The Basics of Composition - Part I - The Rule of Thirds

COMPOSITION IS HOW YOU USE AND ARRANGE THE VISUAL ELEMENTS IN YOUR IMAGE TO TELL A STORY TO YOUR AUDIENCE. 

"The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it." - Ansel Adams

"The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it." - Ansel Adams

Composition is like a tool box full of different tools you use to guide the viewer's eye to the important aspects of your image. What all is inside that tool box? Symmetry, balance, texture, leading lines, color, framing, the rule of thirds, viewpoint, depth, background / foreground, rule of odds, fill the frame, negative space, isolating the subject, implied movement, etc. are some of the different terms used to describe the composition in a photograph. This post is only focusing on the basics, and we're going to start with the most basic element: the Rule of Thirds. 

You can work on your composition skills no matter what camera you have. I always cringe when people ask me what camera they should buy because the camera doesn't make the photograph. The photographer does. *begin rant* It doesn't matter what camera you have when you begin - if you don't have the knowledge and understanding of how light works, of composition, and a bit of how cameras mechanically operate it doesn't matter if you have the latest professional level camera, or your cell phone. The quality of your work will be the same. *end rant*

Back in the day when I was getting into photography, the Rule of Thirds was my obsession. Every single image I captured followed the Rule of Thirds. I lived on a happy Rule-of-Thirds cloud and couldn't understand why everyone wasn't swooning over every single one of my images like they were the perfection I saw them to be. The issue was that I was only looking at one aspect of the image, and they were looking at the photograph as a whole. My point is that using the Rule of Thirds won't automatically make you an amazing photographer, but it is one tools that you need to know how, and when, to use. It has became so ingrained in my image creation process that you can see the rule of thirds in almost every all of my wedding photography. It's now automatic when I'm photographing weddings to look for various scenes that I can apply the Rule of Thirds to. It's not just for wedding photography, though. The Rule of Thirds applies to all aspects of photography, and all other aspects of visual art.


Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds seems to be the first "rule" of composition that everyone discovers. It's simple, can be used in virtually any situation, and is the perfect introduction to composition. 

Below are two images, one with a grid overlay and one without. Take a few moments to look at the image without the grid and take note of what you see. When the human eye / brain looks at an image it is traveling across the image in various ways, depending on the various compositional elements in the photograph. This all happens in our brains within a split second, so it can take some practice to be able to pay attention to how you are looking at an image. What part of the image is your eye drawn to? Where do you look first? Then, where is your eye traveling? Write this down, we'll be coming back to it in a second.

You see the grid I've placed on top of the second image, two vertical lines and two horizontal lines? It breaks the image into a horizontal top third section, middle third, bottom third, and then vertically a left, right and middle third. This grid is the visual representation of the Rule of Thirds. Some cameras, as well as the crop tool in most photo editing programs can be set to show this overlay while you're photographing or cropping. Lightroom and Photoshop both have this option.

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds in Portraiture

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds in Portraiture

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds in Portraiture

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds in Portraiture

The Rule of Thirds can be used two ways. The first is to place your subject along one of the vertical or horizontal lines. In the image above, you can see I've placed Ryder, the model, along the right vertical line. While she is looking to the right, her body is facing the open space to the left which is keeping the image balanced (more on that in Part II). By placing Ryder along one of the Rule of Thirds lines I'm letting the viewer know exactly what to look at.

The second way to use the Rule of Thirds is also applied in this image. Look at the four points on the grid where vertical and horizontal lines intersect. These are the four areas of the photograph where a subject will pop from. Notice how Ryder's right eye is almost exactly in the top right intersection. That location was chosen on purpose. 

Think back to when you first looked at this photograph, and what you looked at first. How your eye traveled through the image. While it won't be exactly the same for everyone, chances are pretty good that you first looked at her face and the white shirt, and last at the rest of image. As a photographer, you use the rule of thirds to tell your viewers what to look at in the image. What the subject is.


This next image is a portrait of Los Angeles in early morning. Notice where the horizon is - along that bottom horizontal line. Two thirds of this image is just empty sky, well it's filled with smog but it's visually empty. When you look at this image, what do you take away from it? How does placing the horizon along the bottom third line of the image help provide a narrative, a story within the image?

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds in Landscape

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds in Landscape

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds in Landscape

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds in Landscape

When most people think of LA, they think of the hustle and bustle of one of the biggest cities in America. Hollywood, very high end retail stores, horrible traffic, etc. Yet this image has none of that. So what is it about? I'm forcing the viewer to confront the largeness and urbanness (is that a word?) of LA in a very different way. You can't see much of the city, yet you can tell that it extends off into the smog. You can't tell where it ends, only that you aren't seeing all of it. The trees in the foreground frame the city below (more on framing in further posts). Some may see this as an environmental photograph, others as a really bad representation of LA as it's not recognizable as that specific city. I see it as a visual representation of my trip to LA. I encountered more of nature than I expected to, I traveled through many parts of LA that aren't recognizable (except to locals) as part of that city. There is much more to the city than what meets the eye. And the smog? There is a lot of it. 


Looking at this next image, see if you find where the Rule of Thirds is being applied. Without cheating and looking at the gridded image, if possible. 

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

The front lip of the mug is right along that top rule of thirds line. The fact that it's the only part of the image that is in focus also helps draw your eye to that part of the image. By combining a shallow depth of field and the angle being where the front lip is closer to the camera than the rest of the mug (we'll get to those concepts in later posts), with the Rule of Thirds I am forcing the viewer to start looking at this image at the front lip of the lens mug. There is also an obvious contrast between the silver edge of the mug and the dark brown of the coffee inside it. This also helps draw your eye to this spot. You then see the coffee in the mug, and then your eyes travel down the mug as you realize it's designed like a camera lens, and finally landing on the magazine the mug is resting on. You can't really tell what the magazine is, and it doesn't matter in this image. The focus is that it's a lens mug with coffee in it - a photographer is starting their day.

Notice how I'm only using the horizontal part of the Rule of Thirds in this image. Vertically, the mug is centered in the frame and there is nothing to focus on when you look at the right and left third lines. There is nothing of interest at the four points where the vertical and horizontal lines intersect. There are so many different ways to use the Rule of Thirds in your photography.


Take a look at this next image. Take a moment to figure out where your eyes go in the image, what you're drawn to look at, and then compare it to the gridded image and analyze it for the Rule of Thirds.

What decisions do you think I made while composing this image? And what story is this image telling, based on the composition?

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

The top third of the image is empty space, the middle third is Saterra's hair and forehead, her eyes rest along that horizontal bottom third line, and the bottom third of the image consists of the rest of her face, and some fabric. The most striking thing about this image, in my opinion, is Saterra's gaze. Her eyes are staring straight into the viewer, and while you don't know anything about her you feel like she knows something about you. She has messy hair, her face is partially covered by see-through fabric, and you have no idea what is going on. Is she seducing you? Is she about to attack you? It's impossible to tell. By choosing to not include more of her body I've specifically created an image that makes you stop and wonder what is going on. Who is this woman and what is her story? While she isn't threatening, she is very mysterious. Had I placed her eyes along the top third horizontal line in the image you would have seen more of her body, her clothing, and you'd have more information to make a decision on who she is. That is not what I wanted, when creating this image. I wanted the sense of mystery, I wanted the viewers to stop and try to figure out who she was and what was going on. 


What do I want you to look at? What do I want you to be thinking about when you look at these images? How have I used the Rule of Thirds to achieve my goal? The important thing to remember is The Rule of Thirds is only one tool used in these images.

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

The viewer follows the dog's gaze out between the curtains. While you can't see what he is looking at, you can tell he is relaxed and comfortable. There is no urgency, no alarm. There is a sense that all is right, there are no threats. With respect to the Rule of Thirds - his eyes and gaze are along the bottom third of the image, however notice that I chose to place his eyes in the middle of the image (not on the left or right third). This leaves enough of the image on the left to give you information on the dogs body language. Had I placed his eyes in the bottom left intersection, shifting the image to the left, it would have left too much empty space on the right and the story would have been more about what the dog was looking at, instead of about the dog himself. Had I placed his eyes further to the right, at the bottom right intersection, it would have lessened the mystery of what the dog was seeing out the window. This composition tells the story of both the dogs mood in this moment, and leaves the viewer with a bit of wonder at what he's looking at.

Why did I choose the bottom third of the image to place my subject? Because that leaves the top third for the curtains. I could have placed the dog the middle or top of the image, which would have showed more couch and less curtains, but this image is not about the room the dog is in. It's about the mood of the dog, and the world outside that he is looking at. 

Do you agree or disagree with this analysis? The amazing thing about art is that it is subjective. Everyone that looks at this image is looking through the lens of their life experiences, and as an artist it's virtually impossible to know exactly what moment in their own life a viewer may be taken back to while looking at my work. 


The Gulf of Mexico at sunrise, down at Padre Island National Seashore. It's fair to argue that the Rule of Thirds wasn't even applied here, but I disagree. The small mounds of sand in the foreground are positioned along the bottom third line, but what, if anything, does it add to the image? I really want you to gather your own opinions before I launch off into mine, so please do that first, then continue reading below the images.

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

Example of use of the Rule of Thirds

So, what do you think of this image? Does the Rule of Thirds play a major role in it? Personally, I don't feel it plays quite as large of a role as it does in other images above. While the bottom third of the image is where the subject, the two mounds of sand, are, I would have to argue that the overall color and use of the light in the image plays a much more important role than the Rule of Thirds. The early morning light coming from the left, casting the shadows on the mounds of sand, makes them appear much larger than life, almost playing an optical illusion on the viewer as they try and figure out what they're actually looking at. The shallow depth of field (blurriness of the background) adds to this as the viewer searches around the image for clues as to what they're looking at. The one important aspect, relating to the Rule of Thirds, is that the bottom third below the mounds of sand is very plain, empty of objects. This helps focus the viewer on the mounds of sand while providing some environmental clues as to where the mounds of sand are.


Applying the Rule of Thirds

Ask yourself the following questions while photographing to practice the Rule of Thirds:

  • What is the subject in this photograph?
  • Where am I placing the subject?
  • How does where I place the subject help tell the story that is in this photograph?

Ask yourself these questions AS you're shooting, while you're looking through the viewfinder. Also ask yourself these questions when you're looking at your photographs the next day, the next week, etc. What is the story you're telling in the photograph, and does use of the Rule of Thirds help tell this story? Or does it make it hard to tell the story? Go look at the work of a photographer who inspires you. Can you see the rule of thirds in any of their work? 

Are there times when you should NOT use the Rule of Thirds? 

Yes. YES. Very yes. These are all examples of when the Rule of Thirds would have hurt the overall composition of the image, instead of helping it. The Rule of Thirds has to be broken for some images to work, but until you have learned how to use the Rule of Thirds you won't be able to tell if brekaing it, or using it, will make the stronger image.

Example of when not to use the Rule of Thirds

Example of when not to use the Rule of Thirds

Example of when not to use the Rule of Thirds

Example of when not to use the Rule of Thirds

Example of when not to use the Rule of Thirds

Example of when not to use the Rule of Thirds

Example of when not to use the Rule of Thirds

Example of when not to use the Rule of Thirds

While the twine on the wedding invitation above isn't centered, it also isn't along the top third line. It's un-centered enough to create visual interest. With equal the border of leaves around the invitation, I knew that it would be a very boring photograph with the twine either centered, or along the 1/3 line. It would feel forced and less natural, so I broke the rule of thirds. The focus in the second image is the back of the bride's dress, and the light playing across her back. While the composition is deliberate, the rule of thirds is completely vacant in this image. Overlaying the grid makes no sense, and neither of these photographs follow the Rule of Thirds at all.

The only way you'll ever know when it's appropriate to use the Rule of Thirds is through practice, experimentation, and receiving honest critique of your work. Personally, I use the rule of thirds a lot in my work. More specifically, I typically use the bottom and right parts of the image for my subject and the top and left parts of the image to help portray the environment / context clues as to what the image is about. 

Go forth and make some photographs! Experiment with the different ways you can apply the Rule of Thirds in your work!


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