Photographer Jim Zuckerman explains how to apply this fundamental principle of composition to photographic subjects in the first article of his sixteen-part series.
Jim Zuckerman's images and articles on photography have been featured in hundreds of publications, and he has taught at many institutions, as well as through his own workshops. He is the author of 22 books on photography. To learn more about his work and subscribe to his emagazine, visit his website.
Photographs © 2009, Jim Zuckerman. All rights reserved.
One of the most fundamental concepts in the art of composition is the Rule of Thirds. It should really be called the “Guideline of Thirds” because it’s not a rule at all. It’s just a guideline to help us mentally organize a lot of elements in a scene. Should all photos be composed using this rule? No, of course not. Nevertheless, it offers some very good ideas about how you can compose your photos in such a way that most people will consider them successful, attractive, and artistic.
The Rule of Thirds states that when the picture area is divided into thirds like a tic-tac-toe diagram (figure 1.1), the most important elements of your composition should be placed along the left or right vertical thirds and/or the top and bottom horizontal thirds. In addition, the four intersections of these lines are called the “power points.” This is where a subject should be placed to give it emphasis, and it is here where the eye is automatically drawn.
You can see a classic example of this principle in 1.2. The cheetah was positioned along the left vertical third, and the cat’s head was placed on one of the “power points”—the intersection of the left vertical third and the upper horizontal third. I used the same composition in the photo of a young Navajo girl with a sunset (1.3). I placed the girl on the right vertical third. The horizon line in this instance was positioned in the middle of the frame, above the lower horizontal third. Here is a good example where I followed the Rule of Thirds for the subject but not for the background. Notice, also, that the girl’s head coincides with one of the power points.
A simple photograph of my son and a friend boarding a school bus in the fog, 1.4, shows the same use of placing prominent elements on one of the horizontal thirds. The two boys and the heads lie along the lower horizontal third. Sometimes all of the elements in a composition can coincide with the Rule of Thirds. An example is this photo of a small church in Slovenia (1.5), in which the structure lies on the right vertical third and the cloud bank is on the upper horizontal third. At other times, only the subject is placed on one of the important thirds.
When photographing nature, things can get pretty messy. You have to deal with trees, bushes, rocks, bodies of water, shadows, and a lot of other elements that don’t often occur in artistic arrangements. You have to spend a lot of time hunting for that perfect composition. Keeping this rule (or guideline) in mind will help you sort out the chaos. Figure 1.6 shows a good example of an image that I tried to find for the tour group I was leading in Kenya. I wanted a classic African sunrise but the composition had to be perfect. I found a nicely graphic tree and with a 500mm lens I placed the tree and the sun on the lower left power point vertical third, and at the same time I placed the horizon line close to the lower horizontal third.
Notice that the tree extends beyond the left vertical third as it spreads into the sky. When I say that I’ve placed the tree on the imaginary line of the right third, I am speaking about the bulk of the tree, the part that has the most “weight,” which is the trunk. Remember, this is art. We are not dealing with an exacting issue in engineering or physics. While following the Rule of Thirds, you have to be malleable in your thinking. Some trees will fit neatly on the left or right vertical third, like in figure 1.7, while others, as in the snowy landscape in Arizona (1.8), will be somewhat messy as you try to make them conform to this principle.
Go to the next article in this series: Leading Lines
Read the full series:
- The Rule of Thirds
- Leading Lines
- Graphic Design
- Classic Landscape Technique
- Moving into the Frame
- Distinctive Perspectives
- Light's Influence
- Negative Space
- Breaking the Rules