Lens-Artists Challenge #197 – The Rule of Thirds

egret, breeding plumage
Beautiful Breeding Plumage

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”

Pablo Picasso

This week our challenge is focused on one of the most well-known and widely-used “rules” of photography, the Rule of Thirds. I’ve used quotation marks because as shown in Picasso’s quote above, and as we all know, rules are made to be broken. So what is the rule and when does it make sense to ignore it?!

Wise Old Owl

“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”

Dalai Lama XIV

For those who would like to study the concept further, there are many online descriptions and examples. Adobe offers an excellent summary here. Basically, the rule is a compositional guideline that encourages placement of your primary subject on at least part of three equal rows and three equal columns as illustrated below.

Rule of thirds
 grid
Rule of Thirds Grid

Many of today’s cameras can superimpose the grid on your screen as you compose a shot. The idea is to place your subject on one (or more) of the grid lines, or even better on the dots, theoretically making the image more pleasing to the eye. Typically the right vertical line is the most popular, as used in my opening image. The owl above, on the other hand, is on the left side. Obviously since he was facing right that composition made more sense. Also, it’s important to compose birds with an area of open space in front, visually implying they could fly away at a given moment.

Bagpiper, scotland
Bagpiper Two Ways

“Any fool can make a rule And any fool will mind it.”

Henry David Thoreau

As many great minds (including several quoted in today’s post) have allowed, often times it is appropriate to break the rule. The two images above offer a clear example. On the left the bagpiper is indeed positioned on the left side grid line, but he’s rather lost in the distraction of the bricks behind and the window ledge above. Also, he’s about to move out of the image rather than into it. On the right, using a vertical composition he is directly in the center and the viewer’s attention will be on him, his instrument and his colorful costume, rather than on his surroundings. Often it helps to shoot the same subject multiple ways to zero in on your favorite version.

Royal Golf Hotel, rainbow
After The Rain

“Look, that’s why there’s rules, understand? So that you think before you break ’em.”

Terry Pratchett

Another approach to composing is a “Z” configuration structuring your image so that the viewer’s eye is moving from left to right – as most of our viewers typically read. In the image above, my goal was to highlight the rainbow, by first presenting the hotel and only then moving to the beauty of the rainbow as the eye travels across the scene.

Great Wall, China
China’s Great Wall

“I didn’t write the rules, why should i follow them?”

W. Eugene Smith

A logical use of the Z format is shown in my Great Wall image above. I don’t use the format often but this one is among my favorite images – I use it as my screensaver and as the centerpiece of my office wall grid of travel images.

Star, floor tile
Star of the Show

“Rules are a great way to get ideas. All you have to do is break them.”

Jack Foster

On the other hand, there are times when no distractions will do and we choose to compose our images such that the subject completely fills the frame. In the image above the star, embedded in an otherwise brown and boring floor, in my mind deserved to stand alone. Clearly, the rule of thirds would have been the wrong approach for this one.

Finally, as noted in the Adobe article (and who better to make this suggestion?!) one can always alter the placement of a subject in post-processing. Both of Adobe’s flagship products, Photoshop and Lightroom, offer a superimposed grid over an image when cropping. So what do you think – were you familiar with the rule? Do you find it helpful while shooting, in post-processing; neither or both? This week we hope you’ll share some rule-of-thirds examples and explain how and why you chose to compose them. Be sure to link to my original, and to use the Lens-Artists Tag to help us find you.

Sincere thanks to John for last week’s invitation to share some humorous moments, and to those of you who responded with images that gave us so many reasons to smile. Patti will lead our challenge next week with a Light and Shadow challenge. Until then as always please stay safe and be kind.

Interested in joining the Lens-Artists Challenge? Click here for more information.

192 thoughts on “Lens-Artists Challenge #197 – The Rule of Thirds

  1. Pingback: Lens-Artists Challenge #197 – The Rule of Thirds – Site Title

  2. What great instruction and explanation! Thank you for showing us some “right” and “wrong” ways to use the Rule of Thirds and why it makes sense to do so in some circumstances. I can see why you love the Great Wall photo — it’s a grand one. But I’m also drawn to the owl and bagpiper examples for two different reasons. An excellent challenge for the week!

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  7. Beautiful images all round, Tina. Everyone a winner. I consciously use the rule of thirds in my photography when I’m shooting. Though I’ll admit sometimes I don’t have time to compose my shot – especially those blink and use miss it moments kind of scenes. So in these instances, I like to take the shot as soon as I can, and then work the rest of out in post-processing 🙂

    • Hi Mabel and many thanks! I agree, I too work quickly for shots that might disappear. If I have time to do a second shot I will but if not post-processing is a great alternative.

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