with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Bull’s Eye Syndrome

Which image do you prefer?

We have a lot of choices about where to place a subject in our viewfinder or frame. Which image below do you prefer? Is there one that you like better than the rest? The one with the subject in the middle or the others? Look at all the compositional choices you have.

Bunny in center
Bunny in upper right corner
Bunny in lower right corner
Bunny in lower left corner
Bunny in upper left corner

Finding out what a person does for a living is often an invitation for free consultations. Doctors get lots of: “I have this cousin, and he has this lump in his arm pit. Could it be cancer?” Politicians are great targets: “The road outside my house has huge potholes in it. Can you get it fixed for me? By next week?” Poor lawyers, they are victims of their career, too: “My Aunt Thelma was hit by a drunk driver and has a bruise on her hip, how much do you think she can get?” Well, photographers are not immune. Oh, the questions we get: “What kind of camera should I buy?” “My pictures are all dark. Should I buy a flash?” “What kind of film should I use?” “All the pictures I take of my sister’s baby make his face look all funny. Should I get a new camera?”

Some of these result in more in-depth questions on my part. “What are you photographing?” “What do you want to take pictures of?” “What is your goal?” Yet, the easiest question of all to answer, and not asked very often, is HOW DO I TAKE A BETTER PICTURE? I think that’s the most important question anyone could ask. The answer is really complicated so get out your pen and paper. There’ll be a test later.


That’s it. No complicated mathematical equation here. Get it out of the center. It’s that simple. Look at the images along the right side of this page. Which image do you prefer? The one in the middle or the others? Look at all the compositional choices you have.

Bull's eye target. Get it out of the center: Your camera is not a weapon!Most cameras have centered focusing brackets or “targets” in the viewfinder. When the focusing area is in the center of the frame, we tend to aim the “sights” at our target, a.k.a. subject. This is called the Bull’s Eye Syndrome.

Getting the subject out of the center of the frame makes for a more interesting picture.

Greek artists discovered that the human eye tends to rest on certain points in an image. They named this movement of the eye across the image “the concert of the eye”. This raccoon on the beach of Washington State appears trapped and doesn't know which way to go. Photo by Brent VanFossen

The ancient Greeks were passionate lovers of the arts and sciences. They analyzed how we look at art and what makes art interesting or boring. Static, centered subjects keep the eye focused, even trapped, right in the middle. By providing an opportunity for the eye to move around the image, people found the art more interesting.

Moved to the side in the image, there is now space for the raccoon to move across, presenting a more comfortable perspective. Photo by Brent VanFossenImagine a grid in the viewfinder, such as a tic-tac-toe pattern: two lines evenly spaced across and two lines evenly spaced down. Where the lines intersect is where the eye tends to focus. As the grid breaks up the frame into sections of three, this is called The Rule of Thirds. By placing your subject on one of these intersecting points, the eye can look at the focal point of interest, then feel free to move around the image to look at the rest of the photograph. A sense of movement is created. This movement of the eye is critical to making a boring, tourist shot into something that makes people say “Wow!”

Take a moment and look at a picture you have on your wall. Or grab a magazine and just look at some graphic image. Watch the path your eye takes. First it zooms in on something of interest. Then it wanders over here and wanders over there. Does your eye feel locked in one place? Or does it just keep wandering all over the place? Does it zoom to one thing, then bounce to another, Sunset in Florida, photo by Brent VanFossenand bounce back to the first and back to the second? You feel like you’re watching a tennis match. Or does your eye race all over the image, looking at everything and never standing still. After a while, you feel a little seasick, right?

Our eye likes to roam, but it also enjoys a good rest once in a while. By putting your subject in one of those four intersections of the rule of thirds, you now offer the eye something to look at, and places for it to roam.

Whether it’s a picture of you standing in front of a national monument, a flower, a deer, a squirrel or your kid sister, give this a try. Just aim at your subject (“Smile, Sis!”) and lightly press down on the shutter Even with the abstract nature of these rocks near a stream bed, what is the path your eye travels? What holds your interest? Photo by Brent VanFossenrelease (picture taking button) to lock the focus and exposure of your camera. Then recompose by moving your camera so the subject is off-center. Press the button the rest of the way down to take the picture. What do you have to lose? You have a chance to easily improve your pictures.

So, next time you’re at a party and meet a photographer, tell them that you already know the secret of taking a GREAT photograph!

One Comment

  • Posted February 24, 2007 at 1:00 | Permalink

    Cameras should come with a sticker: “placing the subject in the center can cause harm to the picture”.

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