How to Center an Absolute Positioned Element Vertically and Horizontally with CSS

Absolute positioned elements are removed from the flow of a document. And sometimes, knowing how to correctly position such elements in the center of the page can be confusing.

I mean, CSS is confusing already. πŸ˜…

In this article, I will show you how to center an absolute element either vertically or horizontally – or both – in a container.

Code Example

To center an elemenet horizontally:

element { position: absolute; left: 0; right: 0; margin: 0 auto;
}

To center an element vertically:

element { position: absolute; top: 0; bottom: 0; margin: auto 0;
}

To center an element both vertically and horizontally:

 position: absolute; left: 0; right: 0; top: 0; bottom: 0; margin: auto;

But if you would like to understand how I came to these solutions, read further for more explanation.

How does the absolute position work?

By default, elements have a static position unless specified otherwise as absolute, fixed, relative or sticky. You can read this article on CSS position styles to understand the difference.

I will use the following UI to explain how absolute elements work:

image-32

Here is the code for the UI:

<div class="container"> <div class="blue-block"></div> <div class="green-block"></div> <div class="black-block"></div>
</div>
.container { margin: 20px; display: flex; border: 1px solid black; padding: 20px; width: 400px;
} .blue-block,
.green-block,
.black-block { width: 100px; height: 100px;
} .blue-block { background-color: blue;
} .green-block { background-color: green;
} .black-block { background-color: black;
}

This container has three blocks: blue, green, and black, respectively. All blocks are currently static, so they are ordered the same way in the DOM, just as they are in the code.

What happens when you give the green block an absolute position:

.green-block { background-color: green; position: absolute; margin-left: 20px; margin-top: 20px;
}

image-31

You can see now that the green block has left the document flow. The container only applies the flex display to the blue and black elements, and the green element wanders around without affecting the others.

So, what if we wanted to position this green block at the center of the container?

How to position absolute elements in the center

Positioning static elements to the center usually involve auto margins, so a margin: auto should suffice, right?

.green-block { background-color: green; position: absolute; margin: auto;
}

image-33

It definitely does not. As an absolute element, it loses its flow in the container. Maybe a left: auto and right: auto then:

.green-block { background-color: green; position: absolute; left: auto; right: auto;
}

image-34

Still nothing. At this point, you may be tempted to use hardcoded values:

.blue-block, .black-block { display: none;
} .green-block { background-color: green; position: absolute; left: 190px; top: 90px;
}

image-35

This result looks perfect (or almost) but is not the best solution because when you change the size of the container, you have to change the hardcoded values.

Now, let’s look at how you can center absolute positioned elements.

The first part is applying a relative position to the container:

.container { // ... position: relative;
}

Applying a relative position to the container gives the absolute element a boundary. Absolute elements are bounded by the closest relative positioned parent. But if none of that exists, they will be bounded by the viewport.

Next, we will center the block horizontally. Apply a left and right property with the value of 0. These properties respectively specify the distance of the left edge (of the block) to the container and the right edge to the container.

.green-block { // ... left: 0; right: 0;
}

image-36

The left takes more precendence because the container displays elements from left to right.

The beauty comes in with the next style:

.green-block { // ... margin: 0 auto;
}

image-37

And you have a horizontally centered absolute element. Think of the left and right properties specifying an inner container for the block. Within this container, the left and right margins can be auto so that they are equal and bring the element to the center.

To center this block vertically, you can already guess that it goes this way:

.green-block { // ... top: 0; bottom: 0; margin: auto 0;
}

image-39

The top and bottom specify the distance between the top and bottom edges of the block, which looks like an inner container. Using auto creates equal margins for margin-top and margin-bottom.

Bringing the two concepts together, you can horizontally and vertically center the block like this:

.green-block { background-color: green; position: absolute; right: 0; left: 0; top: 0; bottom: 0; margin: auto;
}

image-38

With this approach, the element stays at the center if you resize the container.

Wrapping up

Absolute elements behave differently than static elements – they leave the document flow and, by default, do not respect the container they were declared in.

With a relative positioned parent element, an absolute positioned element has a boundary. And with the left, right, top and bottom properties with a value of 0 (specifying the distance of the edges), and an auto margin, the absolute element is centered in the parent element.

Note that this is not the only way to position absolute elements in the center. I have seen someone online use a transform: translate... to achieve this, too. You can look into that if you like.

Posted by Contributor