Composition: The Rule of Thirds

Shawn M. Kent "Solitude" (2001) CC by-nc-sa

Shawn M. Kent “Solitude” (2001) CC by-nc-sa

It is essential that developing photographers have a firm understanding on compositional principles. This is the first in a series of articles where we will be talking about the rules of composition. Starting with the very basics and working up to the more complex. This first tutorial will talk about the classic rule of thirds composition rule.

Now this is the part of the tutorial where we say the obligatory “there are no rules in photography”.

I hate that statement. Of course there are rules! Rules are broken all the time, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valid rules, or that you should ignore them. They exist for a reason and this article will dissect those reasons.

As well this is not a tutorial written only for beginners. I meet many pro photographers who only know the very basic concepts of the rule of thirds. For that reason I have tried to go as in depth as possible to dissect the principle.

The Rule of Thirds

In the world of photography there is no more ubiquitous a rule than the rule of thirds. It is known by many names, including the golden ration, golden mean and golden rule.

In simple terms the rule of thirds is a reference to the idea of breaking your frame into thirds to create 9 separate areas like so:

Figure 1 - Rule of Thirds Animation

Figure 1 – Rule of Thirds Animation

The photographer then places his subject (the portion he wishes to draw interest to) either along one of the lines or at the intersection of the lines produced by them (Figure 1). These intersections are often called crash points, or hot points. This principle applies to all visual communication including painting, graphic design and photography.

This is the conventional usage of the rule of thirds. This rule of composition is so ubiquitous in photography that a number of cameras and imagery software products have the ability to overlay the grid on the images.

 

Why The Rule of Thirds?

So why is this visually appealing, why the rule of thirds?

In essence all things that are visually appealing come down to psychology. Intuitively we have a desire to create order out of chaos. Essentially a visually appealing image is at it’s essence an arrangement of shapes and forms. By placing these images in an ordered format our mind, in some way experiences a calming effect. In an attempt to understand cognition we can state that the mental action of acquiring knowledge or information is best achieved in a comforting environment. Order from chaos effects the nature of memory and mental structures. By making an image easy to dissect visual information with visual cues of order we minimize stress and fatigue on the viewers mind.

Figure 2 - The Golden Ratio, Subdivision with Graphic Elements

Figure 2 – The Golden Ratio, Subdivision with Graphic Elements

That order comes down to a mathematical relationship. The use of an image element bisecting a frame into that of thirds divides an image in a mathematical way. This ratio is called the “Golden Ratio” and is when the sum of the quantities to the larger quantity is equal to the ratio of the larger quantity to the smaller one (Figure 2). In essence the rule of thirds subdivides our image frame into portions that have a reciprocal relationship with other parts of the frame. The larger is larger by a double of the smaller. In essence we have created an order out of chaos.

This order has the effect of creating a subconscious sense of balance and order in the image. This is not to say that the rule of thirds is intended to divide an image into only two parts, but this is a good starting point. The reciprocal relationship of image elements creates a mathematically harmonious balance which is calming to a viewer.

Figure 3 - Örvar Atli Þorgeirsson "Emergency Shelter" (Source: Flickr)

Figure 3 – Örvar Atli Þorgeirsson “Emergency Shelter” (Source: Flickr)

How Else Can the Rule of Thirds Be Employed?

The rule of thirds is much more than simple image bisection. We can use the rule of thirds in all sorts of different ways to engage our viewer. We can establish visual hierarchy, separate the image into sections, achieve harmonious symmetry and more. In addition there are derivatives of the rule of thirds that have application. In this section we will discuss a couple ways that you can use the rule of thirds in your imagery in the conventional and unconventional sense.

 

 

More On Crash Points

 

Figure 3 - Using Crash Points for Visual Flow

Figure 3 – Using Crash Points for Visual Flow

Sometimes called “hot points”, “intersection points”, or “power points”; crash points are the locations in an image where the lines created by the rule of thirds intersect. By placing your key elements at these crash points you draw immediate interest for your viewer. In a weird way we are conditioned to look to these quadrants for visual reference. We subdivide in our minds and look to visual cues at the crash points.

There is a hierarchy to crash points, and because we read from left to right, top to bottom (in North America and Europe at least) we can create a visual flow for our viewer. If your elements follow a logical sequence of visual cues all the better. This is not to say that you require elements of interest at each crash point, but understanding that visual flow can benefit your images greatly.

You will note that in the example (Figure 3) the visual flow takes on an order of importance. In the top left quadrant we have placed the primary subject’s eye; the second quadrant is what the subject is focused on; the third is left empty; and the fourth brings the viewer to a conclusion. Not all your images will be structured in this way, and this is not to say that this is a remarkable shot. However it does detail visual flow using crash points.

You may choose reverse visual flow to create an unconventional visual interest and challenge the viewer. Alternately you may choose to use only one visual element at a crash point.  The point is that the “rule” is actually a tool.  A tool with which you can manipulate the psychology of the viewer.

Image Sectioning

The rule of thirds can also be used to bisect an image both horizontally and vertically. This can be achieved by placing an object or subject in a manner that fills (for the most part) the middle third, or finding forms in your viewfinder that divide the image in some way along the invisible third lines. The most common and conventional usage of this is in portraiture (vertical division) and landscape photography (horizontal division). In portraiture the subject is placed center frame and his torso divides the remainder. In landscape photography the horizon line is place along a horizontal third line.

Figure 4 - Sven Seiler "Blue World"

Figure 4 – Sven Seiler “Blue World”

In Figure 4, German photographer Sven Seilier has done a terrific job of dividing his image into thirds using architectural elements. A wonderful image that uses a variety of compositional techniques that are layered on top of a base division of thirds. A link to more of his work can be found below.

Fulcrum

Example of Fulcrum

Figure 5 -Fulcrum Example by Sgt. Matthew McGregor – Canadian Forces Combat Camera

Occasionally you will have two different sized elements in the image. Typically one of these elements will be dominant, and the other subordinate. Using fulcrum is a way to balance an image that would appear heavy on one side if you were to simple align the elements on the thirds. Figure 5 is an image by the very talented Sgt. Matthew McGregor. You will note that the image maintains a sense of balance despite the significant size different of it’s subjects. This is because Matt has used the technique of fulcrum to resolve the imbalance created by these size contrasting elements.  To understand the concept, imagine a heavier child and lighter child on a see saw. To balance the see-saw, the heavier child must move closer to the centre to balance the instability. In this image Matt has done just that, he has moved the large element (the SAR tech on the ground), closer to the centre of the frame. The subjects are still off centre, but in essence he has visually balanced out his image thirds division to compensate for the varying sizes of disparate elements. It still has the compositional hallmarks of the conventional rule of thirds, but this minor adjustment has resulted in a vastly improved composition.

Conclusion

As you can see there is a lot of theory behind the rule of thirds. This is just the very first of the compositional rules and we have but scraped the tip of the metaphorical iceberg of composition. Stay tuned for more on composition!

 

Image Credit Links:

In an effort to give full credit to the photographers kind enough to license there work under creative commons so I can use them in demonstrations above. Please show your support by visiting their galleries:

Örvar Atli Þorgeirsson – www.arcticphoto.is

Sven Seiler – www.4eye.org

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One Comment

  1. Sven Seiler May 7, 2012 at 8:17 pm #

    Hey Shawn,

    just found your page due to a Google search. Thanks for talking that kind about my photo “The blue world”.

    I just start reading in your tutorials and so far I can state, that I really like them. Will continue :-)

    Greetings from Bochum, Germany
    Sven