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incorrect use of rule of thirds for photography composition
using rule of thirds for landscape composition

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the most important rules of photographic composition. Landscape photographers are particularly fond of this one, but it works well for many types of subject.

The rule of thirds simply says that, instead of placing the main focus of interest in the center of the frame, which makes for a very static composition, that you look to position it on an intersection of the thirds. That is to say one third up and one third in or two thirds up and one third in etc.

Placing the Horizon on the Third

The most common application of the rule of thirds is in placing the horizon in a landscape picture. Take a look at the two versions of a landscape picture on the left, I hope you'll agree that the bottom photo is a more satisfying composition.

The sky contains very little detail so why show too much of it? In the bottom picture we have enough sky to show that it is a sunny day and now we have more room for interesting subject matter. The top picture looks cut in half, we feel unsure what we are supposed to be looking at when the picture is cut in half by the horizon.

If we had some interesting clouds to look at, we could just as easily place the horizon one third from the bottom of the picture to show that we are most interested in the sky. But we still wouldn't place it in the center of the frame. Never, ever put the horizon in the middle.

Also notice, in the pictures above, how the tree takes on more importance in the picture on the right because it now sits on the intersection of the vertical and horizontal third, which is a very powerful position in the frame.

The rule of thirds

Here's another 'thirdsy' sort of picture on the right. Placing the boat near the top of the picture tells the viewer that the main subject of the picture is the reflection in the water.

We could take the boat out altogether, of course, this would focus our attention even more on the reflection but the picture might then be a little too minimalist.

Also the mast is almost exactly on the 'third' line making it a very prominent part of the composition.

Placing the main elements of your composition on the thirds, and especially at the intersection of the thirds, is a powerful composition aid and will immediately improve your compositions.

Taking Advantage of the Intersection of the Thirds

Above is a picture from a recent visit to Davos, the mountain scenery there is hard to beat. The focal point of the picture is the patch of light in the valley lighting up the fields. Placing this at the intersection of the thirds makes it much stronger than if it were positioned in the middle of the frame and really draws your eye in to that point. The picture also divides on the top third line between the rugged rocks and the green of the fields. I think you'll agree it's a pretty dramatic shot.

Try applying the rule of thirds to other subjects, it's not just for landscapes by any means. All sorts of shots can be improved by moving the subject away from the centre of the frame.

Other tutorials in this section


An introduction to composition, explaining the 'rule of thirds' and the use of diagonals.

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Composition - Check the Background

Watch out for those ugly dustbins!

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Rule of Thirds

The most important rule of composition.

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How to fill your frame with your subject.

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Another important aspect of composition.

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Depth of Field

What it is and how to use it creatively.

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Blur or Bleah?

How to use Motion Blur, and a discussion on when it's appropriate.

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