The third of four newsletters
about composing strong pictures

What is the 'Rule of Thirds'

The rule of thirds is an element of composition that divides the photo frame into a grid of thirds - vertically and horizontally as seen above. Simply put, that is the rule of thirds (ROTH).

For example, in the image above, the cabin is placed at the intersection of the lines to the bottom left. The snowy foreground is then placed in the lower 1/3 of the frame - the trees are placed in the upper 2/3's. These two uses of the rule of thirds (ROTH)in the same picture are classic and easy to use applications of this element of composition - it's about understanding how and when to intentionally use asymmetry in a photograph. The ROTH approach is versatile - it can be used on any subject matter from portraiture to architecture and nature. CLICK HERE to see more examples of ROTH.

When to break the rule
In the above image the horizon is located in the top third of the frame. Asymmetry creates a dynamic which leads the from the bottom to the top of the scene i.e. this arrangement contributes a sense of movement to this photograph. In this case we are also led into the scene.

This is a simple, straightforward example of one way that the ROTH is used.
When the horizon is placed in the centre of the frame we have an entirely different type of image from the one to the left. Centring creates a static feel to an image. There's little dynamic movement or energy in the frame. However, this may be what you want.

Some viewers find this type of symmetry creates a sense of strength, stability and calm. If these are qualities that you want to bring into an image then symmetry may be just the thing.
Then break the rule!
Other ways to use the rule of thirds
Placing a large object in the scene off to one side, like the ice mass to the right in the picture above, is a different way of using the ROTH. While the horizon runs through the centre of the frame, the mass to the right creates a dynamic through asymmetry; in a sense balancing out the 'weights and forces' at work in the image while still allowing 'movement' through the frame.
In the picture above (on the shores of Lake Ontario) you can see that one ice mound is placed in the left 1/3 of the image while the other mound is placed in the 2/3 on the right. A trail leads us toward the horizon. Far from being a tired cliché, when used with imagination, the ROTH is a completely flexible conceptual/visual tool that invites us to build pictures in unique, creative and individual ways.

Deliberate practice

If you are not familiar with using the rule of thirds, then carving out some time for deliberate practice will go a long way towards getting a feel for it and integrating it into your photographs. Go somewhere that has a horizon. Practice placing the horizon in the bottom third, centre and top third of the scene. Try this with vertical and horizontal camera orientation. Eventually we want to get to the point where we no longer think "now I'm going to use the rule of thirds" - it just flows naturally when it suits the situation or scene.

If you have a good feel for the rule of thirds don't write off practicing it. Instead start experimenting with it in ways that you haven't thought of before. Study the photos of others (like Mary Ellen Mark) to see how creatively they use 1/3s - for instance, try combining it with other elements of composition such as the one we looked at last week; click here to revisit the article about dominant foreground and contributing background. Have fun!

Next week I'll introduce some excellent books on composition; a subject that bears continuous study while we become better photographers.

Thank You
Many thanks for taking a look at my newsletter. You're welcome to email me with suggestions for future content, feedback, or just to say hi and keep in touch.

all the best 
contact Michael 
office 416 778 6521
mobile 647 286 1705