I was reading a magazine article recently where a photograph was being corrected to make a more interesting composition, at least to the eyes of the author. It was a photo of two sheep walking over the edge of a rocky cliff, and behind them was a huge expanse of sky and distant mountains. I’m reproducing the photo here as a quick sketch (A) along with the recommended cropping from the article (B.) The criticism of the photo was the sheep were too centered in the frame, and the solution was to crop it in such a way that they were placed in the bottom right corner. It was the wrong suggestion. That might work conceptually if the characters are staring off into the great expanse of “Nature” or if even more space were given to the environment to illustrate the statement of “small characters – big sky,” but that wasn’t available here. Their suggestion was a good idea, but there wasn’t enough space for the sky to make it work, and there wasn’t anything there to hold our interest.
By comparison, no image like this is more iconic than Caspar David Fredrich’s “Traveler Looking Over a Sea of Fog.” Notice that the placement of the figure is dead center. The sky in that painting is much more dramatic than what was in the photo, and unlike the figure in the painting the sheep don’t seem too interested in what’s going on behind them.
Caspar David Fredrich
Another arrangement to follow the “off-center” rule might be to move the figures to the top right and give more space to the rocks (C.) That design, however, forces the eye off the bottom edge in the direction the sheep are walking without any way of stopping it. The original photo was giving us more information on the environment than it deserved or was necessary, so my recommendation is to just trim off some of the sides and bottom and keep the focus on the main characters (D.)
It’s perfectly okay to place the main focus dead center as long as everything else in the image balances out properly, not just physically but also conceptually. Sometimes the most effective presentation to use is the most obvious one.