Mastering The Rule Of Thirds For Beautiful Compositions

Text and Photography by Chuck Place

When I first started to get serious about my photography, I would go out for a few days photographing landscapes and come home totally exhausted. Just the mental process of creating a balanced compositions with my 4×5 view camera would wear me out. It was tough!

sand dunes in thirds composition

sand dunes in thirds composition

I once heard Earnst Haas, a pioneer of color photography, say that his process for composition was moving everything until it feels right. After a few years shooting thousands of images, Ernst Haas’ approach to photographic composition made sense, but in the beginning–it didn’t help much. What did help was stumbling on something painters had used for centuries—the rule of thirds.

The theory goes like this. If you split your composition into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, your main subject should fall on one of those lines or the intersection of two lines. Simple. This keeps your primary subject out of the center of the frame, which is rather static, and produces a more dynamic balance to your composition. Admittedly, this is a loose framework for composing an image, but it really isn’t meant to be a ridged structure. Let’s look at some examples.

Rule of Thirds Composition in Portraits

Rule of Thirds Composition in Portraits

My students often turn in portraits with the subject’s face dead center in the frame. This is often referred to as “Sniper School” for obvious reasons and the portrait often feels a bit “dead”. Moving the model’s eyes to the upper third line creates a better balance to the image. We have moved the subject out of the center of the frame “until it feels right”.

cholla cactus in thirds composition

cholla cactus in thirds composition

Landscapes follow the same steps of moving things around, or moving the camera around, until the balance feels right. In this case the foreground brittlebush flowers in Joshua Tree National Park fill the bottom half, middle ground fills the middle third and background the upper third. Remember, this is a loose framework.

carver rule of thirds composition

carver rule of thirds composition

In the above example of a wood carver in Oaxaca, Mexico, the carver is placed on the right hand third and balanced with extra carvings on the left. In this case, I did actually move things around until it felt balanced. It creates a diagonal flow when the image is viewed.

joshua trees at sunset in thirds composition

joshua trees at sunset in thirds composition

Even a simple silhouette of joshua trees at dawn benefits from the rule of thirds. Two groups of joshua trees are positioned in the upper right intersection and the lower left intersection with mountains in the background giving me a visually heavy base to support all the branching . This produces a much more dynamic composition than placing them all at the same level.

And always keep in mind–this is just the start of learning how to compose powerful images. You will break this rule as often as you use it. Like all rules of composition, just keep “moving everything until it feels right”. Words to live by.