Photography Experiment: Rule of Thirds

Photography is all about a balance between artistic vision and technical skill.  Mastering your camera’s manual mode is the technical skill side which is important but your artistic vision is also key to great photography.

Composition is your opportunity to express your unique take on a subject by framing a perspective that lets your subject stand out, conveys emotion, directs the eye, or gives weight to the most important part of your image.  Like all art, composition is subjective.  And while there are some very helpful ‘rules’ to guide you in thinking differently about your composition (and cropping), you should do what best suits your photo and vision which might require you to break the ‘rules’ sometimes.

This photography experiment is about the Rule of Thirds composition guideline which states that: “an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.” (Bryan Peterson’s Learning to See Creatively)

rule of thirds positive and negative space

Sometimes following this rule strictly will benefit your photo’s composition, other times you’ll want to apply it loosely to get the most out of your subject.  There are also going to be times when you’ll want to break this rule completely.  This is the joy of photography as your art.  Experiment with it and enjoy it.

The earliest reference to the Rule of Thirds is attributed to John Thomas Smith in his 1797 work Remarks on Rural Scenery (pp. 15-17) in which he writes about the ‘rule of thirds’ expanding on Sir Joshua Reynolds idea of the balance of light and dark in paintings.  You can read the full passage but in short Smith talks about framing elements in a ratio of 2/3 to 1/3.  He gives the example of a landscape where you decide whether to frame 2/3 of the sky and 1/3 of the land or the other way around.

“I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion […] than any other proportion whatever.”

Smith also applied the concept of the rule of thirds to an image’s light, shade, form, colour, and space not just physical elements.  We can look at the positive and negative space of an image with the rule of thirds in mind too. The positive space of a photo is filled with something; subjects, lines, shapes, etc. Negative space is what surrounds the positive space and is generally empty or void but it can also be a repeating texture or pattern. The rule of thirds can also be a good guideline for framing the positive and negative space in your image especially when deciding which will get more weight in your frame.

Rule of thirds

Experiment with the rule of thirds.  Go out and take new photos with this composition in mind or go back over some of your photos and recompose with the cropping tool.  I enjoy doing this because sometimes going back over your photos with fresh eyes gives you a different perspective and you can breathe new life into an old image.

Share your experiment images on Instagram using the #LiloliaPhotographyExperiment hashtag.

Have a look at examples of the rule of thirds in action in Creative Market’s post and watch this video on the rule of thirds by Joshua Cripps.  His videos are awesome.




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Verity M

Freelance Writer. Love Reading, Photography, & Life Design. I'm all about Curiosity & Creativity.

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