Rules of Thirdish

March 15, 2016  •  Leave a Comment
A recent post from PetaPixel by Tavis Leaf Glover reminded me about the 2nd most popular question I am often asked.  What the heck is Rule of Thirds and why does that mean I have to have a tic-tac-toe board on my LCD screen?  Now there's a run on sentence if I ever saw one.  I should know them well as my loyal readers have often pointed them out to me in my ramblings. (sigh)  

Ok, maybe it's the not 2nd most popular question, but it should be...

It should be because it's starts you thinking about the composition.  As an artist you need ask your self some questions.
  • Why are you making this?
  • Does this have to made?
  • Does this have be made right now?
  • Does this have to be made right now by me?
  • What's the story?

Now you might say this is just plain silly, asking yourself questions... It's photography after all, not rocket science.  After all I gotta do just point & shoot.  True, it's not rocket science, but it's still a science.  Plus people think you're crazy when you're talking to yourself.

Travis said in the article, "Like many other artists, I was brainwashed into thinking that the rule of thirds is an acceptable method of composing an image."  I hope he really wasn't brainwashed and was exaggerating a bit.  Brainwashing is just bad teaching.  Pus the stains never really come out, even with bleach.  Still he makes an excellent point in the article that you shouldn't use Rule of Thirds as a tent pole for composition.

"Okay Dono," you say.  "What is Rule of Thirds?"  Well, according to Bryan F. Peterson in his book,  Learning to See Creatively: Design, Color & Composition in Photography - "The guideline proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections." And he's not the only who thinks so.  Just ask your art teacher.

For example - Here is a photo I shot of my son during Winter Break.  It's a pretty good example of what they are talking about.  So you might say did I ask myself those pesky questions?  You betcha!  All the time because it's what I habitually do.
  • Why did I make this?  A: Because I needed a keepsake of my boy.
  • Did this have to be made? A: Of course he's my boy.  Who wouldn't?
  • Did this have to be made right now?  A: Well it was the last day of the Winter Break and I hadn't gotten around to it yet.  So yeah.  Also, Grandmas are pretty insistent about photos of their grand-kids.
  • Did this have to be made be right now by me?  A: See the previous answer about Grandmas.  Since I'm the only photographer in the family, Grandma "expects" me to do something about it.  :)
  • What's the story? A: Not so much a story, but an echo of a happy moment surrounded by the colors of Christmas.

I was limited in space and time for this image.  So I lined him up in way that I thought would be pleasing.  The best option was Rule of Thirds so I took it.  I selected a shallow depth of field.  This also helped me get the bokeh I was looking for.  I shot a couple with the flash.  However, I used the one I shot without the flash. The ambient light was more pleasing.  More importantly Grandma was pleased.
Remember though Rule of Thirds is a choice.  The Art Police will not arrest you for not using it.  There are many other techniques to guide your composition besides rule of thirds: Rule of Odds, Rule of Space, Simplification, Geometry & Symmetry, and many more.  This image of frozen vines from a previous winter trip doesn't use Rule of Thirds.  It uses negative & positive spaces, plus a dynamic tonal range to weave you through the image.  The vignette added afterwards keeps your eye in the center while the branches carry the eye around. And yes, I did ask myself those pesky questions.

I created this because I had traveled up north after a snow storm.  Being a Florida boy, seeing snow and ice just laying around everywhere is novel. I had pulled over looking for gas and to my dismay the gas station had not been in service for awhile.  Vines had grown over it and were slowly devouring the building.  The vines had been frozen in ice.  I walked around the building crunching through the snow and I took several images. When I began to look through the vines I saw what I had been thinking. My old photography teacher referred to this as, "Think before you click!"  My thought was, "trapped in the winter was the possibilities of renewal or rebirth."  Not a new thought, but it was one I wanted to capture. 
Regardless on how you apply composition to your work, it should help in telling a story.  Remember life isn't two dimensional.  Heck, it's not even three dimensional.  Just because you've reduced a decisive moment into a "thing" that represents that moment, doesn't mean it should be "blah."  A photograph, or other work of art, should imply a story sense.  The beauty and challenge of photography is that the story doesn't have to be linear.  You can start anywhere.  The image could be from the middle, the end or the beginning of the story.  It all comes down to you thinking about what you want to say.
Rule of Thirds is simply one of the ways to exercise your brain into thinking about what you have to say.  There are many more books and YouTube videos out there that discuss composition in magnificent detail.  I highly recommend exploring them all.  As you do you'll find your voice as you tell your story with images.

In his book Mastering Composition author and professional photographer Richard Garvey-Williams "argues that success lies in a combination of four elements: an impactful subject; dynamic composition; effective use of lighting; and, perhaps the most crucial, ability to invoke an emotional response in the viewer."
If anyone is interested in going down this rabbit hole, I'm meeting on Saturday, February 27th to have a coffee talk about composition.  I'm calling it the JPI Foto Group and we will meet at JPI at 2:30 PM.  This is a FREE meeting no strings.  Just bring up to 5 prints, no bigger than 10x15, of your work to share.  The opening theme suggestion for the first meeting is Black & White.  Like I said the theme is just a suggestion.  Bring your favorite print or something that you've been stuck on.  Just email me to let me know you are coming.  Oh did I mention snacks and drinks...? My treat! (sorry no alcohol).  Seating is Limited.
As always I'm interested in hearing your thoughts about photography.  You can reach me at

Thank you for sticking with my ramblings.
Cheers Dono
Director of Education 


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