Rule of Thirds

Faithful Rule of Thirds crop. Works for this image.

The famous Rule of Thirds. I use that name here, even though I don’t like it. It has become almost a deep seated religious belief to some. Let’s examine it. It is a good idea, not a rule that can’t be broken.

What is it?

Briefly, the Rule of Thirds says to divide the frame into a 3×3 grid of 9 equal squares, like a tic-tac-toe grid. Important features, like horizons, should be placed on one of the grid lines rather than centered. Also, the grid intersections are “special” and powerful. Place major subjects on one of the intersections.

Theory says that aligning subjects with this grid creates more interest and tension than most other arrangements. This are not really wrong. The Rule of Thirds is generally good advice. The fault is in the application as a prescription rather than just good advice.

The image with this article is faithfully cropped to the Rule of Thirds. The horizon is on the upper line and the gravestone is aligned along the right one. It works for this.


The rule of thirds was first written down by John Thomas Smith in 1797. And he was quoting remarks by the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds from 1783. It goes way back.

Reynolds says:

Analogous to this “Rule of thirds”, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two : Again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives. This rule would likewise apply in breaking a length of wall, or any other too great continuation of line that it may be found necessary to break by crossing or hiding it with some other object : In short, in applying this invention, generally speaking, or to any other case, whether of light, shade, form, or color, I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far-extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever.

They were very wordy back then. But basically, he is describing what we still call the Rule of Thirds.

Even further back

But the basis of what we term the Rule of Thirds goes much further back, probably to around 450 BC. It was known as the Golden Ratio in ancient Greece.

The artists back then worked out a mathematical description of their concept of beauty. The ratio was key to the design their temples, such as the Parthenon. It is surprisingly similar to the ratios of the Rule of Thirds.

I won’t go into depth on it, but the Golden Ratio is about 1.618. It is actually an irrational number, which means it never repeats. Like pi. Sounds weird, but if you use the ratio to divide a frame they way they suggest you get something like

Golden Ratio

As you see, the proportions are roughly 2/3 to 1/3. Like the Rule of Thirds.

To a large degree, beauty is universal.

Why does it work for photography?

It works for photography for the same reason it works for painting or architecture or other media. It creates compositions that are both balanced and dynamic. They are balanced because the 2/3 to 1/3 split creates arrangements that for some reason are pleasing to most people. Having the horizon or major features offset from the center creates more interest and avoids boring, static compositions. Following the grid also helps to introduce a certain dynamic layout that gives interest to an image.

It touches us on a deep psychological level by keeping our images less centered and boring. Having things off center helps emphasize what is important to us, e.g. more sky or more foreground, and it gives our minds some work to do to balance the elements. Viewers like to have to figure things out a little bit.

The Rule of Thirds is very pragmatic. It has proven itself for a long time. All photographers should learn it when they are learning composition.

Learn it, use it, learn to see by it’s pattern. When you are starting you need to learn the normal conventions. This is one of the oldest and most fundamental. Internalize it. Unlike most artistic opinions it is backed by centuries of use.

Is it a rule?

No, at best it is a guideline, a “rule of thumb”. It contains good advice for most compositions. But composing is an art, not a science. Don’t take it too literally. Do what feels right to you as an artist. But know why you are doing it. If you don’t understand the Rule of Thirds then you will not know when it should be broken.

You enter an image in your local camera club competition. It gets down-voted because it was not composed according to the Rule of Thirds. Talk to them. Find out if they have a valid artistic opinion about this or if they are just being legalistic. If they are legalistic, sorry, it is time to leave this group. You have outgrown them.

If you post an image on social media and it gets negative comments because it is not “Rule of Thirds’ compliant, then just ignore the comments. You are the artist and the only one who can decide how to compose your image. If you intentionally broke the rule for a good reason, then good to you.

Break the law

As a guideline, it should be followed when it makes sense and abandoned when it doesn’t. Yes, the Rule of Thirds can make your compositions generally pleasing to most people. That is why you should pay attention to it most of the time. It is time honored and proven.

Maturity and experience will help understand that there are times when the rule should be abandoned. For instance, for a very symmetrical composition, off-centering it to follow the Rule of Thirds would probably look weird and damage the impact of the symmetry.

Or in the case where you have a subject you want to fill the frame with. Do it. That supersedes the rigid rule.

Or let’s say you are a photojournalist who has just captured a unique event that the world needs to see. Didn’t have time to compose according to the Rule of Thirds? No problem. Most people would agree that a strong or important subject overrides the rule.

Basically, if you understand the “rule” but feel you have a good artistic reason to break it, do it. You are the artist.


Ultimately, that is what it comes down to: you are the artist. If you understand composition and believe you have a better idea than the Rule of Thirds feel free. You may be right or you may be wrong. Either way, you made an artistic choice. That is what you need to do.

Composition rules are based on principles of perception and gestalt psychology. They usually make sense and any artist should learn them and internalize their application. But creation sometimes involves taking a new direction, abandoning norms, breaking rules. Do not insult your viewers by being ignorant of the norms. Rather, delight them by occasional creative rule breaking. Be an artist.

Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist. —  Pablo Picasso

There are rules about perception, but not about photography. – Jay Maisel

Ansel Wasn’t an Oracle

Rusty Truck

Ansel Adams famously said that the negative is the score and the print the performance. Ansel was one of the great lights of 20th Century photography and his writings are generally very good. In this case, though, I think this famous quote has become a little outdated by technology changes.

I love this quote and have been guided by it for a long time. As I began to understand it more deeply, it was empowering. For a long time my work was basically a documentary or reportage style. It was very literal photography of scenes in the natural world. I even for a time subscribed to the false doctrine that if an image was altered in any way it was no longer pure and virtuous.

Ansel’s quote helped me understand that that had never been true and was not a worthy or even useful goal. At least for me. I truly believe that the negative (raw file now) is only a start. It usually must be perfected by the artist to become art rather than just a record of something.

The darkroom process

Let me talk a little about the darkroom process, as I understand it. This is so I can contrast it to the current workflow. I will confess that, although I built a darkroom in my basement, I only ever used it for a few black and white images. About that time I discovered a new program called “Photoshop”. 🙂

The image captured on film is generally considered “read only”. It is never modified. There are exceptions to every rule, but this is by far the typical case.

The extensive set of transformations and modifications that can be applied to the negative in the course of printing are done in “real time”. That is, it is a dance involving adding or holding back light from certain areas during the time the paper is exposed to light. It can also involve variations of development time or chemicals and even manual operations like bleaching or spotting of the print.

Given this workflow, it is completely appropriate for Ansel to describe it as a score that will be performed by an artist. The outcome will vary somewhat with each performance, depending on the feelings and inspiration of the performer. Each print is a unique creative process.

The digital workflow

Fast forward now to the current generation of digital imaging. Digital imaging is wonderful in too many ways to list. I absolutely believe it is superior to film in almost all important respects. There is no reason for most artists to ever want to go back to film and chemicals. Your mileage may vary, but that is a personal artistic decision.

One of the places where digital processing is most different is in the post processing to complete the image. The raw file (the “negative”) is processed in the computer using software like Photoshop.

The software allows extensive, non-destructive manipulation of the image. The great dynamic range captured by modern sensors now gives us far more information to work with and more freedom to transform the image. It is easy to remove distracting elements, composite images together, and vastly change the tone and color profiles and even exposure.

Ansel had to select a type of film to use prior to taking an image. He also had to use color filters to change the tonality of his black and white images. It was a guessing game based on lots of experience. He called it “pre-visualization”. Now we retain all the color information until processing time and we can convert to black and white via multiple types of software transforms and with extensive control over tonality. Much more subtle artistic decisions can be made. He would have loved it.

Furthermore, these changes are built on the computer and recorded as a complete package. All the modifications can be done slowly and I can backtrack, undo things I don’t like, try alternatives, even easily create multiple versions of an image.

The “performance” aspect of Ansel’s darkroom manipulation now becomes a considered, one-time transformation. All the artistic decisions are immediately seen on my nice color corrected monitor. I can study the effects at leisure and decide to change them. When I am done, I have virtually a finished image.

The print

It almost sounds like printing has been reduced to a minor step. Not so. It is still a complex artistic process. But again, the digital world gives many new options.

Choice of paper is a big deal. It controls a major part of the look of the resulting image. A glossy Baryta has a very different look from a matte watercolor paper. Paper with varying textures and base color can be selected.

This is assuming you are printing yourself. I recommend it. It is a joy and it connects you with the final product. But many other options are available. You can have your image rendered on canvas, metal substrates, acrylic, transparencies, cloth – too many to list. All vary the look and potential use of the final image.

But the thing that is ultimately the most different from film days is that the artistic result has been determined prior to hitting Print or sending the file to the producer. Each time you print the image, the results should be so repeatable as to be indistinguishable. As Alain Briot said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek I think, this is one of the problems with printers: they do not need our help in any way while they do what they do.

So, in a way, a print is like a good illusion. The magic happens before we ever see the print appear. This is a huge contrast to the film days where creating a print required a virtuoso performance in the darkroom.

Was Ansel right?

I believe Ansel was completely right and very insightful when he wrote this famous quote. Like with many things, though, time and technology changes. Since he was describing a particular technological process, it is not surprising that it will change.

The real genius of the quote, and the reason I believe it is still useful, is to point out that the captured image is only the starting place. I am free to apply my vision to complete the image. Without that injection of originality, it is too easy for it to just be a snapshot.

How that is done is not that big of a deal. Art is a physical product and expressed via currently available technology. The technology should not determine an artist’s vision. Make it your own.

The quote was an observation by a great and experienced artist. It did not come down from heaven written on stone. Don’t be limited by changes of process or technology. Understand that it frees you to create!


Conceptual Abstract

Photography is traditionally thought of as giving a very realistic representation of a subject. It is usually concrete as opposed to abstract. But this is only the norm. There is nothing to say that photography cannot be as abstract as the imagination can conjure.

Very short history of photography

Photography is agreed to have become practical with the invention of the daguerreotype process in around 1839. Photographers went crazy recording the world around them. There was a joy in being able to capture a realistic representation of the world quickly, without spending days or more drawing or painting a copy. Landscapes and people were the preferred subjects.

As processes and equipment improved it has come to the point where almost all of us carry around a camera all the time. And people still use them mostly for snapping images of people or landscapes. We take for granted the ability to capture almost exact representations of whatever we point them at.

But some would say this is the weakness of photography. It blindly records the world in front of the camera. No evaluation; no filtering; no interpretation. Unfortunately, it is a valid critique. Much photography is just capturing pretty pictures. It is literal. Now I like beauty and uplifting things, but I have to agree that most of it lacks vision and a spark of greatness.

What is abstract?

Abstract images have been around a long time, but there is no real agreed definition of what it is. The one I like is “If you look at a photo and there’s a voice inside you that says ‘What is it?’….Well, there you go. It’s an abstract photograph.”

The first recorded mention of abstract photography was by Alvin Langdon Coburn in 1916. He proposed an exhibition be organized with the title “Abstract Photography”, for which the entry form stated that “no work will be admitted in which the interest of the subject matter is greater than the appreciation of the extraordinary.”

I had to wrestle with this definition for a while, but I have come to believe it is brilliant. The interest in the subject is secondary to the appreciation of the extraordinary. So abstract photography is not about the subject as much as a unique view of it.

Break the rules

Our cameras and lenses are truly amazing these days. Most of us spend years learning how to create highly detailed, tack sharp, properly exposed images with sharp focus from front to back.

Then some of us try abstract, and we find that now we violate all the training we spent such a long and difficult time learning. We deliberately create images that may be blurry, that may have high levels of camera shake, that may not be level, that may not stop motion, that may be composed “strangely” – all the things that would have gotten them thrown out of our camera club competition back when.

It reminds me of a musical group homed in my area, Acoustic Eidolon, a guitar and cello duo. The cello player sometimes remarks that she is now going to be making sounds on her instrument that she spent years of formal training learning how to avoid. That is kind of what abstract photography is to me.


How do we usually do abstraction? There are far too many approaches to abstraction to list them all. One technique is to intentionally obfuscate the subject. This could be by panning to blur the frame, slow shutter speed to lengthen motion, or “hiding” the subject, such as behind a foreground screen

Another productive source of abstraction is focus and depth of field. We are used to seeing photographs done a certain way. Try shooting a group of people up close with a very large aperture, say f/1.4. Only a small part of the group will be sharp. Or shoot something where the viewer expects one thing to be the subject., but you have focused on something completely different.

One thing I like to do is to isolate detail. Go in very tight on one small part of a subject and challenge the viewer to figure out what the whole is. This works in landscapes, too.

Another approach is to give the viewer an unexpected scale or position. Macro shots are a scale example. Blowing an unlikely object, like a fly’s eye, up to fill the frame is a type of abstraction. Or a drone view from high above can be disorienting.

Mostly, though, when we thing of abstract images we think of what I call conceptual abstracts. These may be just patterns, compositions of color or forms that have no objective subject in the normal sense. I must admit, these can be a joy to do and a great creative break from more “typical” photography. Now that our computer tools are so good there are few limits to our imagination. The image at the top of this post is kind of most of this. Actually, it is quite concrete, but processed to be completely abstract.

Why abstract photography?

Why do we do abstract photography and why is it an enduring genre? I’m afraid that’s above my pay grade. I’ll have to leave the real answer to the philosophers and critics.

For me, I know that sometimes I feel the need to do something different. To express myself in a different dimension from my normal work. Sometimes an idea just doesn’t fit as anything except an abstract. Or sometime a subject just calls to be made into something other than what it seems to be in “real life”.

In a previous life I was a software architect. In that role abstraction was one of the key design patterns to learn. It was very important to be able to look at complex designs or requirements and be able to “abstract” out the essential attributes of their nature. I think I am still doing that as an artist. Continually challenging myself to find the real essence of a thing. When I get an idea, there are almost no limits to where it can go.

I guess that is what abstraction is to me. You will have to find your own answer. Have you? what do you think?