Employing rule of thirds teaches compositional balance

Rules are meant to be broken

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The rule of thirds is another of the most basic and fundamental compositional techniques employed in visual art. As such, this keystone element of composition is often one of the first-taught elements of design and photography. While it is not a hard and fast rule, learning it teaches the importance of compositional balance.

That being said, we tested the rule of thirds at three popular shooting locations in Minneapolis, Minnesota and analyzed some of the benefits and drawbacks.

Each shot breaks down by three types of photographs. One that shows a simple, thoughtless point-and-shoot. The next centered. And the last gives consideration to balance and applies the rule of thirds. Breaking it down in this way enables us to easily compare these compositional styles.

Straightforward subjects

The Grain Belt Beer sign framed between the river and sky, with Hennepin Avenue Bridge to the side. Minneapolis, MN.
Point and shoot- A scene that doesn’t really have a main focus, nothing fills the frame, and the bridge leads the eye out of the frame rather than in.

Little thought was put into the composition this photo. The subject stands out reasonably well due to the sharp color contrast. While the river and the sky could frame the shot, however, the composition is not well-balanced and does not highlight the subject as effectively. The bridge leads the eye away from the subject while the surrounding objects create a messy photo.

The Grain Belt Beer sign centered in the shot. Minneapolis, MN.
Centered- Centering the sign draws the eye directly to the subject, the contrast in colors is an effective method to draw the eye inward.

This photo centers the Grain Belt sign and mostly fills the frame with the subject. The trees and buildings provide environmental context and frame the subject due to the previously-mentioned contrast. The subject is bright and colorful. This photo may be improved by filling the frame even more with the subject.

Grain Belt Beer sign set at a crash point in the shot, following the rule of thirds.
Rule of thirds- The subject sits right on an intersecting line (crash point) in the grid, making the shot a little bit more dynamic.

This shot directly follows the rule of thirds. The subject is placed right on the left side crash point, which helps create a more dynamic and interesting shot. Although, it is called a “rule,” design rules are simply a guideline. The rule of thirds is just a simple introduction to more complicated dynamic symmetry. While the rule of thirds is a good starting point, it doesn’t always produce the best shot. Experimentation with placement and balance is key.

Finding balance with a skyline

The Minneapolis skyline with I-35W beneath it and the sky above.
Point and shoot- Nothing really fills the frame in this shot, and the busy freeway makes for a messy photograph.

The 24th Street pedestrian bridge is a popular shooting location for the Minneapolis skyline and works especially well at nighttime. In this shot, there’s just too much happening to provide a clear focus of the subject. Mid afternoon traffic, bright orange traffic cones and negative space created by the sky distracts the eye from immediately seeing the skyline. Focusing on the main subject of the image is key.

The Minneapolis skyline with I-35W beneath it and the sky above.
Rule of thirds- The top of the photo is mostly sky, the middle is mostly downtown, and the bottom is mostly road. This shot does a good job of showing context, though is pretty busy and might work better at nighttime when a low shutter-speed can be used to blur the traffic beneath.

This photo observes the rule of thirds. The road takes up the bottom third mostly, middle third by the skyline and top third by the sky and tall skyscrapers. This composition gives the viewer additional context with I-35W below, despite that it makes the image slightly.busier and slightly detracted from the

The Minneapolis skyline filling the frame of the shot.
Centered- The skyline takes up most of the frame, with the two tallest skyscrapers framing the shot and pulling the eye inward.

This shot centers the skyline and may have the most effective composition, despite breaking the rule of thirds completely. Most of the noise of the last picture is cut out. The IDS building (tall, wide skyscraper on the left side) and the Capella Tower (skyscraper on the right with the ‘crown’) give a slight framing effect and leads the eye toward the subject of the image.

Less-obvious subjects

The Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis, with the Spoon and Cherry in the front, Blue Rooster behind, and Basilica of St. Mary in the more distant background.
Point and shoot- A lot of uninteresting ground is visible and the shot is very center-heavy.

The spoon and cherry at the Walker Art Center Sculpture Gardens, with the Basilica of St. Mary in the background. The subject does not fill the frame like it should, there is far too much grass in the foreground. The shot is centered heavily and most of the visible context is pretty indiscernible. The eye isn’t drawn anywhere specific, maybe in the upper-middle, but there’s nothing that really compels the viewer to look at a location in the shot.

The Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis, with the Spoon and Cherry in the front, Blue Rooster behind, and Basilica of St. Mary in the more distant background. A more balanced photograph.
Rule of thirds- This photo emphasizes the balance of the photo better than strictly observing the rule of thirds.

This image required a more novel approach to balance and the rule of thirds. Obtaining an effective shot within context, without sacrificing compositional quality, was more difficult than in our first image. Rather than place our main subject (the Spoon) and our background subject (Basilica) on the crash points (which would have required zooming out and creating a lot of unnecessary open space), more effort was put into balancing the shot into the thirds. The spoon sits in the bottom right, while the big mass of the church lies slightly higher and to the left side of the photo. The subject draws the eye inward with the even balance of the image.

Strictly following the rule of thirds is not always wise. The trick is knowing how the elements located within the frame balance and interact with each other.

Join the discussion! Share your experiences with the rule of thirds and the value you place on its importance in composition.

1 COMMENT

  1. I now am more informed about rule of thirds. I found this article very knowledgeable. Looking at the photo comparisons and descriptions really helped me understand “rule of thirds”.

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