A Brief Discussion of the Rule of Thirds


‘Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.’

Edward Weston


I’ve learned (virtually everything from others) over the years (seven decades) that good (or occasionally great) photographs are made between our ears and not in cameras.

Even a casual stroll through any formal education in the visual arts – and I include photography – brings us in contact with the Rule of Thirds. The rule (actually a heuristic – more about this later) is simple: Interesting things that attract the eye are best placed at positions based on dividing the image in thirds. This generally is meant to have a top third, middle third and bottom third along with a left, right and middle third vertically. The truly powerful places, called third-points, are where these lines intersect.

If you play around with this concept by cropping your own work or better yet the works of the famous, you can demonstrate that the mind likes this rule or heuristic. Why this is seems a bit of a mystery. Some have speculated about it, but not very deeply. Most just peddle the concept because it works.

A word about heuristics. What is a heuristic? A heuristic is an ‘almost’ rule. A heuristic is a practical method of problem solving that may not be optimal or perfect, but works most of the time.

 The rule of thirds is very similar to and often combined with the golden ratio, which has a precise mathematical expression (reference below for those interested). That our mind likes this rule or heuristic has been known for centuries. You can find examples in great art throughout history. Give it a try. I have found that looking (and ultimately coming to really enjoy) great art has done much for my own photography.

While I didn’t appreciate the value of it when I took a year of art history in college (I think I did it because there were a lot of cute coeds who took the classes), over the years I have come to appreciate what I learned (it may have been sleep learning in the dark lecture hall with all those slides of famous paintings).

I find after a mere sixty-five years of practice that I unconsciously compose either in the camera or on the computer screen using the rule of thirds. Most camera manufacturers supply grids in the viewfinder that place the rule in front of you where it is hard to avoid. Adobe provides it with their Lightroom crop tool in the develop frame.

Intentionally Breaking the Rule of Thirds
Intentionally Breaking the Rule of Thirds

I find today that I apply this rule most of the time without thinking and those times that I break the rule consciously – I am conscious of doing so. If there was one first rule of composition, I think this is it. Attached is an image I recently grabbed in a snow storm and cropped on screen to fit the rule of thirds:

lines enhanced to show grid

If you look at the vertical and horizontal lines you can see how the image is divided; white third on the bottom, dark masses in the middle and white on top (partially). On the verticals there is a vertical line (tree trunk) and a vertical white space. On the right there is a tree of interest located on the third points and two white areas that are the vanishing point of the perspective and a white mass above at the third points on the left.

In terms of the processing I was seeking to capture the sense of the heavy snowfall, the coldness of winter as well as the familiarity of a neighborhood street.

I wonder if the Impressionists were creating their art today if they would still be working in oil, or if they would be using Nikons and Canons? Of course, if they hadn’t painted in oils when they did we might not have tools like Topaz Impression to work with.

Original Snow Image
Original Image before Processing

Workflow Overview

My workflow on this image was first to crop it to suit my vision. Second, I used the tone settings in Lightroom to cool the image to what I desired (overriding the white balance the camera imposed). I then used Topaz Simplify to fractionate the image to give it a more geometric feeling. Then I used Topaz Impression to give it an abstract clutter (toned way down) and then Impression again to give it a pointillist presentation. My final adjustment was to contrast and brightness.

Abstact of the Storm
“Abstract of the Storm” Image after Processing

For an in depth tutorial from John on using impression on your digital images click here!


Below are a number of links that might be worth your time taking a look at.

About John Ellingson

John  has been taking photographs since the 1950s.  He was trained in fine arts in college and also worked professionally as an advertising photographer as a technical illustrator. Along the way through photography John had the good fortune to come into contact with many interesting individuals and fine photographers. He was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Ansel Adams, who had retained John’s work in his personal collection now at the Arizona Center for Creative Photography.

John has had a life-long interest in the visual arts from drawing, painting and film making through photography to the expanding universe of digital images.

See more of John’s work here.

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