Choose a subject that is very clear in appearance and set in a large, even background. Take a baseline shot without pre-composing. Then position the subject in various parts of the frame. View the resultant pictures and rank them in order of visual appeal, observing how the subject and the background work together.
Canon EOS 650D with EF 24-105mm f/4.0 L IS USM lens.
As I am at the seaside at the moment, I correctly assumed that if I wandered up and down the promenade for long enough, I would see a stationary boat in a clear expanse of water. This particular vessel seemed to make the right kind of subject (with hindsight, what could have improved it would have been a boat facing the other way, as I for one seem to ‘read’ a photograph from left to right, so implied rightward movement seems more natural to my eyes).
As per the brief I took an ‘uncomposed’ shot as the benchmark, then proceeded to position the boat dead centre, lower right, close to the top edge, close to the bottom edge, and centred vertically but close to the left edge.
The starting shot, where I just pointed the camera and clicked, is below as the benchmark. It is almost, but not quite, dead centre. It’s slightly closer to the left edge, and the visual weight of the boat is left-leaning due to the white cabin at the front. I actually prefer this to my composed pictures 2-5; not because it is particularly good, more that I found greater fault with the others!
The specifically-composed shots follow in order of visual appeal and not in the order taken.
My clear preference is for the one below, where the boat is off-centre to the lower right. The eye seems to rest quite naturally here. The boat looks like it will move into the empty space to the left. The expanse of water above gives scale and context without distraction. It gives a sense of going on a journey.
I had misgivings about all the other four shots; the one I had least dislike for – and therefore default second place – was the one with the boat in the dead centre. Yes, it’s undynamic and unimaginative, but it just looks less uncomfortable to my eye than the other three.
In third place is this one with the boat centred vertically but close to the left edge. This feels like it’s pulling out of shot, fighting with the background, which to me makes it less comfortable to look at.
In fourth is this image with the boat close to the bottom edge but central across the frame. This to me makes the boat look ‘grounded’ and too static, in comparison with picture 1 where the horizontal placement gave the implication of movement.
The image I felt worked least well was this, where the boat is close to the top edge. It just looks very unbalanced and unnatural.
What I’ve learned:
Where you position the main subject of an image in the frame can make a significant difference to the impact it has on the viewer. While there may be no absolute right answers, it’s becoming clearer to me which executions work most comfortably and which are more jarring. This is not to say that all photos should make comfortable viewing; sometimes deliberately playing with how you think viewers will read the image will lead you to position elements in a more unconventional way.