and the Rule of Thirds
by Jim Altengarten, exposure36
effective visual communication, your image must have both strength and
clarity. The viewer can
become bored with your image if either is lacking. This article examines the
use of the Rule of Thirds to improve strength and clarity, as well as some
additional ways to utilize the concept to allow more creativity in your
term strength pertains to the ability of your image to attract the viewer's
attention. You should remember that the average person viewing images has an
attention span approximating that of a three-year-old child. If you're not able to gain attention
immediately, your image will be discarded.
Clarity refers to the ability of your image to maintain the
viewer's interest. This is
accomplished by allowing the viewer to explore the parts and subtleties of the
image. You must provide a
mechanism for the viewer's eye to use to examine all parts of the scene and
return to the main focus. The
viewer will abandon the image before examining the various parts and
subtleties if the image lacks strength. Both strength and clarity must be
composition, there are several principles and elements available to enhance
strength and clarity. While
composing the image, the photographer becomes a chef who takes a certain
number of ingredients and mixes them in just the right proportion to create a
presentable dish. Initially, a
photographer must determine which design principles are important for
creating the image.
include the following:
Elements in the scene that guide the viewer's eye through
the entire frame.
Usually there is one main subject to the image. The subject may be either a
single object, or a relationship.
Only what is essential to the scene is included in the
It may be symmetric or asymmetric, subtle or obvious.
second consideration is the application of design elements to create
clarity in such familiar applications such as:
Finally, there are photographic elements that add strength
to the image. These elements
include such aspects as:
method of creating strength in an image is to create focal points that
draw the viewer's eye to that area.
Focal points compel the viewer to look at them first. There are several techniques that
create strong focal points.
First, the photographer can isolate the subject. Throwing everything in the scene out
of focus except for the main subject is one example of this technique. The viewer's eye is attracted to
whatever is sharp in the image.
The viewer's eye generally will not remain very long in an area that is
out of focus. However, when
everything is in sharp focus, the image becomes cluttered and won't hold the
viewer's attention. Having too
many things to look at causes fatigue in the viewer's eye.
Having a contrast in tone or color between parts of the
image is another method that creates a strong focal point. When you're
dividing the image space by tone or color, it's important to examine how the
division occurs. If the image is equally divided between two tones, the
viewer becomes confused, because each portion of the image has equal
weight. For example, consider the classic sunset image. If the
horizon line is placed in the center of the frame, both the sky and water take
up an equal amount of space. The viewer feels uneasy, because the
photographer didn't provide any visual clues as to what is most important in
the scene. This type of image lacks strength, and the viewer will
quickly abandon it. One curative option is to lower the horizon, which
places emphasis on the clouds in the sky. Raising the horizon places
emphasis on the reflections in the water. Which is best? The
photographer must decide whether the sky or water is more attractive. If
the photographer can't decide and splits the frame equally, his/her
indecisiveness will be apparent to the viewer.
Placement of elements in the frame can also create focal
points. Key placement questions to consider include what, how, and where
to place elements in the scene. You should articulate what attracts you
in the scene. That will dictate what to place in the final image.
If the photographer can't articulate what causes his/her personal passion in a
scene, passion won't come across to the viewer. How you place something
in the image refers to whether the element is fully or partially
visible. Showing the entire element increases the attentive values of
that element. Partially showing the element decreases the emphasis on
that element. When you want to stress the relationship between two
elements in the scene, rather than the elements individually, place them
partially out of the image or near the edges of the frame. Where to
place the main elements in the image is the final consideration for attracting
the viewer's attention. The Rule of Thirds is the most common method
for determining where to place the main elements. It's based on the
concept that the strength of an image improves when the main elements are
placed at key locations away from the center of the frame.
been programmed to locate main elements in the center of the frame. Do you remember when you were a child,
and the teacher told you to draw a red flower with your crayon? Where did you place it? You probably began in the center of
the page. Why? There was lots of room there, so you
could draw the entire flower.
Your first camera was probably of the point-and-shoot variety. The only area that confirmed the
subject was in focus was the focus point in the center of the camera
lens. If you can determine focus
in the center of your field of view, isn't it logical to place your subject
there? The problem, of course, is
that placing the subject in the center of the frame normally provides little
interest for the viewer. The
brain is logical. If the brain subconsciously expects to find something in the
center of a picture, and it's located there, no excitement is generated. Placing the subject away from the
center provides visual stimulation.
Rule of Thirds
talking about when it's permissible to break the Rule of Thirds, let's make
sure that we understand how it works.
Several schools of thought in ancient Greece searched for mathematical
formulas for the perfect number, chord, etc. They also searched for perfect balance
in their artwork. Renaissance
architects and painters continued the search for perfection. They decided that the relationship of
five to eight created such balance.
Divide the length of the canvas (or picture frame) into eight parts,
and at the fifth mark from the left, draw a line from top to bottom. Count five parts, starting from the
opposite side, and do the same thing.
Draw two lines in the same manner from the width of the frame, and the
end result is figure 1 below.
This is called the Golden Triangle because
it represents the perfect division of space. The points where the
lines intersect are called power points. Placing your main subject at
one of the power points gives it a high attentive value and adds strength to
your image. If there's more than one main subject, placing each at a
power point provides balance and strength.
It's difficult to visually divide the viewfinder into
eight equal parts. Therefore, it's easier to use the Rule of Thirds,
which divides the viewfinder into three sections, both horizontally and
vertically. As you can see from Figure 2 (at right), the Golden Mean is
a tighter grouping than the Rule of Thirds. Both methods use the power
point concept for placing the main subject(s).
The image below (the rose
surrounded by baby's breath) demonstrates locating the subject according to
the Rule of Thirds. The
placement, as well as the color contrast, almost requires the viewer's eye to
go to the rose first. After
stopping at the rose, the eye is free to wander about the rest of the image to
explore its content. Therefore,
the image has both strength and clarity.
Consider the Rule of Thirds to be the Guidelines
of Thirds. If the main subject is
always placed at one of four points in the frame, creativity suffers. There are many situations where using
the Rule of Thirds will enhance the image. Other situations require more
creativity, and that means bending or breaking this rule.
Rule of Thirds discourages placing an important element in the center of the
frame. However, there are two
situations when a centrally placed element works effectively. The first situation arises when
there's nothing else in the scene that competes with the main
subject. If a flower is in
sharp focus and everything else is out of focus, the viewer's eye will go to
the flower--no matter where it's placed in the scene. Placing the flower in the center of
the frame works, in this instance, because the flower is a complete subject on
its own, and there are no other elements to compete with the
The other situation in
which a centrally placed element works occurs when there's a strong sense
of balance in the scene.
Imagine the hub of a wooden wagon wheel. The hub can be placed in the center,
because the radiating spokes suggest a strong balance within the scene. Placing a strong horizontal line in
the center of the frame works only when one half of the scene is reflected in
the other half. Notice that the
image below has a strong horizontal line (tree line) in the center of the
frame. The image works due to the
strong sense of balance in the scene.
In this case, placing the horizontal line anywhere else in the frame
would degrade the image dramatically.
As stated previously, placing the horizon in the center
of the frame can confuse the viewer as to what's important. The underlying structure of the Rule
of Thirds allows us to modify the location of the horizon to send a clear
message to the viewer.
Rule of Thirds can be used to visually weight an image. Visual weight differs from physical
weight. Light colors have less
visual weight than dark colors when they fill approximately the same amount of
space in the frame. Thus, a large
mound of dark feathers appears heavier than a white rabbit of equal size. Also, an element that takes up more
physical space in the frame has more visual weight than an element that uses
bottom weight an image by placing the top of our visually weighted
element along the lower horizontal line of our Rule of Thirds grid. Locating the top of the element below
the lower horizontal line places gives it less emphasis. It's up to the photographer to
determine how much emphasis should be placed on each element in the
scene. The image below is an
example of a bottom-weighted image.
Placing the visual weight at the bottom of the image puts
emphasis on the upper portions of the image. In the image to the left, it's really
the interesting clouds that make the image. The mountains simply provide a sense
of place. If the mountains were
seen higher in the image, they would detract from the clouds. The image would change and not be as
We can also top-weight an image
by placing it along the upper horizontal line in the Rule of Thirds
grid. The two images below
are both top-weighted. You
probably get a different feel from each of them--even though they're both
images of the Grand Tetons taken from the same tripod holes. The difference is that the image on
the right has a stronger base.
When you build a house, it needs to have a strong foundation to
The same is true with an
image. The Grand Tetons have a
lot of visual weight. The viewer
can easily determine that they are heavy. In contrast, the grassland in the
foreground of each image doesn't represent weight. Top-weighting an image without a
strong base makes the weighted object appear to be floating on a surface that
won't support it. Therefore, the
viewer senses something doesn't appear right in the image, even if s/he can't
verbalize the problem. The above
images are extreme examples. The
image on the above left has a weak base because the bottom of the mountains is
too high. The image on the right
represents moving the bottom of the mountain to an extremely low base. It sends a better message about the
solid feel of the image. Probably
the best location for the bottom of the mountain would be somewhere between
base is especially obvious in top-weighted images involving water in the
foreground. Unless there's some
other foreground object, the viewer can feel uncomfortable with nothing but
water supporting the mountain, city buildings, or other objects. Place a finger over the bottom third
of the image to the left.
When you cover the rocks in the foreground, do you get the feeling that
the mountain is floating on the water?
We know that mountains can't float, so the viewer may feel some
negative tension from the image.
top-weighted images, the photographer must decide whether a top-weighted
image is supported by the foreground and how much foreground to
include. Although it's your
decision, be aware of the concept of base and potential viewer reaction to the
We used the
horizontal grid lines of the Rule of Thirds to create either top or bottom
weight in our image. The vertical
grid lines can also be used; it's called side-weighting. The image below right is an example of
using the left vertical line of the grid to locate the main element of the
image. Notice that the small
stream of water is placed along the other vertical line in the grid. Placing the main element closer to the
edge puts less emphasis on that element.
On some occasions, leaving part of the element out of the scene creates
an emphasis on the relationship between that element and another element in
While the main element can be placed on either vertical
line, care must be taken to avoid creating negative tension. If there's any action, or implied
action, in the scene, the action should normally be located toward the center
of the frame. For example, if the
main element of the scene were a bicyclist, the bicycle would move from the
edge of the frame toward the center.
If the bicycle were located at either vertical line and appeared to
move toward the closer edge of the frame, the viewer might wonder where the
bicycle will go once it leaves the frame. This situation is called amputation,
because the edge of the frame cuts off the ability of the viewer to follow
the anticipated action. Any
implied action, such as a person looking out of the frame, can cause the same
culture placement of the subject is another way of increasing tension in a
photo. In western culture,
movement is generally left to right.
That's how you're reading this page. If the movement in the scene is from
right to left (even though it's moving toward the center), it can create
negative tension for western viewers.
next set of three images shows a wolf looking in different directions. You'll probably receive a different
feeling from each of the images--depending on the direction of the wolf's
stare. Do any of the images give
you a feeling of nervousness or curiosity?
Remember my earlier
statement that rigidly following rules discourages creativity. There may be occasions when you want
to add negative tension to a scene to create a certain mood. Intentionally creating a feeling of
amputation can add mystery.
Counter-cultural movement inserts a subtle tension that many people
feel but can't verbalize. The
question boils down to the photographer being able to say what's important in
the scene, and then to create circumstances that will allow the viewer to
receive the intended message.
far, we've discussed the Rule of Thirds as a basic model and expanded it into
a creative approach for placing the main subject in the frame. The preceding suggestions will add
strength and generate viewer attention to your images. The Golden Mean and Rule of Thirds
provide a sense of order, balance, and beauty to the image. But is this all we want to say in
photography? Using only the Rule
of Thirds will eventually create monotonous, boring shots where placement is
always the same≈as regulated by the rule. To maintain viewer interest, you need
variety, and that comes from creative placement. Let your creativity be your
Jim Altengarten is the owner
of exposure36 Photography that specializes in landscape photography, creative
vision, and photographic education. Jim
teaches classes every quarter at the Experimental College of the University of
Washington. Topics include Basic
and Intermediate Photography, Composition, Exposure, Macro Equipment, and the
Canon EOS Camera System. He also
teaches workshops at prime locations in the western United States--such as
Death Valley, Yosemite, The Grand Tetons, and The Palouse wheat fields. Please check the exposure36
Photography website for information about classes and workshops < http://www.exposure36.com/>. Your questions or comments can be
sent via e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone