The Rule of Thirds Revisited

We’ve all seen the term used, and the approach should not be a novel one to most of us at this point.  Heck, I’ve even talked about it here before to a certain degree.  But today, I’d like to take the Rule of Thirds and look at it from two distinct approaches:  landscape and portrait photography.  The reason is because the rule can be applied in different ways and these two genres illustrate well how the same rule can be applied completely differently.

To start, let’s just review real quick…

The Principle

The Rule of Thirds is a general rule of composition that suggests we divide our image up mentally into horizontal and vertical thirds to try and compose things interestingly.  In general, the rule suggests that you can make things more interesting by placing the subject either on a hotspot or on one of the imaginary lines.  I’d written on this in the past, so even have a demo grid to illustrate it:

Rule of Thirds Grid

Rule of Thirds Grid

The problem comes in defining what is interesting.  Do we place our subject on a hotspot or on one of the lines?  It also is a matter of which hotspot or line to place your subject on.  Think about it, we can put a subject on the lower third or upper third, but which looks better?  One person may look at the picture and say the upper third looks better, while another may say the lower does, and yet another may say that the image calls for breaking the Rule of Thirds and centering the subject!  Clearly, there are many different interpretations.  Today though, we’re focusing on the two distinct approaches of using the hotspots versus the lines.

The Results

The upshot here is that it seems the hot-spot approach works well with portraiture while the linear approach seems to work well with landscapes.  If you look back in your own image libraries, I bet your favorite landscapes have the horizon on one of the horizontal “thirds” lines.  If the horizon is on a bottom third, then the emphasis is likely on the sky, while if the horizon is on an upper third, the emphasis is more focused (pardon the pun) on the foreground.  Here’s a few examples of landscapes that incorporate the Rule of Thirds to illustrate what I am talking about…


Folly Beach, SC


Bull Island, SC

Can you see the “thirds” lines?  I could do the overlays, but think you can probably get the gist.  But now, try to visualize the hot spots in these images.  A little trickier isn’t it?  I think it’s because hot spots as subject points in landscapes are scarcer.  This is not to say they do not exist because they do, and there is sufficient evidence to support that, but overall a landscape image is more about the entire scene, and the best way to convey that scene is by composing to accent the best elements, which are often the lines – whether it’s lines of water rippling, lines of trees, or lines of mountains and such, the best way to position these is with lines rather than hotspots.

Likewise, if you are shooting portraiture, some of the best results I’ve seen have been where the subjects face (and particularly, the eyes) land on a hotspot.  Take a look at these examples here:





Can you see the hot spots and where their eyes are?  I could do the overlays but again, think you probably get the gist here.  Where are the imaginary “thirds” lines though?  Not as easy to imagine here either, and for similar reasons.  Because it seems as though portraits tend to lend themselves toward what I am calling “hot spot composition”, while landscapes seem to tend toward “thirds line composition”.

Then again, I could be completely off my rocker – so what do you think?  Is there merit in the idea?  Should I patent this, write my first book and become insanely wealthy?  Or, is this a farce?  Should I give up trying to come up with new ways of looking at classic approaches to composition?    Okay, obviously I am probably somewhere in between these two extremes, not completely off in Bizzaro world, but also not poised to make a mint either!  Regardless, I’d really like to hear the reader thoughts on this approach – do you notice certain types of photography lend themselves toward particular rules of composition?  If so, which ones go best with which rules?  What about the “why”?  Why do you think some rules seem to work better for some images and others not at all?  Or, do you tend to avoid the rules of composition and make things up as you go along?  Chime in with your thoughts in the comments or via email.

Happy Shooting and we’ll see you back here again tomorrow!

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3 comments for “The Rule of Thirds Revisited

  1. July 8, 2009 at 11:10 am

    Great article Jason! For myself, I’ve been learning to use the rule of thirds more with portrait shooting. Things like framing of the subject, etc… Of course, there are often times when breaking the rules works well too… But I usually find those only come out well (for me) when I KNOW I am breaking the rules!

    Great post. I look forward to your upcoming articles in the magazine. Keep up the great work!

  2. Hali
    July 10, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Thanks for another great post Jason, I never quite realized that I was doing hotspots for wildlife images and lines for landscapes but yes, indeed in most of the cases thats exactly what I do. Keep it coming!

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