Landscape Compositional Tool #4:

Rule of Thirds

One of the most popular landscape photograph compositional tools is the so called “rule” of thirds. This technique doesn’t work for every photo, which is why I consider it a tool rather than a “rule.” The idea behind the “rule” of thirds is to divide the photograph into three equal parts in both the horizontal and vertical axes. When arranging the composition on location, the goal is to place items of interest along the inside axes and the four corners of the inside box as shown in the graphic below.

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Placing the subject of the photo in the middle does not generate as much interest as if the subject is off center, which is one of the goals of the “rule” of thirds. Adding items of interest along the axes and four corners generates a photo that is more pleasing to the human eye.

In the photos below of Lone Cypress in Monterey, California, you can see how the horizon is approximately aligned with the top line and there are interesting items at each of the four circles. The tree branches, the sun, the water/rock interaction, and the rocks in the bottom left all provide interesting elements for the viewer and they peruse the photo. This compositional technique creates an pleasing photo for the viewer with multiple points of interest as the viewer moves their eyes around the photograph.

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As another example, the photos below show a geyser erupting in Yellowstone National Park. You can see the sun, the geyser steam, the sun reflection, and the base of the geyser all fall on the four corners of the “rule” of thirds axes. This adds interest to the photo and allows the viewer’s eyes to find a pleasing item to look at as their gaze wanders around the photo. Using this technique can hold a viewer’s attention longer because it can provide interest in a way that is pleasing to the eye.

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The previous two examples have shown how to use the “rule” of thirds by placing something of interest at each of the four corners, but it’s not necessary to place something on every axis or corner to generate an interesting photo using this compositional technique. In the image below of Bonsai Rock at Lake Tahoe, the horizon and mountains in the background is placed along the top line and Bonsai Rock is placed on the upper left corner. By not placing something on each of the four corners, it allows the main subject, Bonsai Rock in this case, to stand out and make it the clear subject of the photograph.

May 19, 2021

As another example, the landscape photograph below places the horizon along the top line and the rock is oriented in the upper right corner. There is some reflection in the lower left corner, but it isn’t a significant point of interest.

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When photographing a single element, such as False Klamath Rock from Northern California above, it’s more interesting to have that single element on one of the four corners. This allows for subtle elements to balance the photo and generate more interest than if the subject was in the middle of the frame. In the photo above, the rock is on the upper right corner and there is some interesting reflections happening on the left vertical line to balance the rock.

By placing the horizon along one of the two lines, it generates more interest in the photograph than if the horizon is through the middle of the scene. Whether the horizon is placed on the top or bottom line depends on the scene and how interesting of a sky there is compared with the scene. If there is more interest in the foreground than the sky, I recommend placing the horizon on the top line. On the other hand if there is more interest in the sky than the foreground, I recommend placing the horizon on the bottom line.

The “rule” of thirds is one of if not the most popular compositional technique in landscape photography. By placing items of interest along the intersections of the vertical and horizontal lines, a photographer can generate an interesting photo pleasing to the viewer’s eye. Not every scene fits this so called “rule.” This landscape compositional technique is one of many tools in the landscape photographer’s toolbox to create a compelling image. For more examples of landscape compositional tools, check out this article!

What are your thoughts on the “rule” of thirds? Let me know in the comments below!

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