'It's not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them'

- T.S. Eliot, interview with The Paris Review (Issue 21, 1959)

A number of  'rules of composition' or guidelines exist that we can use to improve our images. The most commonly known ones have been formulated over the centuries by artists working in a variety of visual mediums, from architecture to painting and photography. And while we all know the saying, 'rules were meant to be broken', there's clear benefit to understanding just what it is you're 'breaking' in the first place.

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In this article, we'll go over three of these established compositional rules, with examples that illustrate their concepts, and discuss why they are useful creative tools.

Rule of Thirds

Perhaps the most popular technique with which visual artists are familiar is the 'Rule of Thirds'. Simply put, the idea is that significant compositional elements be placed along imaginary lines that break the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Elements of particular interest can be placed at the intersection of these lines, for a more expressive and dynamic composition, as demonstrated in the pair of images below.

This composition is perfectly centered on the sand dune. Here, the ridge of the dune crest and the horizon were framed along imaginary lines that break the image into a 3 x 3 grid.

The rule of thirds was first formalized in literature by painter John Thomas Smith in 1797.  However, examples of art using this type of composition can be found in artistic traditions dating back to antiquity. East Asian art is particularly well-known for its use of asymmetrical compositions.

So why does using the rule of thirds help to create interesting images? 


With any of the compositional techniques discussed in this article, we are are seeking to highlight certain elements in the image and create a compelling balance between elements.

Creating a 'thirds' composition often introduces asymmetry into an image which helps to create a sense of drama that can be lacking in perfectly symmetrical images.

In the image below, you can see that the eyes of both the model and the horse rest along the imaginary grid. And the horse's right eye is located at the intersection of two gridlines. Eyes are obviously strong compositional elements. Our gaze is naturally drawn to the eyes of others. Placing important elements like these - whether a body part or a product for sale - along the thirds grid helps to draw attention to them.

Note the placement of the model's eye and the horse's eyes along the
'thirds grid'. When photographing people or animals, the eyes are
generally good compositional elements to highlight.

Before we continue, I should point out that while there are obvious benefits to framing your image with the rule of thirds in mind, you can still reap its compositional benefits post-capture by cropping. In fact, the fastest way to train yourself to 'see' in thirds is to spend some time experimenting with crops of your existing images and compare both versions.

Dynamic balance

In addition to being useful for determining placement of fine-grained features such as a model's eye, the Rule of Thirds can be used with coarse-grained features that affect that overall balance of the composition. The landscape image at the beginning of the article is an example of this, where the Rule of Thirds was used to determine placement of the horizon line and major geological features.

Here is another example where this rule is used to create balance in a dynamic composition. In this image, the model occupies only the center and right-most thirds of the image. The left-most third of the image is negative space, providing a strong sense of movement through contrast and the progression of tonal values in the image.

Look at the compositional balance between the model's body and the negative space. Each 'owns' one of the outermost grid columns and they 'share' the middle column. Also make note of the placement of the model's foot and knee, which rest along a grid line. Notice also the point at which her ribcage curls into the light.

Try to visualize how the image would look if instead, the model was positioned squarely in the center of the frame. The composition would lose not only much of its drama but also its sense of motion.

Click here to continue reading our Compositional Rules article