The 'Odd Rule' of Composition

The ‘Odd Rule’ of Composition

“Odd numbers are better than even ones in photography.”

. Perhaps it’s about the balance that odd numbers create (there’s always one thing in the centre to give balance)?

I find that three objects in a shot are particularly good. Five, Seven or more can work but you run the risk of clutter.

Give it a try – it works!

This tip was submitted by one of our readers – ‘Rachel’. If you’ve got a digital photography tip to share with the DPS community contact us with Your Tip.

Read more from our category

Guest Contributor This post was written by a guest contributor to dPS.
Please see their details in the post above.

Become a Contributor: Check out Write for DPS page for details about how YOU can share your photography tips with the DPS community.

Some Older Comments

  • Bobgood1 March 12, 2013 08:44 am

    This rule is true, not only in photography, but in hanging picture frames, paintings. Knick-nacks are also displayed in odd numbers. For some reason the " Visual," effect is stunning.

  • MikeC366 February 16, 2012 02:25 am

    Odd 95% of the time works for me. I mostly look for odd numbers.
    Here is a shot from last week at the Yorkshire Sculpture park.


  • Jeff Carter October 4, 2011 04:42 am

    This makes perfect sense to people that are able to see the world in terms oh Phi. Others have referenced it, but no one really suggested how the golden ratio applies to an image. First of all let's just approximate that the golden ratio (Phi) is 1:1.6. If the distance between AB is 1, and the distance between BC is 1.6, Phi is achieved. If the distance between CD is 1.6 more compared to BC, Phi is achieved again, etc.

    In this image, depending on how I measure the distance between the boys, the ratio comes out anywhere from 1:1.15 to 1:1.20. It's not the golden ratio, but it approaches it. Interestingly, however, the ratio between the distance from the top of the sky and the horizon compared to the distance from the horizon to the bottom of the shadows (heads) is 1:1.6. The ratio between the distance from the shadow feet to the shadow heads compared to the distance from the shadow heads to the bottom of the photo is 1:1.7.

    This is why I think having multiple subjects (if not just an odd number of) or thoughtfully placed individual subjects in a photo can make it more interesting. Rule of thirds is an easy for beginners to grasp, and eventually start thinking slightly differently about composition as it relates to the golden ratio.

    Trey Ratcliff gives a behind-the-scenes example of setting up a scene to achieve the golden ratio for an HDR composite of three monoliths (there's your odd number of subjects ). Check it out:

  • Kaotikjezta September 24, 2011 08:16 am

    Here is an example of the rule of thirds, the reflection is in the bottom third of the frame and the largest tree is in the side half hence if you drew a line down the middle to the top of the water, then across the top of the water the picture would be cut in thirds and the subjects framed using the rule of thirds:

  • Krista September 24, 2011 01:48 am

    Has anyone heard of fibonacci numbers? Leonardo of Pisa aka "Fibonacci" came up with a number sequence some time around 1200, the pattern: 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34... the formula is basically adding the previous two numbers to equall the next sum (1+1=2, 1+2=3, ect) Although i'm unable to explain this thoroughly, I know that this pattern can be found in almost all living things, and is pleasing to the eye. If you were to look at nature patterns i.e number of pedels on a flower, the total would be a fibonacci number. Because these numbers are pleasing, art began following this sequence. That is why 3 looks better than 4 in my opinion. I have also noticed in my photography that I naturally shoot objects with this pattern just because it's naturally appealing. Look him up, maybe you will understand this amazing set of numbers better, because there is so much more depth into the system.

  • Karese September 23, 2011 11:47 pm

    Even in decorating, I was told that placing 3 items on my end tables gave a pleasing balanced look.

  • Dave R September 23, 2011 06:52 pm

    Hey, are there not 6 figures in that image?!!!!

  • Dave Tunstall September 23, 2011 06:33 pm

    If you think about it in the way the mind processes what it sees then the number of objects is as follows
    1. Sole centre of focused attention drawing in the eye
    2. We instinctively want to create two halves and either balance or counterwieght one against the other
    3. The smallest number of items required to make a shape - the triangle, the rule of thirds - it's not only everywhere but the number is small enough for us to count and process each of the elements
    4. Again we instinctively try to balance these in to quarters and create something geometric we recognise - a square, diamond, rhomboid we almost make the items a pattern or frame
    5. This is the largest number of objects the brain can see and know how many there are without having to count, above this we have to work to look at each object, recognise it and count it which is why it appears cluttered.

    So I guess "odd rules" because it's pleasing on the eye without us trying to subconsciously process it into something else

  • Chantal September 23, 2011 05:29 pm

    @Denise .... I do photographh instinctually and I think I knew this "rule" in the back of mind all along, but I haven't actually heard of the odd-rule before, even though I do know about the rule of thirds and the golden ratio. Even if this is a photography site, I think this tip is still helpful to someone who didn't know about it before. Don't just assume we've all learnt the same thing in elementary school.
    I agree with what Wayne Bretl said as well.

  • Wayne Bretl September 23, 2011 01:17 pm

    If you have been doing this instinctively all your life, that doesn't mean that you have been conscious of it! So noting explicitly that it generally seems true is a worthwhile tip for something to consider when your composition just doesn't seem right.

  • Brandy September 23, 2011 01:01 pm

    Denise, Years ago when I started cosmetology school, my instructor , who was getting her instructor license, told me one of the first things she learned about teaching, was realizing that while it was common sense to her, to know how to drape a client. But she forgot that she had to learn it as well. So even though All this discussion on odd numbers may seem automatic to you, it's not for everyone. Allow them that don't know, the freedom to learn, and be excited to learn!

  • Sérgio September 23, 2011 08:43 am

    True, but on that particular picture there are 6 persons. And it works great, in fact thats why the picture is great.

  • John September 23, 2011 08:33 am

    I first heard this rule in relationship to flower arrangements. You use odd numbers of the main flowers. For some reason, it provides more balance to the way humans see. I think this is probably true for most art forms.

  • Web-Betty September 23, 2011 08:29 am

    I find it interesting that while you do have three upright silhouettes, their shadows create six total figures--which is an even number. ;)

  • Denise September 23, 2011 08:05 am

    I honestly don't mean to be rude but I'm a bit gobsmacked that this is a tip! Is this not common knowledge, and if not something that was learned in elementary school, purely instinctive? When drawing as a child you see that three of something generally looks far better than four, and you learn it there and then. Of course there are creative variations to play around with later on, particularly with photography, to challenge the rules. Sorry, honestly didn't mean to be rude as many seem to find it helpful, but this is a photography site - to be a photographer you require an instinctive approach to composition and this couldn't be more basic and obvious. I'm just that surprised, especially as the contributor originally laughed it off when she first read the 'rule'. Really??

  • Catani September 23, 2011 07:31 am

    Even numbers suggest balance. Odd ones suggest movement, dynamism. Even elements in composition tend to make our eyes static. Odd ones invite our eyes to look around the whole picture. This is what it means to me.

  • maarten September 23, 2011 06:22 am

    This post and the first reply of Valery does bring a new light of why I think the photographs of Tiago Santana are so compelling. He often cuts his images in two very distinct 'planes' putting a solid object or in the middle or leaf it to the subjects to do the 'cutting'. As if two somewhat incomunsurable worlds hesitate to share a frame. Well, I'm not sure, I'll ponder upon it some more, but this post made me think that it might have to do with that. I find his photography very powerful, perhaps because he literally divides a photo in three (the two different 'planes' and the 'cut' itself). In doing so I also think it is possible to not 'count heads' but 'subject tellings'.

    Google him, Tiago Santana.. very interesting contemporary brazilian photographer.

  • Beth September 22, 2011 01:57 pm

    Works for my OCD anyway, I hate even numbers!

  • Carolyn September 22, 2011 07:03 am

    I have heard the same rule applied to gardening because groups of odd numbers of plants look more natural to the eye.

  • Stacy September 22, 2011 12:54 am

    Does this mean I'm going to need to have another kid for good family shots?

  • Syntax September 21, 2011 10:48 pm

    The odd number creates a balance in teh shop; with the center person being like a beacon. (Well person, or subject). Probably easier on our eyes.

  • Robert Simmons September 21, 2011 10:45 pm

    Three plants at the Reagan Center.

    If you ever get the chance, explore the Reagan Center in DC when it's empty.

  • Verena Fischer September 21, 2011 06:14 pm

    It's oddly true, I think. Here is a picture where 4 subjects are in a photo. Three stand together and one stands apart. I think that the three kids together make the fourth kid stand out more:

  • Janna September 20, 2011 05:56 pm
    Here's my 7 subjects all together in this photo. Comments and suggestions welcome :)

  • Tiffany September 20, 2011 03:44 pm

    It is the same with Landscape designers they will put things in odd's usually three of a kind together

  • Mei Teng September 20, 2011 10:33 am

    Yeah I heard about this odd number thing before. And I think it worked well in the image above.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck September 20, 2011 04:22 am


    Interesting article - I think it somehow relates to Fibonnaci Series, Rule of Thirds, Golden Mean etc.

    Here are some threes:

  • Michael September 20, 2011 04:13 am

    Indeed. Odd numbers always look better. Maybe its the human mind to make sense of a image forces a person to concentrate more on a image.

  • Fuzzypiggy September 19, 2011 10:18 pm

    @Mark, exactly what I was thinking!

    Odd numbers remove the ability for the brain to latch on to something. With even numbers you seperate and divide easily, with odd numbers your brain can't quickly seperate and divide so it looks for balance and you start to scan the scene more carefully attempting to enforce sense, balance and order.

  • Douglas T September 19, 2011 09:39 pm

    I would have to agree with Mrs. Robinson's comment. This Odd Rule holds true across a wide range of disciplines. I've taught it to graphic designers for years.

  • Bertrum September 19, 2011 07:53 pm

    In gardening, it is always considered good form to plant in groups of odd numbers. The rule of odd applies everywhere.

  • daniela September 19, 2011 06:26 pm

    odd numbers works better in any field. Even in gardening/landscaping you have this rule. E.g. when planting some flowers an even number of them will look forced, too symmetric.

  • Mark September 19, 2011 04:51 pm

    Being a chef we generally put odd numbers on a plate as well it's confuses the brain as there's no focal point so it more appealing to the eye.

  • Geo Vachon September 19, 2011 12:16 pm

    Nature has been shown to repeat patterns measurable by the golden ratio. Because we see these proportions everywhere in our lives, those proportions are the most pleasing to the eye. The photograph uses the golden ratio not only because there are three focal points, but because the horizon, the clouds and the distribution of color all follow the golden ratio.

    When studying fine arts, my teachers all spoke of different ways to observe the golden ratio, and it's true even in a zen portrayal using even numbers. The placement of the two or four objects eastern art uses are still placed in a way that the golden ratio can be applied.

    But rules are made to be broken, and knowing the rule of thirds well helps a composition that defies that rule, too!!

  • Madison Raine September 19, 2011 09:46 am

    That actually makes sense, I would think so because if you have an even number your mind will look for symmetry and won't look at the detail and other elements put into a photo.

  • Scottc September 19, 2011 08:34 am

    Yes, it does work. Perhaps even as One, or more than one, depending on you count the subject.....

  • Rita, Ottawa, Canada September 19, 2011 06:29 am

    Recently I had the perfect shot framed up, three squirrels nicely arranged on a winding path in the woods. Of course one took off a nanosecond before I could press the shutter. Sigh.

  • Bob b September 19, 2011 06:28 am

    An old rule, I learnt this in cookery school, 3 roast potatos are more pleasing to the eye than 4.
    Same with people/objects in a capture!

  • Thriell September 19, 2011 06:20 am

    Anybody old enough to remember "Schoolhouse Rock" from the 1970s?

    "Three. That's a magic number."


  • Barbara September 15, 2010 08:43 am

    The reason odd numbers work and even numbers don't, according to my design training anyway, is because our eye naturally wanders to the center of the group. When you use an odd number of objects, there's an object in the center. When you use an even number, the center is the 'negative space, the space between the two objects.

    If the subject you're photographing requires the use of two objects (a wedding couple, two feet, Mom & Dad, etc.) you can make it work by 'weighting' one more and the other less. This can be done by placing one object higher than the other, closer than the other, more strongly colored than the other, in stronger light than the other, facing the camera while the other object is turned, or by grouping them so closely that they read as one.

  • Amber August 13, 2009 03:54 am

    The same rule applies in any type of composition. I learned basic room design from my mother growing up and first heard the "odd rule" from her.

  • mrsrobinson July 31, 2009 04:29 am

    It's not just in photography, but graphic design and interior design as well. No matter how right brained you might be, we are hard wired for symmetry and balance...ask any First Nations people.

  • Samir Pradhananga July 15, 2009 01:39 pm

    I agree with this ODD Composition. Why do all the photographers follow the Symitrical Composition basics, all the time???

  • MeiTeng April 20, 2009 04:51 pm

    It works in this photo. Somehow, the viewer's attention is drawn towards the pair of legs in the middle while the additional two (on either sides) adds to the composition of the overall picture, which turns out very nicely. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Walter August 8, 2007 07:06 am

    Yes, once while watching a designing show, they mention that when decorating your house, you always group things in odd numbers.

  • marelle June 17, 2007 04:50 am

    it is a recurent question in classical architecture. We say that odd numbers in a elevation make it "closed", more stable, and centered, symetric.

    but someone could say that is a easy way just to know where to place the door :-)

    with odd numbers there is no hole in the center .
    people dislike vacuum .

    but in china two is better than three (because between two elements there is vacuum and cavuum is necessary for the existence imagine we live stucked each others)

    but for non zen people : simples numbers (odd or even) is like simple geometry : it simplify the composition and make it more "strong".

  • Mashka Cordwell June 8, 2007 07:01 am

    Great idea. will definitely experiment with it.
    agree re: Trinity.

    To blzrd - hello Flick friend! I like the composition and the angle!

  • blzrd June 2, 2007 08:38 pm

    I would be interested to know what people think of this picture.

    It was just a quick snapshot outside a restaurant, but I think it turned out nicely. I think it works really well with the odd rule.

  • Joni R. May 17, 2007 01:09 am

    This is true in so many areas. An arrangement of three or five bushes in the landscape is more visually pleasing than two or four. Once you get to seven or eight, even or odd doesn't matter.

    And in a floral arrangement, three roses are easier to arrange than four, for instance.

  • cj April 21, 2007 02:11 am

    the odd rule is just the same as the rule of thirds.

  • eugene March 20, 2007 01:34 am

    Six legs, six feet, four sox.....
    Oh wait...The tiles, count the's an odd number.!

  • nika March 18, 2007 04:09 am

    Glenn: maybe its the other way around :-)

  • Glenn March 17, 2007 07:00 am

    The reason three is such a pleasing number is that ingrained in each of us is that there is a God; a Triune God seen as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even in those who do not belive in a God will still notice the number three in many things as being pleasing as God is involved in all things and even though most won't admit it, and especially in nature, they have a feeling of oneness with all things and it shows in their photography.

  • Elsie March 16, 2007 03:02 pm

    About that superstition...My Filipino mother says that it's bad luck to have three people *of the same gender* in one photo.

  • waywest March 16, 2007 12:25 pm

    good tip for sure. in my landscape compositions i usually try for the trifecta with a foreground - middle - background subjects.

  • Dave New March 15, 2007 04:45 am

    Hmmm, cars with three wheels would be pretty odd (the Isetta being a good example).

  • tracey March 15, 2007 02:56 am

    I find the rule of the odd numbers universal in many art forms. Especially threes. Even in design elements as simple as arranging and displaying items on your shelves or handing pictures on the wall. It's always much more interesting to look at.

    I think I shoot in threes naturally. I think it's almost instinctual for many artists. Funny when someone points something out and then you think, "oh yea, I do that."

  • Nik March 14, 2007 04:27 pm

    Here is a nice example I recently took

    The frame caught the wings in different positions for each of the 3 birds which adds to the effect. Like in the picture here -- the three people's legs are in different step. It seem to enhance the feeling of motion.

    nik.. .

  • zg March 14, 2007 07:53 am

    Here is another theory:

    Odd number of objects stand out. When something stands out, your brain cannot "automatically" understand what's going on. When that happens, the situation is relayed to your conscious mind with more data, interest and urgency. It's kind of like seeing a person with uncommon features. You try not to stare or be specifically interested, but you cannot help.

    I got this idea from a book I read a couple of years back. It's called "On Intelligence" and I recommend reading it if you are into cognitive science.


  • Raquel Paladino March 14, 2007 05:27 am

    That is a good tip and not one you hear of too often.
    This photograph works on many levels besides the 'odd rule'.
    There is the low angle, the central lighting, the subject - just legs and feet and my favorite - storytelling - are these three people friends walking together or are the two in back not friends, where are they going, etc.

  • angela March 14, 2007 04:36 am

    The same rule applies to design too. A table set with three candles (or knick knacks or whatever) is more attractive than with an even number.

  • Mohammed March 14, 2007 04:17 am

    Why does the picture look computer generated (like something out of Toy Story)?

    When I saw this article, I immediately attacked a picture- cropping it severely to an odd number of subjects and hey! It's true!

  • Patrick March 14, 2007 02:49 am

    Seems like the rule of thirds. Three is, for some reason, just a naturally pleasing number to most people, I've noticed. Kind of like the golden ratio (which, if I'm not mistaken, is *actually* where the rule of thirds comes from).

  • Suzanne March 13, 2007 10:24 pm

    In flower arranging the rule is always to use an odd number of large flowers, 3, 5, 7, etc. So this makes total sense to me and it prevents you from halving the image. (Rule of THIRDS, you know.)

  • Tim March 13, 2007 10:21 pm

    There is something about odd numbers and us humans. Just look at those "classic" jokes -- "the priest, rabbi and atheist..." -- always groups of three. Stands to reason it will work with photography as well.

  • Gustavs March 13, 2007 03:21 pm

    I think that this picture looks good because the objects are grouped and therefore there are only 3 main objects which makes good composition.

  • dyanna March 13, 2007 02:47 pm

    It's a good rule for me to try.

    Don't know whether you know this or not, but in some places, there's this superstition that it is bad luck to take photos with three people in it.

  • Trever March 13, 2007 02:46 pm

    There are six legs. That's an even number, eh?

  • Valery March 13, 2007 02:15 pm

    I've read somewhere that with even number of subjects a viewer tends to mentally split the scene/group of subjects into equal groups thus breaking the composition. It's not as easily done with odd number of subjects and it helps in perceiving the photo as a whole.