An Alternative Rule-of-Thirds

An Alternative Rule-of-Thirds

An alternative rule-of-thirds

Most of you will be familiar with the rule-of-thirds: the idea that you can improve composition by placing the main subject a third of the way in from the side of the frame. For those of you who haven’t heard of this, here’s a diagram showing how it works:

An alternative rule-of-thirds

The lines show the ‘thirds’. The four points where the thirds intersect are said to be good spots to position the most important parts of the image. In this photo, the bird’s eye is close to one of the intersecting points, and we can say it is composed according to the traditional rule-of-thirds.

Regardless of how much faith you place in the rule-of-thirds (there are plenty of photographers who will tell you that it is nonsense), subject placement is only part of the story when it comes to composition and creating strong images. One danger with concepts like the rule-of-thirds is that you might fail to look beyond its application towards the other factors that contribute to the creation of successful images.

Alternative #1

I rather like Cole Thompson’s version of the rule-of-thirds:

“A great image is comprised of 1/3 vision, 1/3 the shot and 1/3 processing.”

What does this mean, exactly? Statements like this are open to interpretation, but here’s my take:

Vision: This is an understanding of the fundamentals of composition, combined with an appreciation of beautiful light and an eye for an interesting subject. These come together along with world view and the sum of the photographer’s life experiences to form a personal style and a way of visually interpreting the world.

The Shot: This is where Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ and the photographer’s craft skills come together to capture an image that realises the photographer’s creative vision. It’s where the technical and creative sides of photography meet. You have vision and style on one hand, and the technical knowledge required to achieve that vision on the other. It’s about understanding which focal length lens to use, which aperture, ISO and shutter speed settings are required, how to obtain the optimum exposure and so on.

Processing: This is the work you do on your images in post-processing. It’s where you take the original Raw file and adjust the colour, contrast and tonal values to create a finished image that expresses what your creative eye originally saw. Post-processing has taken the place of traditional darkroom work and printing skills for many photographers

I encourage you to read Cole’s article on this topic. You might also like to read an interview I carried out with Cole last year.

Alternative #2

I have my own version of the rule-of-thirds, though I tend to present it in the form of a triangle:

An alternative rule-of-thirds

Let’s paraphrase Cole:

“A great image is comprised of 1/3 composition, 1/3 lighting and 1/3 technique.”

Composition: This is understanding the best way to arrange the elements of the scene within the frame to produce a pleasing result. It goes beyond the rule-of-thirds and includes concepts such as tonal contrast, colour contrast, simplicity, negative space and use of line (I’ll go into these topics in depth in future articles).

Lighting: Great photographers demand beautiful light. Anything less than that is a compromise. If something is worth photographing, it is worth doing so when the light is at its most beautiful. There are exceptions (photojournalists can hardly ask their subjects to return when the light is better, for example) but it’s a principle I place high value on.

Technique: This is the craft side of photography. It’s knowing which lens to use, which aperture to set, how to obtain the optimum exposure and how to process your Raw files to get the best possible results. This is the technical side of the craft. It may seem complex at times but it’s essential to master.

Putting it all together

Let’s take a fresh look at the opening photo and see how these ideas tie together:

An alternative rule-of-thirds

Vision: I wanted to take a portrait of a friend of mine looking out to sea at sunset. I’m familiar with the location as it’s close to my home and I’ve visited it many times. This was the starting concept for the image.

The Shot: I directed my model to look out to sea and used an 85mm lens with the aperture set to f2.8 to defocus the background.

The Processing: I used a warm colour temperature to capture the rich tones of the setting sun and darkened the edges to guide the viewer’s eye towards my model.

Composition: The horizon line is placed on a third and my model is more or less central. This composition ‘felt’ right to me – I often operate on instinct rather than try and place my subject in a specific part of the frame, such as a third. The dark rocks either side of my model provide balance.

Lighting: We shot close to sunset to capture the deep warm colours of the late afternoon sun. Light is essential to the ‘feel’ of the photo. If we had shot earlier in the day, the mood would have been very different.

Technique: I used a portrait lens set to a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus. I deliberately used natural light, rather than portable flash, to create ambience.

Mastering Photography

An alternative rule-of-thirds

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras discusses the creative triangle and other concepts in more detail.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

Some Older Comments

  • Adie Garden July 1, 2013 05:20 pm

    I like to use the rule of thirds in a focal way, taking three "items of interest" and getting the maximum focal depth into the picture using those three points manually with a lot of skill or by layering stop bracketed shots and stitching, a different type of skill, that way not only do you get your rule of thirds in the composition you use it to maximize the feel of the shot too, I find it concentrates my mind on not just the layout but the strength, feel and depth of the shot, try it with textures, 3 different textures, 3 different temperatures of light, 3 is the magic number to get creative :-)

  • Glenn July 1, 2013 03:22 pm

    Interesting perspective however these aren't really alternatives to the rule of thirds, but other things to consider. The original rule (guideline) is only about a visually pleasing composition. Or the other stuff needs to be considered of course but not under the same "rule". The thirds rule also works because it is simple, I say let's keep it that way! ...Cheers.

  • Marie July 1, 2013 11:08 am

    Great points on the Rule of Thirds!

  • digital_photog July 1, 2013 05:12 am

    Mission accomplished!! He has got a great conversation going with great comments and ideas!! Isn't that what we do best regarding rules ?? We can interpret what we see and make our own decisions. Some things work (for us) and some don't.


  • Wiltshire Paul June 29, 2013 03:03 pm

    Sorry, but this shot does nothing for me. I agree with most of the other comments here. To my amateur, untrained eye this is an awful photograph!

  • Daniel June 29, 2013 12:59 am

    The idea of the article is great. However, this final image doesn't really seem to follow that idea very well... In fact, I don't like this image having the model centred... I don't think the composition works for what you wanted...

  • Paul June 28, 2013 05:40 pm

    Not a good example .....NO detail in the sky (Wrong exposure) Either wants cropping on left side, or model needs placing more to left side,(NOT necessarily on the thirds line) Back to the drawing board.

  • Jen June 28, 2013 03:40 pm

    I'm not looking but seeing! The first view of the shot didn't feel right & proceeded to read the comments, which constantly drew me back to the shot & further understood your theory.
    The whole shot draws you in & tells the story!
    dr david jones -Yes the white of the sky...draws you back to the story- the female subject
    Dougs - Yes the subject is in the middle...allows you to see the expanse of the sea all around her (a bit like feeling alone in a room full of people)
    Allen - re sky - we have to remember that just before sunset looks different all around the world emitting very different colours at different times of the year
    WOW! What a thought provoking shot, THANK YOU!

  • Allen June 28, 2013 07:31 am

    I have to agree with the criticism as this shot does nothing for me. Would I frame it and hang it on my lounge room wall. No because I feel the background has too much blur and the so called sunset looks like smog or pollution. I don't get the "Red" bit as this seems to unbalance the colours as if there is a bit of red there needs to be a bit of green somewhere to give balance and harmony.
    I don't get having a person in the middle of such an otherwise out of focus shot as I simply think of how this would look if it was blown up to say two feet by three feet and hung on a wall. It certainly would not be good to my way of thinking but for me if the model took a step backwards and had a bit more face in the shot. Maybe if she was out of focus and the .... Nah that would not work. Sorry but I just don't like it at all. Sorry.

  • Dale Mead June 28, 2013 07:23 am

    How do I stop the follow-up comments from being emailed to me? I've seen enough. I don't check "notify me" since the first message, but it continues to notify me.

  • Jerry Schneir June 28, 2013 07:10 am

    The author of this article just doesn't get it. The rule of 3rds is solely about composition, nothing else. I don't have any objection to interjecting other things but those have NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do for or against the rule of thirds. If he titled the article "OTHER CONSIDERATIONS BESIDES THE RULE OF 3rds it would have been a more interesting article since I kept looking for valid alternatives and the author did NOT produce one valid alternative.

  • DougS June 28, 2013 06:05 am

    I understand the point of the article, but I also don't think your examples are good ones to back up your point. Perhaps something with a little less symmetry in the composition would have worked better for this.

    The reason you are told to not put a person in the middle when they are looking off to the side is because it is confusing. You don't know if you should be following their glance (out to sea) or waiting for someone to sneak up behind them and stab them (sorry, that's a gruesome interpretation, but you catch my drift).

    While it's fine to break rules sometimes, there are other times when the rules are there for a reason... A person staring off at sea is one of those times where you should stick to the rules. (in my opinion of course).

  • John Longmire June 28, 2013 05:30 am

    First off, very nice photo!

    The line of rocks across the top a quarter of the way down the image provides a nice distant location and the close rocks provide a nice middle ground, while the focus is primarily on the model... smack dab in the middle of the picture frame, dominating the foreground. I like how the rocks behind the model lead up to her like a pyramid stair step.

    The rule of thirds is pretty much intended to cover the location of the primary focus of the composition... and I agree with many of the previous commenters about your photo not meeting that particular requirement... to that end... as the others have stated, I would have moved the model back in the composition and given her some space to see the sea.
    I would keep the 2 rocks that lead up to her head from behind and the counterbalancing rock on the right, however it would require the photographer take about a step to the right.
    Also, the rocks about a quarter down from the top feels right, or they could even go up to the 1/5th position down, seeing as how the sea is the major thematic setting of the photo.

  • Chris June 28, 2013 05:23 am


    About #1 - I agree art can be interpreted in several ways. But to appeal to wider audience you need to get them looking first. If viewer is not sure what he should be looking at he will just move on.

  • Maarten June 28, 2013 04:56 am

    I think your vision is a bit vague.. Portrait of a friend looking out to see. Well, you succeeded for sure to portray someone looking at at least a shore-line. How she is a friend remains a mystery, because the photo to me doesn't seem intimate or even that she might be comfortable. She looks awkwardly stiff as if she is unable to move (she has no arms on top of that!) at that 90 degrees angle. And why is that? I mean, red is one of the strongest colors out there, so sure I notice her chest this way. Was that the idea? Why are you showing us that? Furthermore, in so far as we can see an expression it almost seems like she is gazing into the unknown, meaning, she is on her way to end herself.. And she is halfway there (she is halfway the photograph). So to me the gazing is not the subject of the photograph, but the passing by.. That she is submerged into the water further deepens that idea, there is no escape, she is suffucating as it is.. Those zen-like rocks in the water could be a relief, but in this case they are only darkening her appearance. The rocks in the upper part also have a diminishing feature to them, 'leading' to the end where is disappears..
    Look, if she is really your friend, and this is really 'her', please go help her because she is utterly depressed and in need of a real friend that won't allow her to hurt herself..
    Well, I could go on, but this is an alternative reading of the subject, the vision.
    I agree that it is fun to call all kinds of things 'rule of thirds', even if they in the end don't compare to nothing. I was just excited by the title and thought I would learn an alternative usage of the practice of the rule of thirds as I know it. Unfortunately there wasn't..

  • Edmund June 28, 2013 03:11 am

    I agree with most of the critical comments so far. The jetty is very close to the top of her head, a few steps to the left may have fixed this, and I find the model in the middle of the photo to give the whole composition an unsettling feeling, whereas I think the intention was a romantic, calming image. I also agree that the sky is washed out.

    I don't really think the author is following his own rules on any of the three Vision, Shot, Processing. Very nice lens, well focussed but why not a bit of HDR to put colour in the sky and a re-frame to put the jetty out of her hair and just a single rock on the left.

  • Dale Mead June 28, 2013 02:25 am

    My difficulty with this composition is that my eye keeps landing on those delightful rocks in the top left corner. I wonder if there would have been a way to have her stand so they were to her right, possibly even at the right side of the horizon—although that would have meant we wouldn't see the end of the rocks meeting the sea.

    ...But that would be my image, not yours.

  • Dr David Jones June 28, 2013 01:58 am

    One thing not mentioned by anyone is the white sky draws your eye directly to that upper 1/3 of the photo so that the rest of the photo is ignored as the eye doesn't see the dark image. Also not enough of the face is in view in my opinion. Agree with everyone else but art is in the eye of the beholder. Like the idea of a square crop, that might help out but the white sky still dominates.

  • michaelf June 27, 2013 08:46 am

    It would be most interesting to have seen a side-by-side comparison of the current shot and another one with the camera's perspective shifting the subject towards the left to provide her space to look into (as some have already suggested). Then we could determine which "looked" better to us (and I'm sure there would still be differences of opinion - but that's art, eh? :D ).

    I understand Andrew's comment about the rocks balancing the overall image, so I'm not going to harp on that. But a side-by-side would have been interesting to consider. Thanks!

  • Brian Fuller June 27, 2013 08:11 am

    I do agree in that I wish you could see more of where she is looking. Don't like her centered - but I don't know if maybe your alternatives would be less as well.

    I like the other 1/3 rules though. Something to think about.


  • Chris June 27, 2013 08:05 am

    I know it works for you but there is nothing left for her to look into.
    Viewer is confused which way he is supposed to look and whenever he is confused he looks away.

  • John Smith June 26, 2013 10:53 pm

    I have to respectfully disagree with the author on this one. The final "putting it all together" image just looks odd with her positioned smack in the middle. I think the subject placed in the left third looking out would definitely provide a much more pleasing picture. While it's an interesting way to think about it, you're comparing the rule of thirds (composition) to your rule of thirds (composition, lighting, technique). You're not comparing apples to apples.

  • Andrew June 26, 2013 10:32 am

    Some great points made here, but the example is not so good... A traditional 'rule of thirds' composition would have probably worked better in this instance.


  • ScottC June 26, 2013 08:23 am

    I agree with sumphotons, the composition doesn't work for me either though your points are well made in the article.

    The jetty above her is very distracting and there's no sense of a sunset in the photo, in part because of the space but mostly because the light looks more like grey overcast.

    This photo is not a true rule of thirds, it was a square crop project, and it has been criticized for subject position versus the lighting, but I think it's along the lines of your article.

  • James June 26, 2013 07:30 am

    There's a lot more to photography than that.

  • sumphotons June 26, 2013 04:11 am

    Your points are well taken. I see your point about the rocks on either side of the model providing balance. They also break the monotony of blue water. However, a different composition for the shot would have 'felt better' to me. I would have asked the model to move a few steps backwards and placed her in the left 1/3rd section such that the rocks would be in in front of her. Her silhouette would be big and dark enough to provide balance with the dark rocks and would give her 'space' to see the vast expanse of the sea. Placing her in the middle when she's looking to the right seems to 'waste' the space behind her. I would have chosen a different composition not because of strict adherence to the rule of thirds but because showing the expanse of the sea would have felt right to me.