Basic Composition - Rule of Thirds

When something has captured your attention and desire to photograph it, you look at it through the camera’s viewfinder or back panel. At this point, you are viewing the scene within the confines of the camera’s frame. This is where rules of composition come into the picture. The term “rules of composition” seems like an oxymoron, especially in art.  But here is the thing, an artist's personal vision relies on the rules of composition because the rules work aesthetically, and they apply very well to nature photography. Probably the most important composition rule and the one I consistently use (but also have learned I can break it now and then) is the rule of thirds.

Basically, rule of thirds describes how a scene can be divided horizontally and vertically, as illustrated above. If you have a camera, you may have seen this grid in the viewfinder or back panel. The lines are guides to help you create a balanced and aesthetically pleasing composition. In fact, the four intersections indicate the areas for placing important elements in the composition. Quite often, when I compose a scene, I am making every effort to place certain elements on one of these intersections or very close to them. Here are a couple more examples.

What is it about the rule of thirds that make it so appealing? Basically, it has to do with how the human eyes work. Certain scenes tend to draw our eyes in and keep our attention. A strong element like a bird’s eye, a rock on the beach or a colorful object that sits one third from the left or right and one third from the top or bottom gives the scene a dynamic quality that is missing when the same object is set in the middle. We look at the object and it leads us into the scene. An object in the middle appears static and does not lead the eyes anywhere.

Placing an object on one of the four intersections is an effective way to use the rule of thirds and this can also apply to the horizon line as seen above. When placing the horizon line one third from the bottom or the top, the eyes are drawn into the scene rather than settling on a horizon line placed in the middle.

In addition to horizon lines, I rely heavily on the rule of thirds guidelines to divide a scene into three parts with the intent of creating balance. Look at the image above and the one below where I used the guidelines to frame the significant elements in the scene for balance.

After downloading an image for editing, you may find that cropping will give the image more impact and visual balance by using the rule of thirds guidelines. Check out the two images below, the first one is the original and the second one was cropped. What do you think? I  could go either way, but I do like the cropped version more.

Not to confuse the issue, below is one more example to show you how the rule of thirds works effectively without being obvious. Note the tree is dead center, a static position. Yet, the scene is quite dynamic given the surrounding shapes, textures and colors that are distinguishable by the rule of thirds guidelines.

Rules are also meant to be broken on occasion but in my experience, the rule of thirds is a strong one that should always be considered when composing a scene or when cropping an image in post processing. Of course, there are many things that attract us to an image without the rule of thirds, but I highly recommend you train your eye while using the rule of thirds grid in your viewfinder.

If you are interested in learning more about camera or editing techniques, I offer individualized instructions in the field as well as in Photoshop. Please visit my website to learn more about these workshops or contact me at with any questions.