Which Direction Should the Subject Face?

Today’s Question

Have you ever come across the advice in bird photography that birds should always be positioned looking to the left in a composition? Supposedly, this is more visually pleasing because viewers naturally scan photos from left to right. I hadn’t heard this before, and it raises some ethical concerns for me. What are your thoughts?

Mark’s Answer

I hadn’t heard this advice before, but it does remind me of the rule of thirds. I find that photos often look better when the subject, whether it’s a bird or something else, is facing to the right rather than the left.


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One aspect of the rule of thirds in photography involves leaving space in front of the subject, on the side where the subject is looking or moving. While you can certainly break the rule of thirds with great results, its principles offer a useful general guide for composition.

For instance, if a person or bird is looking to the right, it’s typically better to have more space on the right side of the frame, giving the subject room to look. Similarly, if you’re photographing an aeroplane flying from left to right, you generally want to leave more space on the right side of the aeroplane to give it room to move.

An extension of this concept is whether a subject, like a bird, should face left or right. Some photographers recommend flipping a photo so the subject faces left instead of right. However, flipping a photo can raise ethical concerns, with the “right” choice depending on the context and presentation of the photography. Additionally, flipping can make subjects look unnatural, especially if their features aren’t symmetrical.

Personally, after reviewing numerous photos, I prefer subjects facing right rather than left. To my eye, it looks more natural. When a subject faces left, the photo sometimes feels less natural and can introduce a sense of tension, similar to the tension created when a subject’s face is near the edge of the frame looking out.

Ultimately, there isn’t a strong consensus on whether subjects should face one direction over the other. I generally avoid flipping photos just to change the direction a subject is facing. While some may disagree and prefer subjects facing left, many might not have a strong preference either way.

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