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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
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!

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