#545. The Rule of Thirds, Revisited

By pascaljappy | How-To

Jan 07

Composition makes 80% of a photograph, in my very biased book.

So does lighting.

Because the two are so intimately related, that only adds to 100%. Leaving very little room for gear and other useless stuff.

So, here goes the usual argument promoting the Rule of Thirds to the masses: “Centering your subject is boring. If you draw a 3×3 grid on your photographs and place the important subjects on the intersections, you’ll create a more interesting photograph.”

Mr Mouse firmly disagrees, placing the most obvious evidence of his dissidence at 1/2 the height and 3/4 right.

a black and white counter example of the photographic rule of thirds

But let’s analyse this in a little less cartoonish manner.

Even thought the rule of thirds is more of a composition for dummies suggestion than a masterclass insight, there is a fair bit of truth in it. See the great photograph by Paul Perton, below. The middle of the gorgeous woman’s body is more or less on the 1/3 down – 1/3 left position. It also happens that it is a white / dark split and that the light accentuates her fab figure. So, definitely a strong draw in a strong position.

A portrait of a young woman watching surfers follows the rule of thirds

Untitled, Marina del Rey

And this more spiritual take on a night trail under the stars more or less follows the same dogma. This time 1/3 top – 1/3 left.

A cross on a hill top of Provence follows the photographic rule of thirds

Top of the hill, Provence, last minutes of 2016

Erik, here, occupies the same spot as the surfer lady, higher up a vertical frame.

And this bear in Berlin has eyes at the same position and a paw at 2/3 from left – 2/3 from bottom.

One thing all these photographs have in common is that they feel stable. But what if you don’t want stable, but movement ? As in going, going, gone …

A photo of a plane in the clouds provides a strong counter example to the rule of thirds

What if you want to convey a mood that’s unbalanced ? See above and below, for example.

And, most importantly, what if you do not want your photograph to be about one thing but about a much more interesting interaction between many?


What is composition ?

Now, I’m too lazy to look up an official definition so mine will have to do for the purposes of this post.

To me, composition is the art of arranging the parts of a photographs so as to convey the mood and story you want most efficiently.

Take this mountain (below). It dominates my horizon, sitting 1000 feet above my window. By placing it at the bottom of the frame and shrouded in clouds, I make it look as though I’m higher than it, approaching in a plane, possibly.

Conversely, the little plane above the A380’s cockpit, above, is placed close enough to the edge to make it look like it’s going to leave the frame entirely. Which it did (grin).

This mountaintop in the clouds provides a strong counter example of the rule of thirds

Much of composition’s success has to do with the relationship between visual forces.

Place a subject dead center of a rectangle (or, better, square) and the photograph is all about the subject. And identity photograph follows that rule. A circular tondo even more so.

A model in the center of the frame is a counter example of the photographic rule of thirds

And there’s nothing wrong with that. The result is balanced and meaningful. A fashion shoot at night in a holocaust monument is a surprising enough topic to stand alone in a photograph.

The subject can also dominate the frame completely and still create a sense of meaning and balance. There’s no center of attention in this forest. The eye just roams through the trees because of the depth, details, textures, variety, ambiance …

But add a second element of interest and immediately, your focus shift from the subjects to the relationship between the subjects. The photo above would be completely different with a red parrot in the green vegetation on the right. And the one below would be a random postcard without the lady at bottom left (who, by the way, was hauling a huge film 6×7 at sparrowfart, total respect).

A square format photograph at Mont Saint Michel is a strong counter example to the rule of thirds

See also the pretty lady and tiny surfers, the cross and trees, in relation with the Orion Nebula in the background, …


So where does the rule of thirds fit in?

In a photographic world dominated by the pesky  3:2 format, the rule of thirds provides 4 easy points at which to anchor dominating elements of the frame.

It more or less guarantees uniform attention between the elements placed at these points, if they are of equal visual weight. If they are not, or if the frame format isn’t 3:2, adapt placement for a balanced feel (the falcon – man – cat triangle, below, more or less follows the rule of thirds).

It also provides 4 “safe” spots to place a single subject because the slight imbalance created by the off-center forces the eye to check out the rest of the image for other subjects or to take in the “background”.


Should you use the rule of thirds ?

If the results it produces (stable but not boring) suit your mood / style / topic, by all means. See the Yin and Yang stability of the photo above.

But, as the general rule for better photographs that most articles make it to be ? Absolutely not.

As I wrote at the top of this page, composition and lighting make up 80% of a photograph’s quality, each, and are closely inter-related. Because lighting affects the visual weight of the various constituents of an image, it affects the placement they need to follow in order to convey the mood or meaning you, the photographer, want to impart to the final image.

Post processing is an integral part of this decision-process. In the photograph below I worked on the clouds and ripples a lot to create that zig-zag composition that give the image it’s dynamism in spite of an empty port.

The zig zag motion in this photo of the port of Marseilles is a counter example to the rule of thirds

Here, on the contrary, is a remote Australian backwater shop that’s meant to look static, closed and fading. The colour balance plays a role here, but so does the very sedate composition, where nothing stands out and the door + sign occupy a very central position in a symmetrical square.

Ditto here. There’s no story other than a fun, slightly animal, shape. Smack center. I should even crop a little off the right to remove that stray light.

Here, the composition hinges around the guiding line of the little wall, because it is the subject. I did place the turning point vaguely at the 1/3 top – 1/3 left position but that element plays second fiddle to the very strong dynamics of the wall itself. The fact that it hinges at that rule of thirds point makes the photograph visually balanced. You can look at it, following the wall to the top, look at the trees at top left, then explore the forest on the right and the Wave Rock at center and start all over again.

And here, well the photograph is “conceptual”. There’s no telling a story, not relationship dynamics between components other than light and dark, translucent and bluntly opaque, curvy and striped. There is a 2/3 -1/3 relationship between light and dark. And the impact of the photograph completely changes if those ratios are inverted. Just for fun, mask the top of the image to keep 2/3 dark and 1/3 light and see how different the image is 🙂

So, wadja think? To rule-of-thirds or not to rule-of-thirds? If you found this useful, please consider sharing. We need to stop the epidemic 😉


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  • Joakim Danielson says:

    I have stopped thinking about the rule of 1/3 for quite some time now and instead I compose more freely trying to weight my main subject against its surroundings, deciding what to include and exclude from the frame to get the balance I want from the scene etc. In a way I think my brain is multitasking much more nowadays when judging a scene 🙂 Still I think the rule is very important, it helped me a lot in my composition years ago and somehow I still think I use it subconsciously as a starting point many times when I am evaluating a scene I want to shoot.

    • pascaljappy says:

      To me, the rule’s most important contribution is awakening beginner photographers to the fact that composition is a thing. And that’s really important. But then, too many “pundits” have elevated it to a rank it doesn’t deserve and becomes misleading for those trying to grow beyond it. Having viewed and admired your photographs on many occasions, it’s easy to see that your approach is far more interesting and elaborate 🙂 And how right you are when you say composition makes our brain multitask !! Any recent projects ? I’d love to see your recent photographs 😉

      • Joakim Danielson says:

        Thanks. I am not working with any projects at the moment, still shooting a lot though. I am worthless at doing something with my photos so a sort of photographic goal for 2017 is to generate more output, on my webpage, printing and even trying to put together a photo book using blurb.com or something like it. Don’t get me wrong, I am going to photograph a lot this year but no concrete plans or projects as for now.

        Did I hear someone say Berlin and workshop?

        • pascaljappy says:

          I look forward to seeing those photographs at some point.

          Berlin. I did mention a workshop, but not many have answered the call. I might give it a more formal try this spring, for a summer date. Could be a lot of fun.

  • Fran Oldham says:

    As a humble learner from the wisdom offered by DS, it seems to me that the rule of thirds is often taken too literally and is best interpreted by saying that the main subject should usually be off-center and that centering the subject should be the exception.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Fran. You are correct, of course. But take a look at the photograph of my daughter in B&W. Her head is in a rule of thirds prime position, and yet the photograph is (deliberately) unbalanced. In the middle of the square frame, she would have been the obvious subject. Off center, she leaves a lot of room that the eye explores trying to find a secondary subject. Of course, it doesn’t and returns to her. But leaves again after a while, and returns. And so on. As such, the rule of thirds is missing some information to be really useful for predictable results. The real lesson is what Daniel mentions above: balancing visual weights throughout the frame. I’ll get back to this in much more depth. This is a topic, I’m passionate about 🙂

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        I think this portrait works more because the smaller white patch to the left more or less balances the larger area of mixed greys to the right.
        that her face is lit more from the right, _opposite_ to the white patch.

        And the vertical “1:3” is, I think, made stronger by the impression that the camera’s height is in the photo’s vertical middle.

        ( Also the darker areas in the corners help to frame the portrait.,)

        …my two cents.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Agreed, Kristian. The portrait of my daughter stays balanced because of the added vignetting that acts like a circular frame and, as you suggest, because the large patch of uniform grey on the right is balanced by the small bright patch on the left. The Lens (Otus 28) doesn’t hurt either … what a brilliant piece of kit. Shame I had to give it back.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Simple – just stop calling it a “rule”. It’s a suggestion, and it often produces a “nice picture”. Sometimes, it even produces a “great picture”. But elevating it to the status of a “rule” is like suggesting that Panadol cures everything from ingrown toenails to unwanted pregnancies.

    Surely a bit of imagination is a more fundamental requirement for a “great picture”?

    And, as you suggest, an understanding of light & shade, shapes & forms – and I’d add colours to that list.

    If I had to pick a “rule” or a guideline to help people start taking better shots, it would be based on the WW2 golden rule – KISS. “Keep it simple, stupid”. The GIs learned early, and learned the hard way, that this was basic to their survival in the theatre of war. Too often, you find amateurs spoil their shots by shoving too much into one shot. Tell them to try splitting it into several, if it’s so important to have a picture of everything they are looking at.

    BTW – wherever did you learn arithmetic, Pascal? 🙂

    • pascaljappy says:

      Oh that last sentence is scary 😉 😉 😉 Did I make a huge mistake somewhere?

      The thing with rules is that those of us who want to improve crave them because they provide guidance. In the case of the rule of thirds, my feeling is that it elevates someone with no awareness of composition to someone who’s interested in composition. Which is great. But it can also get them into a rut fast, because it lacks context. That’s my mission for the coming months. Provide context on composition 🙂

  • Georg says:

    Hello Pascal. Your images and discussion are very interesting.
    After 30 years of photography I rarely actually think in terms of the rule of thirds. I have always thought of the challenge of the photographer being different than that of other design oriented activities. The painter, for example, starts with a blank canvas. The architect has to consider gravity and physics. But we photographers very often are faced with simply bringing some order out of chaos. It is often mostly a process of elimination and selection rather than an exercise in imagination. Thus we talk about “seeing” an image.
    Good photographs often centralize interesting details, but rarely center the most interesting feature. So there can be a moot discussion of the importance of a rule of thirds. Using the golden section works in some cases as well. But there is the occasional image that leads our eye to the outside world, where there may be ambiguity, even mystery. So then we may broken the rule, to good purpose.
    We learn composition through our practice of making many images. And by seeing the work of others. We can also transform images thru the magic of Post Processing. The important thing is to make an interesting, if not compelling, image. As we practice more, that process becomes intuitive.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Georg,

      How true that is : “We learn composition through our practice of making many images. And by seeing the work of others. We can also transform images thru the magic of Post Processing. The important thing is to make an interesting, if not compelling, image. As we practice more, that process becomes intuitive.”

      And yet, young photographers are often led to believe that gear matters a lot more than looking at other photographers work, with a critical eye. And simple “theories” are passed around as rules with little background or context. So yes, find good training (my mission on DearSusan for 2017), practice a lot and view the work of great photographers. You gear needs will become obvious once you achieve some level of proficiency 🙂

  • NMc says:

    Hi Pascale
    Just a quick comment; when I see a photo with central placement of subject on a photo site /blog/ book, (basically anything curated and aimed at a photographic audience), it usually stands out and is quite striking.
    I wonder if there is a side effect of the ‘rule’ that centrally placed compositions get much more stringent curation, and are on average consequently both rarer and better images.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Noel, that’s probably very true. Photographers past the snapshot stage who center their subjects do so deliberately. It’s a compositional decision. So that probably elevates the general impact of these photos compared to those which are made in “auto” brain mode. Kind regards, Pascal

  • Brian Patterson says:

    Having been especially interested in abstract images for the longest, I am irreverently ignorant of the use of thirds but am seeing the value in the concept to bring a sense of direction within the image.

    Videographers are fairly dependent on thirds to keep the viewer’s attention or build anticipation, etc.

    I will make better use of thirds when I get out to the Smokey Mountains here in Tennessee. Been totally tied up on a room addition and landscaping project at my home. I need some photographic therapy!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Good for you 😉 Get plenty of photo therapy 🙂 Interesting, what you say about videographers and the rule of thirds. Maybe, in a moving image, the stability is more crucial than in stills. That would make the rule of thirds that much more important.

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