The really strong suggestion of thirds…

This image is all about the suggestion of 3rds!
This image is all about the suggestion of 3rds!

I was thinking about this while out catching images this afternoon. I have a little grid in my camera viewfinder that separates the view into thirds both ways: two horizontal lines and two vertical lines which intesect each other at the 1/3 points, and kind of float there in the view.

The rule of 3rds grid in my viewfinder.
The rule of 3rds grid in my viewfinder.

I use them all the time. I use them to decide where to place the horizon (and to keep the horizon straight). I use them to decide where to put the strong verticals in the image. I use them to decide where to put the primary subject…where to put what I want to viewer to notice first and to keep coming back to in the image. I never turn the grid off, though I could. It is there all the time, dividing the view into thirds.

You are going to hear about the rule of thirds sooner or later, so, if you haven’t heard about it already, you might as well hear it from me. (And I will try to make this article worth your while even if you have heard all you think you want to know about the rule of thirds.)

First, let’s get the rule part out of the way. Photography is an art, right, and some people strongly object to the notion that there are, or even can be, any kind of rules that govern an art. Art is about creativity, and creativity, in the minds of some, is most often about breaking the rules.

Horizon and strong vertical element: 3rds!
Horizon and strong vertical element: 3rds!

In the minds of some. Others see creativity as an act that is self-defining…it may obey all the rules you can imagine for its form, but it manages to be something more than the rules could have predicted. In a real sense, truly creative acts define the rules without being defined by them…they give, by their creative example, whatever rules might exist their true meaning and only reality.

But, just to be on the safe side, let’s say there is no rule of thirds. There still might, however, be a really strong suggestion of thirds.

That little grid in my viewfinder divides the view by the rule of thirds…er…the suggestion of thirds.

What that gives me is 9 quadrants of interest, 4 power points, two horizons, and two strong verticals. Some one must have described all this before, and you can probably find similar stuff in a hundred books on composition, but what I am telling you now I am making up as I go along. All that about quadrants of interest, power points, etc. is just the way I think about the suggestion of thirds, and it provides a frame of reference that, I hope, might help you to think about composition in your images.



The theory behind the suggestion of thirds, as I understand it, is that the eye is naturally drawn to the horizontals and verticals that divide the frame into thirds, and that our minds (spirits?) are comfortable with images that fall into 1/3 and 2/3 spaces. It has to do, some say, with a kind of tension that is introduced by that division, and the fact that the eye can roam over the frame and come back to rest at those dividing lines in a way that satisfies some inner sense of harmony.

That is why you see so many landscapes with the horizon at either the bottom or the top horizontal third line. That is why you see the strongest verticals in the images…whether they are trees, people, flag-poles, cliffs, or building edges…hugging the two vertical third lines.


At the same time, our eyes are drawn first to objects that sit at the power points…the places where the horizontal and vertical lines cross. And our eyes return repeatedly to any object (or subject) that is placed there.

Placing an object or subject at a power point produces a very different effect than placing the same object at the center of the frame. Center placement says “this is an image about this object or subject”…or perhaps even “this is a portrait of this object or subject.” That’s fine.

Placing an object or subject at a power point says “this is an image about the relationship of this object or subject to the rest of the image (and, by extension, the world as a whole). It is not a straight up portrait, but a portrayal of the object or subject in context, in relationship, in tension with its surroundings.

A seemingly insignificant or relatively small object or subject at a power point can dominate the image, drawing the eye back and back, until the mind has to grapple with the “what’s this all about?” question.

Another way of thinking of it is this: placing an object or subject at the power point is like flagging it…it says “look at this”…”notice this”…”whatever else you see here, don’t miss this.”

This image is not about the shells in the foreground, though they add visual interest and is about the two tiny girls standing at the power point and their relationship to the rest of the scene.
This image is not about the shells in the foreground, though they add visual interest and depth…it is about the two tiny girls standing at the power point and their relationship to the rest of the scene.

Each of the nine quadrants of interest, to me, has a different feel to it. Placing an important image element in any of the four outer corner quadrants (1,3,7,9) produces a real tension…gives the image a tilt to that quadrant. It can work for images where you want to challenge the viewer’s perceptions of the relationship of that element to the rest of the image and to the world around it.

Placing an important image element within the the outer center quadrants (4,6) feels to me like an entrance or an exit. If the object or subject is facing into the frame, then it is an entering element and there is a feeling of expectation, and eager feeling, a feeling of things about to happen.

If the object or subject is facing out of the frame, then it is an exiting element. “Just caught on the way out.” There is a feeling rush, a feeling of impatience, a tension that can be uncomfortable or simply challenging.

This entering and exiting elements concept is useful in the four corner quadrants too, of course, as elements placed there can be entering or exiting, and that will effect the way the viewer interprets the challenge of placing the object or subject there.

The center quadrant (5), as above, is, to my eye, for portraits. Everything else in the image falls away behind, is automatically rendered secondary, placed in a supporting role. The center quadrant has “star of the show” status.

And it is exactly because of that dominant feeling that placing the real “star” of the image at a power point is often more effective. No easy assumptions about the relationship of the subject or object to the rest of the frame are possible…you have to figure it out in the moment…and that creates a visual interest that we find appealing.


Star of the show…vs…an element in tension

Placing matched, or symmetrical image elements in the outer quadrants, one on each side of center, is the classic framing technique. It can give a feeling of intimacy to what might otherwise impress as a distant landscape, or it can focus the eye powerfully on the subject of the portrait.


Classic framing technique
Classic framing technique

Of course, I don’t think about all of this while I am catching images…or I wouldn’t if I didn’t have my little grid on. Seeing that grid there reminds me that I have options…I have decisions to make…and that my decisions will effect how the viewer sees the image I catch. I can, most of the time, move around and reframe to place different image elements in different quadrants of interest. I can easily make sure there is something of interest occupying at least one of the power points…and that it is the right object or subject…the one I want there. I can easily check to see where my horizon is (and if it is straight). I may not put it right on either horizontal line, but when I don’t, that is a decision I am making about the impact of the image. If there is a tree in the foreground of the view, I can decide whether I want it at the strong vertical line so people notice it (and generally accept it) or if it is entering or exiting from an outer quadrant, or if I need to balance it with something in on the other side of the image to create a frame. That decision will, again, effect how viewers see the image I catch, the impact it has on them.

There are those, of course, who see all these decisions as too studied an approach. They suggest forgetting about formal composition and just shooting from the gut. My little suggestion of thirds grid in the viewfinder would drive them crazy and they would immediately shut it off…and they would see my having it on as somehow diminishing the immediacy and power of my gut reactions to the scene before me. To them that would be a bad thing.

Of course, I beg to differ. I see the suggestion of thirds and the composition grid as a way of more effectively capturing the gut feeling that drew me to the scene…to the photo op…in the first place. Not only that, but the suggestion of thirds continuously challenges me to attempt new visions of the scene…to catch different versions of the same scene…to try out the effects of altering the composition to see which works best. To me this is a good thing.

As an exercise, go through a photo magazine or a book of prints of the great masters (photographers or painters) and see how their images define the suggestion of thirds.

Now, you might not have a built in suggestion of thirds grid in your camera…most don’t…but that does not mean that you can’t project such a mental grid on your viewfinder while you are catching images. It is a bit more effort, and you have to remember to do it (rather than being reminded by the installed grid), but it can be done.

(Of course, to a certain extent, you can exercise the suggestion of thirds after the fact, while post-processing, through creative cropping too.)

Play with the concepts of the suggestion of thirds as I have outlined them here. I’d love to hear what you think. I’d love to see examples of the work you produce.

It’s not a rule, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a really good idea.



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