As is often the case with “rules” of composition, the Rule of Thirds is perhaps better conceptualized as a guideline or suggestion for consideration. Nevertheless, understanding the concepts underlying the Rule of Thirds broadens the photographer’s skills on which to draw as he or she sees fit. Eighteenth century landscape artists advanced the theories behind the rule of thirds well before modern photography came into existence. The core principle advances that if one divides an image into equal thirds both horizontally and vertically (think Tic-Tac-Toe) then placement of important elements along the lines produces a visually pleasing composition. The theory further suggests that an observer’s eye is naturally drawn to the 4 points of intersection of the imaginary lines, thus making those areas prime real estate for placement of elements the artist wishes to emphasize.
Consider how photographer, Elaine DesPres, expertly applied the Rule of Thirds when she composed our cover image. The signpost in the foreground falls along the right third vertical, while the sign itself falls on the upper right intersection. As will be discussed below, placement of the horizon close to the upper third horizontal allows emphasis on the many interesting foreground elements while leaving ample room for the viewer to enjoy the beauty of the sky. For the interested observer, this photograph also nicely demonstrates the compositional principles of leading lines, use of a foreground object to create interest and depth, and the value of shooting outdoor imagery during the golden hour.
Great care should be taken by photographers of all levels to avoid losing sight of the forest for the trees when it comes to the Rule of Thirds. The forest in this case involves the lesson that photographers that move beyond placing the subject dead center in the frame open a realm of creative possibilities and much more engaging images. That is not to say that snapshots of subjects placed center frame are not meaningful or valuable, just that expanding one’s compositional skill set helps elevate one’s photography to the next level.
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Generally speaking, a photographer seldom places the horizon right down the center of an image (see Symmetry for an exception). Best practice usually dictates the horizon be kept level as well. As noted above, the Rule of Thirds provides guidance on horizon placement based on the intentions of the photographer.
A horizon placed at or above the upper horizontal third is used to emphasize the foreground – such as in the seascape above.
Placement of the horizon at or below the lower horizontal third allows a photographer to emphasize aspects of the sky, such as during a beautiful sunset.
Discussions about the Rule of Thirds can become quite animated. Remember, it is more an approach a photographer can choose to use when he or she sees fit than something that has to be attempted in every shot. It also serves as a reminder that putting your subject dead center is not always the best way to frame your shot.