The 3 most important compositional ‘rules’ in photography, and the ‘rule of thirds’

Photo of author

Words/photographs: Tony Eveling

3 of the most important compositional techniques, employed by all photographers in one form or another whether they realise it or not, and how it all relates to the ‘Rule of thirds’.

Essential if you want to create aesthetically pleasing images


All photographs employ the same compositional techniques.

The statement above I think is one of the most important things that a beginner photographer should learn and understand.

Creatively Composed 3. Three compositional techniques, plus the rule of thirds
Blandford Forum in Dorset, England, UK

It doesn’t matter whether you are a portrait photographer or a landscape photographer or anything in between, the same compositional techniques in  photography apply to all genres and styles of photography.

The three techniques that I will describe in this article are also common to all photography, even though I talk about them in the context of landscape photography.

How you end up interpreting these techniques is up to you, but for me, the following three techniques collectively combine to visually form the so called ‘rule of thirds’

The ‘rule of thirds’ doesn’t exist in it’s ‘advertised’ form.  It’s a lazy teacher that tells you that it will improve your photographs. The rule of thirds is actually the combined result of employing the three techniques I am about to describe.

If you put too much time and energy into those ‘magic bullet’ solutions like ‘the rule of thirds’, ‘dynamic symmetry’ or the ‘golden ratio’, then your photography will suffer in the long term.

If you insist that these have worked for you over the decades that you have been creating photographs, then look at the quality of your images. Compare them to established photographers. How do yours compare? Be honest.

You will learn here to apply the ‘rule of thirds’ creatively rather than the usual lazy advice which is that ‘it will always work’, it ‘will improve your photography’ and ‘all the photography greats use it’.

Believe me…the photography greats do not use it.

So read on if you want to become a better photographer!

But before we go on…because I know that some people become will be emotionally attached to the ‘rule of thirds’, so I’ll say this…if you are a beginner, then feel free to use it as a stepping stone to a more creative way of creating photographs.

But you need to move on from there as you progress out of the beginner stage.

This article is here to help you do just that.

Okay I’m convinced, I believe you, now tell me what these techniques are.

The three techniques are:

  • Placement
  • Separation
  • Balance

And I know, they aren’t going to mean anything yet, but nobody really talks about this stuff in the simple way that I am about to, so I’ve had to create my own terminology. It’s the explanations that really matter.

I think you can probably guess what Balance is or might be, but anyway, if you have an open mind and are prepared to listen and learn, these techniques will speed up your photography learning significantly.

So here we go…

1. Placement

By ‘placement’ I mean the placement of objects on the edge of/or leaving the frame

So some people will say ‘don’t chop people’s heads off’, and we’ve all seen those family photos that have zero attention to composition. But what I say is….Okay, chop people’s heads off, but please, please be careful!

For example, if you photograph a child holding hands with its mother, in order to focus on the child you can chop off the head and body of the mother in order to focus the viewers eye onto the child.

The mothers body will leave the frame, and your eyes will be naturally drawn to the child.

This way you can have a mother and child photograph, but one that draws the viewers eye to the child whilst retaining the mother and child concept.

You should always be aware of objects close to the edge of the frame.

The decision to leave something entirely out of view, or wholly in view but near the edge of the frame is very important for the balance of the image and can determine where the eye is led when viewing an image.

If you allow an object to partially leave the frame, you have to position the object so that it looks like you meant it to be there, and ideally you should actually want it to be there.

You have to have enough of the object in the frame for it to have meaning for the overall composition.

Objects that you allow to leave the frame should be instantly recognisable to the viewer when they view the image for the first time.

So a tree that is in view and leaves the edge of the frame, should be instantly recognisable as a tree, and if the viewer looks at the image and has an urge to follow the tree out of the frame to see what’s there, then that is poor composition.

Placement makes you aware of this so that you compose with this in mind.

In landscape and general outdoors photography, you don’t have complete control over what is presented to you in the environment that you are photographing.

Once you have identified a subject to photograph, whether it be a sweeping vista or a street vendor in a city, the surrounding objects and their positioning in the composition can provide extra meaning and context to your image.

Be careful not to pull the viewers eye away from the main subject of the photograph because of awkwardly placed objects at the edge.

Are you saying that you can’t put objects close to the edge of the frame?

However, having said that, I quite like placing secondary elements near the edge of the frame, like a bird walking along the floor, you can have that very close to the edge of the frame about to walk out.

Quirky little things like that are fun to include, and as long as they are incidental to the overall composition, such objects tend not to jar with the viewer.

As long as you realise that the viewers eye should be naturally drawn towards what you have decided to be the subject of the photo,  then yes you can have objects near the edge of the frame.

Those secondary objects have to be placed according to the ‘placement’ technique described here, so that the viewers eye is not disturbed.

Just use ‘Placement’ as your guide.

How about some examples…

This picture is of a man walking across the frame, but the geometry and symmetry of the background was also important for the composition.

In fact that building was my ‘moment of inspiration’, it’s just that I thought it would be a nice addition to include a person walking past.

So this image is not going to win any awards, I know!  But it works compositionally as it doesn’t make you want to look outside the frame.

To retain the visual impact of the windows and other shapes I could not use a wide angle lens, as the composition would completely change.

I kept the tight crop, and removed the entire bottom half of the lone figure, which worked visually and retained my original idea for the photo.

What about an example of bad placement

Lone figure,zagreb,Croatia
Lone figure,zagreb,Croatia

Well, I can do that with the same photograph. So have you have noticed any problems with this image, because I have.   It’s not a huge problem, but it is a ‘placement’  related problem.

If you look at the top edge of the frame, you’ll see those two decorations that are equal spaced along the top edge of the frame.

Those little incidental objects (compositionally, everything becomes an object), either need some space around them, so that we can see exactly what they are, or they need to go completely.

The problem is we can’t really see exactly what they are, so in that respect, they are unrecognisable, and it looks like they continue outside the frame, and that makes me want to know what is immediately outside the frame.

Therefore, those objects jar with me slightly, and it’s down to bad ‘placement’.

In reality I was aware of this, and this photo was the best compromise that I could create compostionally.

However, it didn’t make me dump the image, and you can find this image sitting happily in my main gallery…but ideally I would have got rid of them if I could.

So although it’s not a showstopper, it is an example of bad placement.

Example 2: 2 men on a jetty

The next example shows two men on a jetty, and it was important to show enough of the jetty to reinforce it’s status as a major element in the composition.

This image, with the jetty in the middle does not need the other jetty on the right with the two men standing on it.

But, the jetty is such a commonly photographed object, that I wanted to create something little different.

Swanage bay, dusk,dorset,england,uk
Swanage bay, dusk,dorset,england,uk

The two men standing and talking provided a twist to an old favourite, and it was important to place the jetty carefully in the composition.

Too little of the right hand side jetty and the eye would want to drift outside the frame which would jar with the viewer.

Too much and my overall composition would drift away from the center main jetty.

Also, the men on the jetty fill a space on the right side of the image that balances the silhouetted headland on the left side on the horizon.

2. Separation

Put space between objects/elements so that viewers can see exactly what they are.

Objects that form part of a composition need to be separated from other objects in the frame so that we can see exactly what they are.

Objects that are unrecognisable or merge into other objects can really jar with the viewer.

The viewer needs to be able to recognise clearly all objects in a frame.

For example, a gap between the furthest end of a jetty and the horizon often looks better than the end of the jetty crossing over the horizon.

Or two distant people with no gap between them may look like an unrecognisable blob.

The same people with space between them will look more like two people and less like a blob.

Even pressing the shutter when someone is taking a stride will separate the legs and help tell the viewer what is going on.

In the context of this technique, the edge of the frame should also be regarded as an object that forms part of your composition.

So separation also refers to separation from the edge of the frame.

For example you should leave space between the top edge of the frame and the ridge of a mountain range.

You can very easily move objects in a photograph, you just move a pace or two to the left or right. Or you crouch down. Sometimes you can move up and down the side of a hill.

So if a tree needs to be ten meters to the left of the mountain peak in the distance, you just move to the right and the relative positions of the two will change.

This process requires a level of attention to detail which may seem over the top at first, but the results will speak for themselves.

Once you tune in to this it will become second nature.

The effect of moving objects in this way and separating objects and putting space between them will make a photograph more aesthetically pleasing and more comfortable on the eye.

It is a simple process easy to learn and will greatly improve your photography

With the image here of park benches in a Zagreb park I loved the curve that the
seats make placed on the edge of a curved pathway.

But the pathway is completely invisible due to the
covering of snow.

The snow simplifies the scene
which helps emphasise the graphic shapes made by
the bench seats and the trees in this Zagreb park.

Empty park benches in a Zagreb park, Croatia
Empty park benches in a Zagreb park, Croatia

I had to place the bench seats in-between and either side of the trees in the foreground making sure that there was enough of a gap between each of those objects.

Spacing the seats across the entire width of the frame was very important for my own vision of the final photograph.

There are also bins next to a couple of the bench seats that I wasn’t interested in, so I hid the bins as best I could.

Hiding the bins behind the bench seats may sound trivial, but if they were too prominent they would have broken the symmetry and pattern made by that curved line of the bench seats.

3. Balance

Don’t let highlight or shadow areas overpower any other part of the image.

If there is a dark object in the frame, then it should complement the composition, if it is too dark with little detail it may overpower a photograph in a negative way that wasn’t intended.

Sometimes there may be a shadow somewhere in the composition that didn’t even register when taking the photo, but becomes apparent back home on the computer.

If that shadow drags the eye away from the main subject, then the photograph becomes unbalanced.

Often this can be corrected in Photoshop, and so does not always pose a big problem.

It is not just shadow areas, but areas of intense colour, or very bright highlights.

Much of this can be corrected in Photoshop, but often being aware of this at the time of taking the photograph can save you time in Photoshop later on.

Being aware of this is potentially useful because you now have the opportunity to actually build it into a composition.

Extreme contrast becomes an object in itself as far as composition is concerned, that is why it un balances a composition.

But extreme blown highlights or shadow can be used and positioned within the frame to create striking and original compositions that draws a viewer in.

This photograph works much better in black and white than in colour.

When I looked at this on my computer I saw it in colour, and I was quite disappointed with it.

I wasn’t expecting a big wow factor photo, but I thought I’d created an interesting composition of beach huts against a cliff with the harsh midday sun creating well defined, dramatic shapes with intense contrast.

Beach huts and reflections, sandown, Isle of Wight, England, UK
Beach huts and reflections, sandown, Isle of Wight, England, UK

But the effect in my minds eye did not translate on the computer screen.

Until I converted to black and white and turned the sky from a bright blue to a dramatic pitch black.

Then I saw on the screen what I saw in my minds eye.

It is the drama of the pure black strip across the top third and the geometry of the huts along the bottom that creates a balanced composition and makes this an interesting composition to view and look at.

This composition was a nice idea, the idea being having Arundel castle in the middle of the frame with blue sky above and green grass below.

There was nothing I could do about that nasty shadow cast from the trees above my head. So I took the photo anyway to see what I could do in Photoshop, if anything. But the shadows were a messy shape and too overpowering and distracting, and so, eventually I gave up.

The shadow draws attention away from the castle and casts an undefined shape that unbalances my composition.

Had the shadow cast a more even dappled shadow, then this may have worked

Arundel Castle, West Sussex
Arundel Castle, West Sussex

Had I been determined to get a shot from this angle, then the environmental conditions would have to change, and that would create a different photograph altogether.

Actually, a gloomy cloudy day would have helped, although this wouldn’t have been a photograph about colour anymore.

Or even a long exposure night shot with moonlight on the castle, or a more traditional dawn or dusk shot with a warmer, more diffused light.

But one of the challenges for me in photography is too find compositions at any time of the day.

On this occasion though, I was unable to convert my vision, my little moment of inspiration, into a photograph.

So as you can now see, I don’t use the rule of thirds.  I actually use placement, separation and balance, which after the photo has been taken, you could be mistaken for thinking that the rule of thirds was used, and now you know that not to be the case.

Some people have an almost emotional attachment to the rule of thirds and its arbitrary application to their photography.  Those people might even get angry after reading a post like this.  However, you will not develop as a photographer unless you go beyond the rule of thirds.  The advice in this blog post is true and accurate and if you practice it and have an open mind, your photography will improve significantly.

So now when you see those rule of thirds photos with the grid applied, you will have a greater idea of why that photo works or doesn’t work.

Now it’s your turn! What do you think about this? Do you agree or disagree….? Feel free to express your views in the comments section and lets strike up a healthy discussion…..

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