What You Don’t Know About the Rule of Thirds

Posted by on Jul 29, 2013 in Visual Language | 2 Comments

Ok, so, you’ve learned how the camera works, and you’re getting used to using your camera’s manual mode when making pictures. Maybe you’ve also gotten the hang of using software like Lightroom to organize and make adjustments to your images on the computer.

You’ve definitely come a long way since the days of shooting your vacation pictures on “Auto” and printing them at the local drugstore. You feel like you have a lot more control over the process of making images, and it is a great feeling to have.

But then you wonder, “Now what? Where can I go from here? What exactly do I need to learn to move forward in my photography and feel a sense of progress?”

Welcome to the plateau of the learning process. This is the point at which many people will remain for the rest of their photographic lives!

If you want to move forward from here, there are two distinctively different sets of skills you’ll need to develop. It helps to categorize them according to their predominant brain hemisphere:

  • Right side of the brain (creative/spatial)
  • Left side of the brain (technical/logical)

If you think of each class you take or concept you learn in this way, you’ll have a better handle on where you are in the learning process, and where you need to be.

Understanding Photographic Composition

While there are lot of technical (read: left brained) skills you need to develop along the way such as lighting, image processing, and printing skills, the skills that tend to be underrated (but most important!) in photography are those related to understanding visual language (that elusive right brain concept).

Now, I can hear your voices saying, “I know all about composition! I learned about the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio in my photo class or YouTube tutorial, and I go by them all the time!”

Maybe that’s true.

But the belief that there are universal rules to “good composition” is misguided at best (thanks to the proliferation of YouTube learning), and this way of thinking causes many students to misunderstand the fundamental concept of visual language.

Edward Weston once said:

“To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.”

What does he mean by this? Is he saying that the Rule of Thirds does or doesn’t work? Is he saying that we need to understand what Newton discovered about gravity in order to use these rules?

While there is no way to confirm his true intention, this is my take on it: composition is something we need to consider on a case-by-case basis, and it really comes down to what you are seeing and trying to capture in your pictures. So, more often than not, these prescribed rules won’t apply.

To rephrase Edward Weston, in my own words:

Composition is the result of problem-solving (and compromises) in spatial relationships.

There are two implications to this:

The first is that you need to look at composition as something specific to each unique situation you encounter, just like Edward Weston points out. Forget about thinking about the rules/solution before you encounter the problem!

The second is that it is a problem-solving process (and should be an organic one), meaning you may not arrive at the optimal solution on your first attempt. All processes (even seemingly simple ones, like learning how to walk) take time.

Three Steps to Improving Your Photography through Composition

So how can we put this into practice? I will give you three easy steps to start with:

1) Be very, very conscious of the frame
You need to think of the rectangular shape of your image as your painter’s canvas. While you are looking at what you are photographing, it is important to be aware of the location of your subject matter within the rectangular space. Is it centered, on one of the sides, or in one of the corners?

2) Take out the clutter
Take out the stuff you don’t need. Be really brutal! Ask yourself, “what am I interested in in this picture?” It is usually a detail or two and not the entirety of the picture. So, remove all of the unnecessary parts that you can. Really, photography is all about subtraction (like Haiku!).

3) Organize what’s left for visual design and weight
If you’re left with, say, five objects in your picture, organize them with two things in mind: visual design and hierarchy based on the object’s importance (weight). Place them very consciously using your canvas, giving the most weight (prominence) to the most important elements as a cue to your viewers.

To help you learn the process of organizing the visual elements in your pictures, it may be beneficial to turn your pictures into black-and-white images. Don’t worry about enhancing these images if you don’t want to. The simple act of removing the distracting element of color from your images can really help you see the visual elements more clearly.

This is a good, simple way to start thinking about using composition to get the most out of every picture you create. It will be quite challenging when you’re starting out. If you find yourself taking a long time to look through the camera’s viewfinder to frame your image, you’re doing it right!

In my next post, I will talk a little more about going through this process, using visual examples. In the mean time, if you try making some pictures using these three steps, send us your results!

Related Classes

Want to learn more about composition? Check out the next blog post:

What you don’t know about the rule of thirds #2 »


  1. Joe Connett
    July 30, 2013

    I often struggle with what to leave in and what to leave out. Converting to B/W does eliminate some of the clutter from my vision but still I always find myself in doubt. I will try some your advice to see if I get a better result,pr at least convince myself I’m on the right trail. Thank you for this article. Look forward to more reading from the blog…………Joe

    • Tsuyoshi I.
      August 1, 2013

      Hi Joe,

      Thanks for your comment!

      Sure, I understand your “doubt.” Frankly, I think that is a good sign.

      Try to ask yourself the most important question first: “what am I interested in this picture?”

      It is often the case that you can almost pinpoint which “elements” you are really interested or attracted to within your picture in the first place. That is the most important element, which I call “the feature of the picture.”

      Then use other elements to compliment the importance (weight) of “the feature”, and that is where you draw the line. If you cannot use them in a way that is not complimentary, take them out of your picture.

      Try to think the whole process in this “cascade” manner. It will help you.

      Let me know how it goes.



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