Photo Basics – Composition III

In the last instalment, we looked at a millenia-old compositional tool called the Golden Mean.  This time we’re going to look at one that’s popular more in photography and also can be a bit controversial.  It’s called The Rule of Thirds. I know, there’s that nasty “rule” word. Despite the name, again, think of it as a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule. The reason it’s one of the most basic is because it’s so simple to implement. The reason it’s so controversial is because some treat it like a dogmatic edict from the Mount Olympus of Photographic Art and think every image must adhere to it without wavering in the slightest. The simple part is true. The dogmatic edict part is pure codswallop. Or as some of my UK friends would say, bollocks.

Let’s take a look at what the “Guideline” of Thirds says.

What you do is divide up your frame (viewfinder) into a grid that, effectively, looks like a tic-tac-toe game. You divide the frame up into thirds vertically and horizontally.  Essentially what you’re going is creating something that looks like a tic-tac-toe game board.

Rule of Thirds Grid (click for larger version)

Some cameras have lines in the viewfinder to help with this and some cameras have accessory viewfinders available that have the grid lines.  It sort of looks like the Golden Mean grid, doesn’t it?  Sure it does.  The biggest difference is that with the Rule of Thirds, the divisions are equal which is not the case with the Golden Mean.  Some have referred to the Rule of Thirds as a lazy interpretation of the Golden Mean. The crop tool in Lightroom, Adobe Camera RAW and Photoshop have the Thirds grid to assist in using the guideline when editing images.

To use it is quite simple and very much similar to the Golden Mean.  The idea is that we place important scene elements along one of these lines.  What this does is help keep those important aspects of the image out of the centre and helps create that visual movement in the image.  We can also place a primary scene element on one of the intersecting points and a secondary scene element on one of the other points.  This also helps create visual movement and provide a path for the viewer’s eyes to follow.  We can use one of the horizontal lines, for example, to place a horizon.  We can use one of the vertical lines to place a wall or tree line.  We can use one of the intersection points to place the eye of a portrait subject.

In the case of the image below, the upper shelf of the waterfall is placed very nearly on the upper horizontal line of the grid.  This gives room for the waterfall to flow down to the bottom of the image.  If the upper shelf had been placed on the bottom line, the waterfall would have been cut off and there would have been too much tree/sky in the image.  The shelf of the waterfall would have acted as a cutoff and stopped the viewer’s eye movement. If this were an image with a horizon line as between ground and sky or water and sky, which line you put the horizon on would depend on where the important scene elements were.  If you have strong foreground elements, then placing the horizon on the upper line would allow those strong foreground elements to be in full view and pull the viewer into the image.  The reverse is true of the upper part of the image had the stronger elements.

Thirds Grid (click for larger version)

In the next image, the lighthouse is placed on the right side with the lamp room pretty much right on the intersecting point.  This placement allows the lighthouse to act as the anchor for the image and denotes it as the most important scene element.  The viewer’s eye then moves from it to the left to take in the other buildings.  You can also see that the beach line has been placed on the lower horizontal line.  This gives sufficient headroom at the top of the lighthouse and prevents it from being cut off or crowding the top of the image.  It also creates an ‘L-shape’ with the lighthouse which is another compositional tool we’ll look into later in the series.

Thirds Grid (click for larger version)

So that’s a breakdown of the Rule of Thirds.  Like any of the other tools discussed in this series, it’s a guideline and not a ‘rule’.  Use it, don’t use it as you see fit and as it works or doesn’t work for your intended purpose and message.  As always, feedback is most welcomed.

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