The Rule of Thirds

Back in the ’80s and ’90s I had a side business doing editorial and stock photography. I didn’t exactly “re-invent the wheel” but I was self-taught and along the way met a few talented people who guided me in the ways of composition and the Darkroom Arts.

My first big lesson was from the boyfriend of a co-worker. He had taken a photography class and introduced me to the Rule of Thirds. Simply stated: Divide any image into nine equal parts by using two evenly spaced horizontal lines and two evenly spaced vertical lines. Place the objects of interest along these lines or where they intersect.

Image credit: Cee Neuner

Image credit: Cee Neuner

For example: place the horizon in the top, or bottom, one-third of the image, not the center. Place the lone tree in either the left or right one-third of the image, not the center.

It doesn’t matter if the image is in a square, rectangular, or letterbox format—the Rule of Thirds will help you compose a pleasing image. How is this possible? Beats me. I tend to stick to what works and not waste time over-analyzing it.

This week our friend, Cee, is hosting a photo challenge that has to do with the Rule of Thirds and I thought that it is a great chance to participate and also examine the changes that are taking place my own photography. More on that after the following personal insight.

Thirty years ago Print Media ruled and the rectangular format was a natural choice to use. Vertical images were the ones that nabbed covers and full-page layouts, while horizontal images were used for a half-page image on a single page at best, or the rare “Double-truck” image that spanned two pages when the magazine was completely opened.

The square format was also a popular way to go. The Advertising World in particular loved it. Typically using a medium format camera, a photographer could shoot one photo and crop it to suit a vertical or horizontal layout if they allowed enough room around the main subject. It must be noted at this point that the square format absolutely ruled for LP record album covers, brochures and, eventually, CD cases. Do you feel dated? I know that I do.

98% of my photography was done using a 35mm camera—a classic 3X2 rectangle. I had a couple of medium format cameras that shot square images on 6X6 film (60mm square). As gorgeous as the photos were from the larger negatives I just didn’t put them to good use. I relied instead on my smaller, lighter 35 mm cameras and interchangeable lenses to get in and out for fly-on-the-wall reportage images and landscapes from any angle, in any weather.

So let’s fast forward to last year, 2014, and my new friend, Egmont—a former advertising photographer. His specialty was table-top product shots on 6X6 film using a medium format camera. Square images. Gorgeous compositions. A major fan of four equal sides. His enthusiasm is contagious.

I joined Egmont and a few of his friends for a Photo-walk through Fort Point and the Presidio in June last year and I caught the 4-cornered Bug from him. I was dabbling with the Hipstamatic app and not really digging the square format.

After a day with my new friends I got a new attitude and started to change my way of recording the world around me. So much so that today—18 months later—I changed the screen format on my go-to photo app, ProCamera, from a rectangle to a square. I have always been a huge fan of composing my photos from edge-to-edge in the view-finder frame. No cropping necessary. It saved a lot of time in the darkroom. What you see is what you get—WYSIWYG. The Art of the Squared Circle. Yo, Rockyyyyyyyy!

I’m back. Let’s go to Cee’s Photography Challenge.

Cee’s Week #9 Rule of Thirds Introduction

Cee has asked us to submit 4—6 photos illustrating the Rule of Thirds topic and describe what we learned. Grab your hats, here we go…

01_pt reyes thirds_w:text

Let’s start with the basic rectangle. Here we have one-third sky, one-third ocean/shore, and one-third land. Three horizontal layers with the addition of an angled surfline approximately one-third of the way in from the right edge of the frame.

For extra credit, can you see the person on the beach? Hint: Click on the image for a closer look.

I knew that you could…




This is a look at one end of the skylight that runs the length of the Marin County Civic Center. It fills the top two-thirds of the frame and is centered from side-to-side.

Some rules are meant to be broken/modified.

I used the Jack London lens/Blanko film combination in the Hipstamatic app for this photo.






This cluster of leaves and berries is placed one-third of the way in from the left side of the frame. The trailing stem pulls the eye toward the negative space on the right side of the frame.

I used the Aatto Lens/Reeta Film/Jolly Rainbo 2X Flash combination in the Hipstamatic app to take this photo.



04_thirds w:textThis is a photo of the corner of a sheet of glass that is suspended from the face of a concrete wall by four cylindrical metal supports.

We have several things going on in this photo and it might help if you were to think about the old Tic Tac Toe game. Your line of sight will be on a diagonal path across this image from the black rectangle in the lower left of the picture, through the silver circle in the middle and upwards to the right angle interplay of glass and shadow.

I used the Savannah Lens/AO BW Film combination in the Hipstamatic app to shoot this photo.



This photo uses a combination of elements to add a sense of motion to the image. The massive tubular steel and glass canopy fills the top two-thirds of the image and the sweeping curved lines from the upper right corner down to the lower third of the left vertical axis pulls the eye toward the distance.

I shot this photo with the Hipstamatic app using the Salvador 84 Lens/Big Easy Film/Standard Flash combination.



C’mon now, you knew it was coming. A photo of the Golden Gate Bridge by yours truly was a foregone conclusion in this post. Am I right, or am I right?


06_ggb_w:textHere’s the thing about photographing bridges: You don’t get a good profile shot of them. Think about that for a minute. It’s a bridge and unless you are a bird, in a plane, on a ship or at the bottom of a canyon, where are you going to setup to take the photo?

Take a tip from someone who has a couple more of these bridge photos, slightly off to the side and at one end or the other works the best.

Photographing bridges is a great opportunity to put the Rule of Thirds to use. In the photo above you can see how I placed the South Tower on the right vertical axis and the concrete pylon of the arch over Ft. Point on the left axis.

Yes, the roadway of the bridge runs right across the top-to-bottom center of the frame but in Al’z World no one cares. Once you understand the rules and the underlying principles, you are free to break them.

“A craftsman knows how to avoid mistakes. An artist knows how to use them.” —Randy Thom

I hope that this has been informative for you and I am curious to hear how you follow the Rule of Thirds—or when you break it.

Have a great week,

  12 comments for “The Rule of Thirds

  1. December 8, 2015 at 9:16 PM

    Thanks for the useful lesson.


    • December 9, 2015 at 6:33 AM

      You are welcome, Joyce. I hope that you find something in there that will help you on your next photo outing.


  2. December 7, 2015 at 3:54 PM

    Allan, I enjoyed your thoughts and those in the comments. One of the things I love about the internet and the (mostly) WP community, is the opportunity to learn and enjoy what others are doing. Lovely photos as well and yes, I expected the bridge, but it still is beautiful.



    • December 8, 2015 at 6:03 AM

      Thanks for your comments, Janet. I’m glad that the post was informative for you. I didn’t want it to sound like a lecture. I do agree with you about the WP community and the opportunity to learn new skills and meet talented people from around the world.


  3. December 7, 2015 at 9:03 AM

    Allan, such an informative and cool post. And yes, the Golden Gate Bridge is a must for you to show off. Your photos are absolutely wonderful, as always. 😀


    • December 7, 2015 at 9:07 AM

      Thanks, Cee, and thank you for this topic. I had fun with this post.


  4. December 7, 2015 at 8:26 AM

    An education, Allan. Thank you for sharing these beautiful images, and for telling a little of your story as an evolving photographer. So much of my work is centered, because I’m filling the frame with a flower or leaf. But you are right that the ‘thirds’ rule offers a more pleasing image. The ‘tic tac toe’ concept takes that realization to an entirely different plane. Thank you for this post. Best wishes, WG


    • December 7, 2015 at 8:57 AM

      Thanks, WG. Once you get “into” the Rule of Thirds you will never look at a waffle the same again.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. December 7, 2015 at 8:02 AM

    Enjoyed your commentary. Have to try using the square format, but it seems that it squeezes the “rule of thirds” concept. My work is intuitive. Once in a while I think about the division of the spatial plane. It’s seems that I shoot like driving a car that needs an alignment. I tend to use the right side of the frame as my way to emphasize (seems an automatic “rule of thirds at times). That’s what I’ve noticed. Still, breaking that rule is easy for me, because I do not think about it that much. I do HOWEVER know that the best images are true to their mission, and sometimes front and center does work.


    • December 7, 2015 at 8:55 AM

      Hi Sally. Consistency can be a virtue, if you are making the right choices all along. LOL.

      I didn’t realize how “automatic” my framing choices had become until I switched formats and had to think about what I was doing. I enjoy a challenge and that simple act has provided hours of fun for me this year.
      I think that I will probably go to the 16:9 panorama format for my next “internal challenge”.

      Thanks for your comment,


      • December 7, 2015 at 9:24 AM

        Oh, I also want to explore panorama. That will my upcoming challenge.


      • December 7, 2015 at 9:28 AM

        I look forward to seeing your results.


Questions? Comments? Let's talk...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: