Framing Up the Rule of Thirds

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The act of isolating our kinetic, changeable world as a two-dimensional, static rectangle (or square) is a very subjective practice. Most photographers are familiar with the technical rules—such as exposure and focus—that influence successful results. Compositional rules, however, have a less defined effect over the success of an image. In fact, when it comes to composition, there is a healthy debate over whether the term “rule” should be used at all. This adds fuel to the fire in arguments about one of the fundamental principles of photographic composition: The Rule of Thirds.

Photographs courtesy of Jill Waterman, © 2016

Before Photography

The Rule of Thirds predates the invention of photography; it was originally applied as a compositional tool in landscape painting, which is described further in John Harris’s Explora article Who Wrote the Rule of Thirds. 

Using the Rule of Thirds to balance a figure against an otherwise geometric composition. The massive form of the foreground seat back effectively bottom-weights this image.

This rule, or guideline, proposes that composing a picture with an imaginary grid overlay of two horizontal and two vertical lines that divide the frame into nine equal segments, and placing key picture elements along these lines and at the intersection points, will result in a more balanced and aesthetically pleasing photograph. 

In many respects, this type of compositional trope is at odds with photography’s spontaneous nature. It is, perhaps, most relevant to practitioners of the more classical photographic disciplines, such as landscape, architecture, and still life. Photographers from these specialties tend to work with larger-format cameras fixed on a tripod, and often entrust devices such as a focusing screen as an aid to aligning picture elements with the grid lines and power points that form the backbone of the thirds rule. All this suggests a more contemplative practice, with framing decisions that are carefully weighed before applying, to immortalize the scene in an image. 


When composing for the Rule of Thirds, it can be helpful to frame up the image from the edges in. Here, two figures are key anchor elements at left and right.


Sharp focus on the two constellations creates a left/right balance, while tension is added by the soft focus clock straddling the grid between the left-hand third and the center of the frame.

Applying Different Targets

So, how does one reconcile such arcane facts and behaviors within our point-and-shoot, run-and-gun world? Perhaps even more important than how, is the question of why the Rule of Thirds still remains a valid compositional aid, given that so much about the image-making process has changed over time.

This image is focused on the centrally framed metal edge, but the eye is kept busy by key picture elements that fall along the lines and points mapping out the Rule of Thirds.

To better understand the continued significance of this rule—or tool if you will, for a more positive spin—it might be worthwhile to ask: When you compose a photograph, how much of the picture’s framework do you really see? How often do you pay attention to the corners, edges, and other compositional mechanisms within your field of view? A more essential question, perhaps, is this: How often do you simply position your primary subject in the center of the viewfinder, LCD, or screen? Are you generally aware of the dynamics of the frame beyond this point?

Targeting the subject in the middle of the frame is a natural habit, which is reinforced by the technical requirement of focusing the camera lens on the target. While this might be the best, or the only, approach for a grab shot captured with a manual focus lens, such a predictable recipe is likely to limit a viewer’s attention and interest when repeatedly used as a compositional solution.

A Rule-of-Thirds framework and central focus point coëxist in this image of commuters scurrying through the corridors of Grand Central Terminal.


Breaking Down Your Picture Elements

An essential function of the Rule of Thirds is to engage the viewer’s eye and draw attention to various parts of the image. To do this, the aforementioned grid lines and intersection points should align with key picture elements. While some may consider this a limiting factor in composing a unique and engaging photograph, the prescribed framework of a grid makes it easier for the photographer to analyze efficiently how a given scene occupies the frame, and then adjust the composition as desired on the fly.

An example of Rule-of-Thirds framing that emphasizes just one section of the grid.

Every image to be captured presents a unique set of circumstances, yet the key to the framing process is allowing the given picture elements—the horizon line, anchor points, directional cues, dominant shapes, graphic textures, and color relationships, to name a few—to be your guide, and letting the relationships between such elements attract and direct the eye within the frame.

In contrast to the classical photography disciplines described earlier, let’s conclude this discussion using the most accessible of examples—giving a nod to current generation of mobile phone cameras. When setting up the trusty photo app in a smartphone, you’ll likely discover the available option (or, if not, one is easily downloadable) for a gridded framing mechanism of horizontal and vertical lines, which establishes a 2:1 ratio top-to-bottom and side-to-side. 

The Rule of Thirds vertical grid lines create a strong framework for balancing a figure with an architectural element, while placing the horizon at the grid lines’ intersection point, in the lower right, teases the eye into the distance.

While you may have previously used these grid lines as an aid to aligning the horizon or squaring up edges, using it as a tool for Rule of Thirds composing can boost efficiency in sizing up a shot, particularly given the informal format of the small screen.

Conclusion

Try it out as an exercise. Balancing picture elements against the lines and points of the gridded Rule of Thirds framework may offer you a clearer sense of the potential for visual tension (or lack thereof) in an image. Think of it like being an acrobat juggling balls in the air. You may choose to adopt the Rule of Thirds in one image and break it in the next, in favor of a different compositional spin. There’s nothing wrong with that. The ultimate goal is to keep the balls moving, all while trying out new patterns to keep your images fresh and capture the viewer’s interest.

The upward angle and placement of chandeliers at the top of the Rule-of-Thirds grid draws the eye, before it is set in motion around the image by the rotating carousel at the bottom of the frame.

For more on the Rule of Thirds and other observations about photographic composition, you might enjoy these two B&H Event Space videos on the B&H YouTube Channel.

David Brommer: Better Photographic Composition: Beyond the Rule of Thirds

Adam Marelli: Bridging the Gap: Classical Art Designed for Photographers

For additional images that demonstrate the benefits of applying the Rule of Thirds for clarity and strength in an image, visit this slideshow by photographer, adventurer, and author Art Wolfe. His popular instructional offerings include The Art of Photography: Essential Habits for Stronger Compositions and The New Art of Photographing Nature: An Updated Guide to Composing Stunning Images of Animals, Nature, and Landscapes.

Images courtesy of Art Wolfe, © 2016

In May, 2015, Wolfe was a featured speaker at the first annual B&H Optic Conference. To watch his presentation, The Inspirational Traveler, as well as the videos by 19 other speakers, click here.

In June, 2016, B&H will be hosting the Optic 2016 Conference. Stay tuned for full details.

10 Comments

Quite frankly the only "rule" I use in composing an image is the "what feels right" rule. Galen Rowell used to emphasize that every image should reflect your inner vision, should say something about how you respond to what you are photographing. Being that the connection between the photographer and his/her subject is by its very nature largely an emotional/personal one it seems clear that "rules" are ruled out... In my experience those paying the most attention to rules are the ones who most often tend not to allow themselves to truly connect with and respond to the subject in their viewfinder. At a loss as to what they hope to say they fall back upon "rules" formulated by others in a desperate hope that the image they produce will prove "good." Most often they end up with an image that means nothing to anybody...even those who came up with the "rules" in the first place.

amen

Hi Winston, thanks so much for your comment. While I wholeheartedly agree that it's essential to be guided by "what feels right" when photographing and composing images, I do think it's valuable to be aware of existing rules in order to understand prevailing codes. Personally, I am more of the mind that rules are made to be broken than followed. On that note, I find this quote from the Dalai Lama XIV sums things up nicely, "Learn the rules, so you know how to break them properly." 

Thanks again for your post, and for reading Explora!

Jill,

Good points all and yet I am still a bit uncomfortable with the so called "Rules of Composition." Admittedly I am a rather self directed sort of person so rules of any sort kind of make me nervous. This is not to say that I reject all rules out of hand. To the contrary as a professional boat captain and marine photographer I rely on the Coast Guard's Rules of The Road for safe operation of my vessel and just wish more boaters would read, understand, and follow them. But rules of the road can be readily identified and justified on a purely logical basis whereas rules of composition are by their very nature extremely subjective and intensely personal and therefore extremely difficult to justify on any other than a Bully Pulpit basis. Fifty years ago when I first became serious about photography I made the classic mistake of reading and memorizing the Rules and then set out to master them in the field. Within a few years I'd become very unhappy with my images and photography had become more of a Sisyphean task than the pleasure it had formerly been. Eventually I realized than instead of allowing myself to truly interact with the subject matter appearing in my viewfinder and frame it based upon my emotional instincts I'd fallen into the trap of superimposing the "Rules" over my subject thus allowing them in a very real sense to distort my emotional/subjective response. Sure enough once I became aware of this it was easy to see that rather than composing images in a manner that meant something to "ME" I was time and again framing my images in a manner that would please those who came up with the RULES...  In the movies the moment I realized this I would have turned the corner and instantly become a famous photographer.  Heck in the movies I would have probably starting writing rules of my own! In real life I continued to plod along trying to satisfy the Rules and eventually wound up giving up photography. Years later, much older and a bit wiser I picked up a camera and set off in search of images that satisfied only one simple rule, What Looks Right To Me!

Thanks for the feedback Winston. Your aversion to the rules of composition makes sense to me, especially given the scenario you describe of applying photographic rules over interacting with your subject on a personal level. Yet, comparing the rules of photographic composition (which I prefaced in my article as basically subjective) with maritime Navigational Rules (which, as you justly note, deserve much more attention and compliance than they get) seems rather extreme. A more apt comparison might pair maritime rules with the technical rules of photographic exposure and focus (also mentioned in my article’s preface), but even that seems a stretch.

From what you describe, it seems that your desire to master a set of subjective rules turned into a habit that was hard to break, even with your awareness of this predicament and its limitations. As you discovered first hand, sometimes it takes some time away from a process that’s become rote in order to fully reboot. It’s great to hear that you’re now making images based on your emotional response and the meaning you find in the subject. Here’s to free expression in images, while fully observing the rules of the road … and the waterways!

I agree, may be 100% with Winston. I'd add that the Rule of Thirds or other rules alike, can be used to analyze a picture or a painting, but such rules are an aestetic vision and you have to force them to fit. They mostly work because it is the way our attention is drawn to the world we see and because of the very way we see. We only have detailed vision in the central part of the retina ("macular view", around 5 degrees, a long tele) so that we have to direct our eyes to the focus of our attention and after that, our vision wanders on the scene so that our brain constructs the general image and record it in the ram for instant use. Photographers use composition, focusing and exposure to draw the attention to the "central" object, situation or scene we want to show. It is very difficult to make a rule for every one of them so we should use only guide lines instead and make our own ones along our "Photographic Lives" so that we can picture the way we see the world and show it to other people, they like it or not. May be that in a few centuries somebody will "discover us" if the digital world still exists and we did have something to "say" as happened with a "fresco" in Pompey or in the room of an unknown painter and applies to us whatever "rules" the will use, but we should take our photos as we feel, not trying to fit a rule that may disappear a few days later because somebody wrote a new one.

Hello Roberto, thanks for writing in, and for your comments about vision and perception. You bring up a good point about making one's own guidelines so that we can picture the way we see the world and show it to other people. This is the hallmark of aesthetic vision, and is what separates the process of a photographic artist from that of a simple operator capturing the elements in front of their camera and lens. Compositional rules can be applied in both cases, but it’s in the latter case where the rules might be most useful, to compensate for the lack of a subjective point of view. Hope this makes sense to you, and thanks again for reading the blog!

Just remember, it is more of a suggestion and not a rule. I've seen many good photo's ruined, or at least, not as effective, when the photographer slavishy follows the rule. I usually set up my photo, when I think I'm ready to press the shutter, then I check the Rule of 3rds Grid. I find the best photo's and paintings (for that matter) have something in the painting or photo that is near, often not at, the 1/3rd lines and or intersections. http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=hugo+schnars-alquist&view=detailv2&q...

This painting is a good example, you'll note he even puts the horizon in the middle of the painting. Now lay the Rule of Thirds Grid over the painting as see what is at each line and to some extent the intersections.

If you're "running and gunning" recommend several shots moving your target of interest around the photo and see what you like the best and see how it lays w/ in the Rule of 3rds Grid or not, it is in the end your photo. The Great Artists virutally never center their object of interest. It is near the center, but not perfectly centered.

Most of my better photo's wind up following the Rule of 3rds, even those taken before I knew about the Rule.

Hi Steve, thanks so much  for your thoughtful comment and for sharing this artistic example. I totally agree about the term rule being somewhat of a misnomer here, although I am generally of the mind that rules are made to be broken. As you suggest, whenever possible, the best approach is to explore the available options to see what works best. Happy shooting ... and many thanks for reading the blog!

Hi Steve, thanks so much  for your thoughtful comment and for sharing this artistic example. I totally agree about the term rule being somewhat of a misnomer here, although I am generally of the mind that rules are made to be broken. As you suggest, whenever possible, the best approach is to explore the available options to see what works best. Happy shooting ... and many thanks for reading the blog!

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