Why Does Instagram Love Centered Compositions?

Why Does Instagram Love Centered Compositions?

There are many, many different trends that have gained a significant amount of traction on the immensely popular social media platform. Some of these trends die out and some of them stay, and so far, it seems that centered compositions are here to stay.

As photographers, especially in classroom and workshop instruction, we learn about a wide variety of rules of composition. The rule of thirds is probably one of the more widely known rules, but if we were to look at virtually any textbook for photography, we would read about much more than just that one rule. My point is that there are many different ways to compose an image depending on your subject matter. So, why do so many of these incredibly popular social media accounts seem to feature very similar looks, feels, and compositions on their accounts? Below are just a couple random examples found from people that I follow on Instagram, but it wouldn't take much digging to find a multiplicity of other examples from other popular accounts.

Now, the answer here is definitely open to interpretation, and I'm sure that there are several reasons why these centered compositions are so popular. After looking at hundreds, possibly even thousands of images just like the two above, I noticed some similarities across them all. Not only do many of the shots feature their main subject in the center of the frame, but the shots are all very elemental in the way that they include so much of a wide scene surrounding their subjects. The subject might be a person, a cabin, a road, or a mountain peak, but the decision to place the subject in the exact center between left and right seems to be quite common indeed.

Instagram is designed for scrolling, and people scroll through images at lightning paces. One can see, appreciate, give a "like", and possibly even leave a comment all within just a few seconds. Chances are that there are several reasons for centering a subject, and depending on the photographer, it might just be instinct or there might be deeper reasons as to why they compose the shots they do. My theory is that centering your subject makes it easier for viewers to connect with your image instead of taking the time to immerse themselves in a more complex composition. Centering things, when viewed on the small screen of a cell phone, makes it much more likely for viewers to find the subject, appreciate it, and possibly even have an emotional connection to it. Perhaps these social media influencers aren't delving that deep into the psychology of their displayed works on the platform; nonetheless, they seem to have tapped into something that is more likely to drive success.

Maybe you've noticed this exact same trend in the works of people that you follow on Instagram. I must admit, I only noticed this trend after I realized that I had inadvertently begun to center things in my own photography. After that, I began looking into other photographers' work to see how many other people do the exact same thing. So, what do you think? Why are centered compositions so popular for social media display?

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22 Comments

Hell if I know, but I've always loved symmetry. Supposed rules be damned. Forced symmetry, overall symmetry broken by a single object, symmetry with variation in colors and tones... symmetry isn't necessarily bad.

That said, with a lot of this stuff on social media would those images be better or more interesting if they were just offset to one of the 1/3rds or to tweak it to follow some other compositional rule? Often not, there are other elements missing in the frame to make a stronger choice for a lot of examples I see.

Michael Jin's picture

The fact that the platform was originally square format combined with the fact that the average person tends to favor centered compositions probably plays into it.

Benton Lam's picture

I find that the square crop itself yields more of a symmetrical composition - I do that even with 6x6 on a 120 camera.

Mark James's picture

As photographers, I think we tend to look at photos in a different way then others. Of the two above, I like the first one, and it might be because the subject is facing the back of the scene and it feels right. The second one throws me off a little because even though the head is facing the back, her body is aimed off camera and it feels like it needs more room over there.

Rob Davis's picture

I think it's the size of the viewing area. I imagine if a lot of these were larger, meaning your eye had to find the subject, those compositions would be frustrating. On a phone you can take in everything at once.

Instagram loves any image that attracts the eye quickly on a small screen.... Easy to find subject/high saturation/high contrast/bold images do the best. (Or pictures of celebrities/attractive women...)

The horror that others do not follow your arbitrary rules.

I like symmetry. Probably because I cut my teeth in 6x6.

user-162578's picture

I don't understand why you even care about Instagram. It's like everyone here was trying to do craft beer for his own niche, and yet everyone was trying to comply with the mass market rules to sell more craft beer. At some point, you have to chose.

Instagram is browsed by people who take a crap. Not by art enthusiasts. Why do you even lose time to understand what the common folks like when none of them will hire you ?

Harry Martin's picture

Respectfully - IG can get more people to look at your work - that's pretty important. Just to correct an impression, people who look at IG can become "art enthusiasts" - it has worked for me, so give it a try.

William Bond's picture

I don’t think it’s about a trend or that people just love them. I think it’s because it makes the most sense for that platform. Whether you post a landscape/portrait orientation picture, your profile will always display a centered crop of your photo. This is why it make the most sense.

Nathan Klein's picture

Interesting topic. I’ve also noticed that photos with a medium focal length (around 50mm) on a full frame and in portrait orientation do well from the “influencers”. I suppose it has to do with how easily digestible the images are to the masses. Unfortunately the average punter doesn’t value a well composed, thoughtful, interesting image. Instead they prefer an image that they can relate instantly and then forget almost as quick. Kind of like fast food 🥘

The eye naturally goes to the center, even if there are other details in the rest of a photo. The average person does that when looking at the Last Supper, and will do that with a landscape featuring a person jumping up and down. It makes sense that Instagram, which is focused on satisfying people, goes to the default.

Sometimes centering the composition makes sense. Other times, it does not. It is all a matter of what works for the photo.

Mark Guinn's picture

Personally, I think this trend is being overanalyzed. The answer is simple: these are pics taken by mostly non-pros that have no idea what "the rules" are. These are just first person views from someone that is working to be instagram famous.

D R's picture

In the examples above, the subject is the woman, it makes sense to center the subject. When people are scrolling down the eye is naturally looking at the center of the screen first and not darting about looking for compositions.

user-187388's picture

Do what works for yourself is my opinion.I think composition rules are great as a guide but they are a starting point to creativity not the be all and end all.Of course there are commercial works where you have to comply with what your customer wants.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

I really don’t think that if those people would frame the image off center, they would get less likes.
Plus who gives a shit about what Instagram loves. It’s like cello players would learn in school what kind of horseshit the pop culture loves.

imb4 thumbnails

Click through the Editor's Picks and tell me what you see....

It's because one person did it, then everyone copied them. It's the Instagram thing to do. Same thing with the muted colors.

Osman Merdan's picture

Great article by the way.
I think thats because we look instagram photos on a small screen and that level phphysiologically our eyes concentrate on the centre. Generally our eyes look at the centre while looking at the screen. And it is hard to read images on the small screen when they are not centered.

Duane Klipping's picture

The title photo is a poor example as it shows symmetry with the bridge. The second image although the person is centered on the vertical she is on the bottom 1/3 of the horizontal and this works. The last one is pretty much dead center but it is still a pleasant image to view. Some people get too hung up on rules and expect everyone to follow them. First thing I learned there are no rules when it comes to art. Need to lighten up a little and think outside the bax you have built around yourself.