Rule of Thirds

You’re dead wrong if you think the objective of the rule of thirds is imbalance. This is the first “rule” of composition many photographers learn, and for the rest of their lives they abuse it and misuse it without really understanding how and why it works.

Doing the technique

The rule of thirds in composition tells us to place the focal point of our picture on one of the four lines or four “crash points” (intersection of two lines).

a dividing line that runs across the frame such as a horizon or a row of townhouses may be placed on one of the four imaginary lines (Photo 1). Whether we place the horizon on the bottom third or the upper third depends on which part—the sky or the water/land—contains detail we want to emphasize.

Photo 1Photo 1: A horizon may be placed on one of the four tic-tac-toe lines.

While we can also place a small subject along any of these four lines, a much stronger composition is to place it on a crash point.

Large subjects that practically fill the frame need a bit of work. Since they can’t obviously be placed on an imaginary line or crash point, we position an important part of the subject on a crash point. for example, we frame a head-and-shoulders portrait so that the eyes—the most part of the face—fall on a crash point (Photo 2).Photo 2Photo 2: Important parts of the subject are ideally placed on a crash point.

Other subjects may not have a universally accepted “important part or aspect,” or their important parts may be too large to position over a crash point. In such cases, we can arbitrarily decide for the viewer which is the important part by placing that on a crash point.

Be aware that the rule of thirds is just a guideline, and that not all photographs must conform to it:

• Some subjects may be better shot dead center and placed centrally in the picture (symmetrical composition) to call attention to their visual balance— for example, a closeup of a circular shell or leaf, or an edgewise shot of a suspension bridge. (Photos 3 and 4)Photo 3Photo 3: Symmetrical subjects, if the subject is their symmetry, are better shot dead center.
Photo 4Photo 4: Like in Photo 3, a symmetrical subject whose backdrop is not part of the composition is best placed dead center to play up the symmetry.

• If your subject is on a neutral background (white, black, or gray) that has no depth (Photo 5), it may be better to place it dead center and let lighting, viewpoint, and positioning (Photo 6) inject the pictorial values.

Photo 5Photo 5: A subject against a neutral-colored backdrop with no depth is best placed dead center with lighting, positioning, and viewpoint
Photo 6Photo 6: Creating the pictorial interest, not a rule of thirds placement.

• We don’t have to measure the nine sections precisely. Our crash point may be a bit off the absolute crash point, and the horizon need not be right on top of a tic-tac-toe line.

Misunderstanding the technique art students are taught compositional balance by taking the whole canvas into account—subject, background, canvas edges. Unfortunately, photography students are not afforded the luxury of this knowledge, but are taught simply that asymmetrical balance is more dynamic than symmetrical balance. The concept of “balance,” however, requires at least two elements, not just one, which photographers often overlook.

Photo 7

Photo 7: Shows better compositional balance because the rock at bottom right keeps the eye within the frame and acts as counterbalance to the waterfalls.

Photo 5 is an example, commonly done by novice photographers. Though it follows the rule of thirds to the letter, it is uninteresting and is no better than a snapshot. The subject just lies there, and does not interact with the the non-subject space—the background. It has nothing to balance with, and is therefore asymmetrical for no reason.

Non-subject space is called negative space, and its function is to define the shape and flow of the positive space (the object). art classes usually show a black-and-white negative silhouette of the artwork to demonstrate the interaction between negative and positive space.

Photo 7 shows better compositional balance because the negative space flows around the subject, defining it and acting as bridge between the positive space and the frame edges. There is interaction and balance among all three elements, something Photo 5 does not have. In other words, placing a subject on

A crash point or tic-tac-toe line is just one-third of the principle. The other two-thirds is getting the non-subject (negative) space to interact with it and define its shape, and letting the frame (rectangle, oval, or irregular) define and interact with both the positive and negative spaces. Visual balance is in the interaction of the three elements, not just in the positioning of the subject.

In addition to being misused, the rule of thirds is often abused by photographers who take it to extremes.

Photo 8 is a typical example. The photographer has surmised that if one-third placement is dynamic composition, one-fifth must be much better. Placement of subjects a fourth or a fifth of the way into the picture is not wrong in itself, but requires more work because the picture must balance one-fifth with four-fifths! Because the subjects of Photos 5 and 9 do not interact with the negative space and frame to create visual balance, the result is a skewed rather than dynamic balance.

Photo 8Photo 8: The photographer has wrongly surmised that if one-third imbalance is dynamic composition, one-fifth must be much better.

Understanding the technique

By this time (although the concept of negative space will take time to sink in) it is imperative that you understand the reason behind the rule of thirds, if you are to apply it properly and effectively.

On the surface, the rule seems to prescribe asymmetry or imbalance for its own sake. This is wrong. The objective of the rule of thirds is complete balance, not imbalance; however, it is dynamic balance, not symmetrical balance. In art and design, dynamic balance is vigorous and kinetic; symmetrical balance is uninteresting and static.

When there is balance between the positive and negative spaces, the whole picture comes together as one element. Photo 5 is not a whole picture, it is just an object lying there.

The purpose of proper composition is to focus the eye on the subject, bring it around the rest of the photograph and back to the subject. This is dynamic balance. Imbalanced photographs such as Photo 8 suck the eye toward the object and hold it there. Co-equal subjects, on the other hand, swing the eye back and forth from one to the other; there is balance, but it is symmetrical, not dynamic.

It all seems so complicated, but all you really need to remember when applying the rule of thirds is to ask yourself: how does the other two-thirds of the picture balance with the one- third?

Photo 9Photo 9 is a rule of thirds placement gone to waste, because the background provides no depth and no additional information.
Photo 10Photo 10, provides a better crop, which dispenses with the background, places the dragonfly on a tic-tac-toe line and creates strong diagonals.
Photo 11Photo 11. The purpose of proper composition is to focus the eye on the subject, bring it around the rest of the photograph and back to the subject. This is dynamic balance.
 Photo 12Photo 12, above, is skewed because the photographer has misunderstood the rule of thirds and taken it literally.
Photo 13Photo 13, left, suggests a better crop.

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