  • What is the rule of thirds and how to use it well

Before We Begin

Succeeding in making remarkable photos means successfully capturing and sharing emotions in your photos. Focused on the theory of emotions, I designed a 6-step method for learning photography first with what you feel. Composition is the 3rd step to achieve, and mastering the rule of thirds is one of the essential composition techniques you should know in photography.

The Composition: the 3rd level of the 6 photographic techniques to capture and share emotions in your photos
The composition is the 3rd level of my creative pyramid to capture emotions in your photo, after mastering subject and shooting © Amaury Descours

Why We Center (Too) Naturally the Subject of a Photo

Our eyes are great lenses capable of a very wide field of vision.

Yet our vision is more selective: even though we are able to perceive on the sides, at the bottom and at the top, we focus first on what is in front of us.

As soon as we perceive something unusual around our field of vision, our gaze is redirected over to put it back…in the center.

In photo, we have the same reflex. As soon as the subject is in the image frame, our instinct pushes us to place it in the center. Our brain makes us direct our camera, as it turns our eyes.

Your photo is then of an absolute normality.

Why Decentering Your Subject

What is the problem of centering your subject?

The problem is precisely that you do not create any problem for the eye! You capture in your photo what your eye would have done.

The eye that scans your photo … does not scan anything at all. The eye expects to find the subject in the center of the photo, and the subject is effectively placed in the center. The rest of the photo may immediately disinter the eye, as it looks as a mundane reality.

So how do you trap the eye and make it diving into your photo irresistibly?

The key is that your subject should be placed where instinctively the eye would not have gone. By decentering your subject, you’re disturbing the eye. It will then look for anchor points and discover your photo.

Attracting the eye where it does not expect it is exactly the purpose of the composition in photography.

And the simplest technique to create a well-composed decentralization is the rule of thirds!

Why use such techniques? By making the eye go into the picture and linger on your subject, you will make your emotions as a photographer even stronger.

A Quick Introduction to the Theory of Emotions

All types of emotions that we feel can be represented on a wheel with 8 primary emotions according to the theory of emotions of Plutchik. These primary emotions come in varying intensities (the most intense are at the center) and combine in 24 other emotions through dyads.

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
Plutchik’s emotional wheel models 48 possible emotions thanks to the primary, secondary and tertiary dyads which are combinations of the 8 primary emotions © Amaury Descours

Emotions Related to a Centered or Off-center Subject

If you keep your subject centered in the frame, your photo will be seen as particularly ordinary.

You risk creating negative emotions:

On the other hand, by decentering harmoniously your subject with the rule of thirds, the emotions that you have captured and want to share will be put forward.

According to the theory of emotions, intensifying your emotions is to bring out the emotions of the center of the wheel:

  • Ecstasy,
  • Admiration,
  • Terror,
  • Amazement,
  • Grief,
  • Loathing,
  • Rage or
  • Vigilance

But be careful with too violent offsets of your subject. This can be counterproductive, your photo will be perceived as failed and will create very negative emotions:

How to Decenter Your Subject With the Rule of Thirds

Composing your photo with the rule of thirds is to use a 3-by-3 grid with cells of equal size:

Rule of thirds grid
© Amaury Descours

To decenter your subject, 3 ways are possible:

  1. A moderate decentering by centering your subject on the intersections of the grid: these are the crossings with the blue ticks
  2. A more obvious decentering by aligning your subject on one of the axes of the grid: these are the axes with the green ticks.
  3. A very pronounced decentering by placing your subject in an 8 eccentric zones: these are the areas with black ticks.

Of course, do not use the central area marked with a red cross.

1. Composing with the Intersections of the Rule of Thirds

Just place your subject on one of the four intersections of the grid (blue ticks). Your subject is then decentered enough to interest the eye without provoking potentially negative emotions.

Portrait with composition according to intersections of the rule of thirds
The most important element of a portrait are the eyes. Here, I placed the eye on an intersection of the rule of thirds. This off-center composition that forces the eye to go through the photo brings out the makeup on the cheek and this ingenuous pose of the arm and the hand. Emotions of joy, optimism, confidence and surprise are reinforced here. Nikon D800 and Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, 300mm, f/5.6, 1/640s, ISO 4500 © Amaury Descours


Landscape with composition according to the intersections of the rule of thirds
My subject was this extraordinary plant in the foreground: a pachypodium from Madagascar. I placed it on an intersection of the rule of thirds so that it is well put forward. This composition is reinforced by the 2nd pachypodium in the background which is on the other axis of the rule of thirds. Although the subject is off-center, the composition remains harmonious by having several points of interest placed judiciously. The emotions of serenity, surprise and curiosity inspired by this landscape are reinforced here. Plateau of the Isalo, Madagascar, 2005. Canon 1D mk II and 17-40mm f/4 Canon lens, 17mm, f/16, 1/8s, ISO 100 © Amaury Descours

2. Composing with the Axes of the Rule of Thirds

To use the axes of the rule of thirds, it is necessary to center the main characteristic of the subject on one of the axes:

  • For a medium-shot portrait, it is the horizontal axis of the eyes
  • For a full portrait, it is the vertical axis that passes through the body
  • For a mountain, it is the vertical axis that passes through its summit
  • Etc.
Medium-shot Portrait with composition according to the axis of the rule of thirds
For a medium-shot  front portrait, the alignment of the eyes on an axis of the rule of thirds allows to have a dynamic and harmonious composition. Here, it reinforces the emotions generated by the subject of optimism, joy and confidence. Nikon D800 and Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8 lens, 200mm, f/5.6, 1/125s, ISO 100 © Amaury Descours


Landscape with composition according to a vertical axis of the the rule of thirds
The subject is of course the rock: the famous Needle of Etretat. Rather than placing the rock in the center of the image, which would have lessen the impact, I placed it along the axis of the rule of thirds. It is the tip of the rock which served as reference. Here, the emotions of serenity, curiosity, confidence or even domination released by this landscape are thus reinforced. Etretat, Normandy, France, 2004. Canon 1D mk II and 28-70mm f/2.8 Canon lens, 28mm, f/16, 1/50s, ISO 400 © Amaury Descours

3. Composing with the Off-center Areas of the Rule of Thirds

Here, you will place your subject on one of 8 off-center areas of the grid (the black ticks).

The decentering is then more emphasized and potentially even more attractive to the eye.

Landscape with composition according to an off-center area of the rule of thirds
When shooting, my subject was this rock of pink granite enthroned by the sea: the Trégastel Dice. I then chose a very strong composition by placing the rock in an eccentric area of the rule of thirds. But I also sought to balance this composition with the rocky cracks in the lower right, near one of the intersections of the rule of thirds. With the light of the rising sun and this very quiet autumnal sea, this landscape photo emits reinforced emotions of serenity, optimism, curiosity and delight. Tregastel, Brittany, France, 2014. Nikon D800 and Nikkor 16-35mm f/4 lens, 16mm, f/11, 1.3s, ISO 100 © Amaury Descours

What Do You Think?

In your best photos, have you centered or off-center your subject? Do you think that using the rule of thirds would have made your photos more attractive?

Leave me your comment, I will answer with pleasure.

Let’s Go On Together!

Learn how to photograph with my 6-step method to make your photos first with your emotions. A powerful and intuitive approach that frees you from tools and techniques.

Then understand why composition in photography is essential in the expression of your emotions and explore these composition techniques:

1. Compositions with the frame:

2. Compositions in space that play on the orientation, the depth and the volume of the subject:

3. Compositions with the content:

  • Guideline and Line of Force (coming soon)
  • Void and Negative Space (coming soon)
  • Compositions with Contrast:  Tone, Color, Shape and Patterns (coming soon)

You can also find practical composition tips with your smartphone.

Do not miss my future posts to better capture and share your emotions in picture: subscribe to my newsletter and get a free eBook!

Do you like what you’ve learned? Share this article with your loved ones!


  1. I tried twice to download your free e-book on composition. But I’ve not received your reply or the download link. I’ve checked my Inbox and Spam folders, and I didn’t see your reply.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.