The Suggestion of Thirds

This morning, a friend asked whether I use “that whole rule of thirds thing when composing or cropping.” I certainly do, except when I don’t.

Often, I try to land the intersection right on an eye. I think you can see how the rule of thirds gives this image a certain dynamism that would be lacking if the subject was dead center. I mean, there's a reason they call it dead center.

In a nutshell the “rule of thirds” says that if you trisect an image horizontally and vertically, the natural centers of interest occur at the intersections of the trisection lines. People obsessed with the rule of thirds insist that a symmetrical image with the subject precisely centered is inherently boring.

I use this image in my composition workshop because the center is just about the only place in this scene where nothing is happening.

I find it funny that a species that can parse “Thou Shalt Not Kill” into “it’s okay to kill” includes members who hold steadfastly to a mathematical determination of what is visually interesting and what is not. Pah! There are plenty of times when a perfectly centered smiling face is so compelling that bi-directional symmetry is not a sin. Besides, a human face typically becomes the center of interest, wherever it appears in a photo. You can still achieve interesting balance with negative space, leading lines, and other compositional elements.

On one level, this picture is "centered," but the eyes are above, right, and left of center. Eyes pretty much always draw attention.

My compositional guideline is the “suggestion of thirds.” My camera viewfinder features a built-in grid, and the cropping tool in Aperture shows a trisection grid as well. So yes, I consider the rule of thirds when composing and cropping, but I don’t feel bound by it. If I can land an eye or a breast at an intersection of the thirds, I do so and I feel pretty crafty about it.  But usually, I just try to keep my subject off center while shooting, and then I crop until I like the image.

Here, Sally Bowles face is pretty much dead center. But the overall subject shape and negative space have nothing to do with the center, right?

Composition is a really rich subject.  Here you will find a link to a presentation I did for the Ojai Photography Club.  I found the main content at and got permission from the fellow who created it – bless the Internet! It’s a fun and quick way for patient, conscientious photographers to learn a number of techniques for more interesting compositions. Of course, this blog is for lazy, disorganized, impatient shooters, so you can also just move around, experiment, and not center everything.

If your images look static and boring to you, try cropping them with the rule of thirds in mind. There's a lot more to composition than the rule of thirds, but it's a great place to start.

By the way, I’ll bet you want to see Cabaret now that you’ve seen these teaser images. Well, you should, because it’s going to be great.

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Filed under Composition, Dance and Theater, Motivation, Professional vs. Amateur

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