Photography Composition Articles


>Golden Mean
>Color and
Image Balance



Lessons in Composition for the Amateur Photographer

Version 2.3, Page 8: ©2001 by Dale Cotton, all rights reserved

Lesson 3. Energy and Directed Attention (continued)

A time-honoured starting point for creating interesting compositions is done thus. Imagine that the area of your image is divided into nine equal portions by three evenly spaced vertical lines and three evenly spaced horizontal lines. One compositional formula is to arrange the major elements of your composition so that they fall either into any of the boxes created by this imaginary grid, or onto any of the intersections.

Figure 3e. Rule of Thirds Grid

Figure 3e. Rule of Thirds Grid

In Figure 3e we see that the tree trunk closely follows the right vertical, while the fence and grass follow the lower horizontal.

Figure 3f. Rule of Thirds Grid 2

Figure 3f. Rule of Thirds Grid 2

In Figure 3f we see that the horizon is roughly at the upper horizontal; the foreground reeds and grass shoulder follow are bounded by the lower horizontal; the grass shoulder also fills the lower right box, which is echoed by the leafy branch in the upper left.

The rule of thirds is meant to foster pleasingly asymmetrical compositions; but, given we can place things on any grid line(s), we can have symmetry in thirds as well:

Figure 3g. Symmetry in Thirds

Figure 3g. Symmetry in Thirds

If the underlying motivation for any composition is to engender dynamism (or at least to avoid lethargy), we can literally tune the level of energy by choosing our degree of asymmetry:

Figures 3h. Off-centre

Figures 3h. Off-centre

Figures 3i and 3j. Variations

Figures 3i and 3j. Variations

Strangely, I'd say that the rule of thirds version (3j) is more serene and stable than dynamic. The pure symmetry version (3i) has plenty of energy, perhaps that of a ballerina poised on her toes, while perhaps erring on the side of being precious. But 3h, the slightly off-centre version, is the crop I chose for this image. To me there is a subtle tension in the slight asymmetry. It's not a matter of right and wrong, but of what works for you.

Exercises for Lesson 3

Create a lines of attention map for this picture:

Figure 3k. Arapahoe Bristlecone

Figure 3k. Arapahoe Bristlecone © 2001 by Norman Koren

Do the same with some of your own pictures. Also with your own pictures try to find at least one that seems to work as a rule of thirds composition, whether horizontal or vertical.

On page 1, referring to the picture of Frontispiece #1. Girl, Detroit 1966, I asked "Why is the young lady in the above picture not centered in the frame? Was there some reason to include the window?". Similarly, referring to Frontispiece #2. Twin Towers, 1999, I asked "Would you have put your own children off to one corner of the frame, putting the twin towers and ferry dock in the centre?". How would you answer these questions, now?

Leave the comments,
or discuss this article in our forum.

Published with the permission of the author. Original article can be found here:


Chapters from Camera Hobby e-Book by Edwin Leong

Lessons in Composition for the Amateur Photographer by Dale Cotton

Composition Refresher by Theresa Husarik

    © 2003-2013