There are an infinite number of ways to compose a photo. Rule of thirds, looking room, headroom, and white space are all examples of different ideologies that propose “ideal” ways to create a composition. Still, they’re only considered guidelines because there’s no singular right way – or any absolute right way, for that matter – to take a photo.
"It turns out that deciding what is truly the appropriate center for the subject comes with some nuance."
One popular method of composing a shot is subject centering. Made even more prominent through the rising popularity of photo-sharing platforms like Instagram, subject centering is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the exercise of composing a photo by placing the subject in the center of the frame.
But unless you’re shooting perfectly square or round subjects, it turns out that deciding what is truly the appropriate center for the subject comes with some nuance. Watches, in their entirety, are neither perfectly square or perfectly round. So today, I wanted to spend some time discussing 3 different ways to properly center a watch in a composition. Enjoy!
The problem with centering
I’m no historian, but it seems to me that prior to the advent of social media, subject centering wasn’t as popular of a compositional style beyond portrait photography. Nonetheless, centering a subject in frame is a powerful way to intensify the focal point and make it abundantly clear what the photo is about. When it comes to watch photography, this style often checks a lot boxes for horological storytellers, so it’s no surprise that subject centering is used so often.
"In many cases – dare I say, most cases – the dial does not represent the physical center of the watch."
But here’s the problem: it is extremely easy to improperly center a watch in a photo. While on paper it’s easy to blame it on the asymetrically oblong shape of a watch, in practice, I blame it on the fact that we focus way too much on the dial specifically. The dial is the hero of the watch, after all. Plus, it’s perfectly round, so the temptation to center it is even stronger. However, in many cases – dare I say, most cases – the dial does not represent the physical center of the watch.
For today’s tutorial, I’m going to show you 3 photos featuring the elegant NOMOS Tangente Neomatik Platinum Gray (loaned by the wonderful folks at NOMOS Glashütte) that illustrate 3 different considerations when centering a watch. Let’s dive in!
Wrist shots are asymmetrical
One of the most popular styles of watch photography is the wrist shot. While the watch doesn’t actually need to be centered in frame in this style of photo (especially when you consider a composition that includes glimpses of one’s torso), when you do want it centered, there’s more than meets the eye. Actually, it’s exactly what meets the eye, just maybe not a watch enthusiast’s eye.
As noted above, as watch nerds, we focus too much on the dial. As a product, the dial deserves the attention it gets, but photographically, we need to consider the watch more holistically – case and strap and all!
To kick this example off, here’s a wrist shot (using the parrot shot technique) with the watch centered the way most of us intuitively think to center it – with the dial perfectly in the centered crosshairs of the frame.
If I’m honest, this isn’t a terrible composition. The inclusion of my torso and arm roughly fills the lower two-thirds of the frame. As far as the rule of thirds is concerned, this is pretty good. Upon closer inspection though, what stands out to me is how much empty space there is in that upper left quadrant. Not only that, but the visual weight of the shot, predominantly carried by my torso, arm, and watch, is pulling down and to the right. This creates a subtle sense of imbalance and visual tension.
What contributes to this imbalance only becomes clear when I apply a technique I call tracing. I use this technique a lot in my tutorial annotations, but also use it while composing a photo. The trick is to trace a box around the shape of the subject, being careful to consider all its visible components to represent its true visual weight on the photo. With this wrist shot, the box I trace should include the watch case and dial, as well as the visible portions of the strap wrapping around my wrist.
With tracing applied, you can see that the watch is actually gravitating toward the bottom right. It’s only a slight shift, but it’s just enough to make it feel like something’s not quite right.
If I instead center the traced box in the composition, the tension is relieved.
And that is the power of tracing in watch photography: it gives us a clearer sense of how to center the watch when the dial isn’t representative of the physical center of it. In other words, tracing addresses the fact that in a wrist shot (and many other types of shots), the visible parts of the watch are asymmetrical.
Subframes are often part of the subject
This next example is a fairly classic flatlay with subframing applied. Here, the watch lays flat inside of the leather case it arrived in. I'll start again by framing this shot in the default way many would think to do it.
Once again, at first glance, this isn’t that bad. Until you look a little closer, that is.
Firstly, we know that the two ends of a strap are not usually made in equal lengths. So when laid flat, the dial of the watch is unlikely to be in the center.
Secondly, if you read my tutorial on straightening, you may remember that our eyes look for comparisons when interpreting a photo. In this case, you can see that the space above and below the watch case is not even (annotated in blue).
A tall frame, like the one 2:3 aspect ratio this image has, helps to hide this a little. But if I were to crop it to something shorter, like 4:5 (Instagram’s preferred aspect ratio), the unevenness gets accentuated (again annotated in blue).
Lastly, the purpose of using subframing in photography is to draw the eyes toward a specific part of the photo. As a result, the item providing the subframe (the watch case), often becomes part of the shape – and therefore visual weight – of the subject. In other words, in a photo like this, I shouldn’t be just centering the watch, I should be centering the watch case.
"Take a step back and consider what elements are visually connected with the watch so much so that they become part of the main subject."
When I apply the tracing technique, it becomes clearer how to best center this composition.
The lesson here is to take a step back and consider what elements are visually connected with the watch so much so that they become part of the main subject. Whether the watch is in a hand, a watch box, or a tray, it’s important to consider the broader story the photo is telling and the visual relationships that go with that story.
Visual weight is not always distributed evenly
This third and final example is a great one to demonstrate the difference that proper subject centering can make. If you’ve been following along, I’m sure you’re already way ahead of me, but entertain me for a second while I look at what the shot would look like if I centered the dial (or caseback, in this case).
Like in the previous examples, this is passable. But we’re not here to make passable work, are we?
While this shot is fine, it is undoubtedly bottom-heavy. Not only that, but it crops off most of the hand which I feel plays an important part of this photo’s story. The watch is being held up by something, and not just floating in space, after all.
The other thing that this example illustrates really well is that visual weight is not always evenly distributed across the subject. With a watch being held in this manner, it’s easy to see that the majority of the visual weight is on the north end, and it begins to dissipate as we move south toward the tip of the strap.
And so, even with tracing in use, it’s not always as simple as centering the box from edge to edge. An alternate and more helpful way to approach tracing here is for me to try to draw a box around where 80% of the visual weight is. Yes, this is a judgment call!
By approaching tracing in this manner, I can then go back to the practice of centering the traced box with confidence. Here, the composition feels better balanced, both in terms of centering the watch, but also in considering the visual weight that the hand contributes.
A few final notes
"It should also be to nobody’s surprise that a niche form of photography is full of nuance."
If I could underline one more caveat here, it’s that this approach to subject centering is also just another guideline to add to your arsenal. Photography is fun because it requires personal discretion and creative judgment. If it were all science and math, I would have thrown my camera out the window years ago.
It should also be to nobody’s surprise that a niche form of photography is full of nuance. The difference between good and great often requires splitting hairs. Not only that, but good might be great to some, and great might be good to others. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, etc.
At minimum, I hope you’ll walk away from this tutorial with appreciation for a different way to center your compositions, and with a new method of visually identifying the weight of your subjects (via tracing). I hope they both serve you well!
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