Guide to Composition - Rule of Thirds

Composition | 5 Ways to Arrange the Elements in the Frame

Introduction to Photographic Composition

This is the first in a series of tutorials on composition ideas. When I teach people about composition in photography, I don’t really like to talk about “rules”. Nobody likes rules except maybe the heads of human resources departments or your old school principal.

Are there rules in composition?
You won’t get called to the principal’s office for not following composition rules. I promise. | Adobe Stock

What I am presenting here is a list of composition “ideas”. They are designed to give you some ideas for arranging the various elements in your frame and how to use those elements to create interesting photographs. What follows are not hard and fast rules that must be followed all the time and I would encourage you to find your own way to create interesting compositions.

That said, many of these ideas in this series of tutorials have been used in art and architecture for millennia and provide a good starting point to creating attractive and engaging compositions in your photographs. Many of these composition ideas can be used in combination with each other. Others seem to completely contradict each other and that’s ok. None of these ideas are more important or better than the others. After all, there is more than one way to cook an egg. Poached egg is obviously the best way though and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.

1. Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using the Rule of Thirds

In my introduction I said I don’t like to talk about “rules” when it comes to photography. I then start my tutorial with the “rule of thirds”. Hey, I didn’t come up with the name.

This way of composing your scene involves dividing the frame into nine equal rectangles, 3 across and 3 down. The idea is to place important elements in the scene such as the horizon or your subject along one of the lines. Placing your main subject on one of the points where the lines intersect is particularly effective too.

People have a natural tendency to place the main subject right in the centre of the frame. This seems logical after all. Using the rule of thirds to place it off centre however can often result in a more pleasing and dynamic composition. Take a look at the following examples:

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using the Rule of Thirds - Landscape Photography
Maynooth, Ireland

In this scene, you will notice that the horizon is sitting on the bottom horizontal line of the grid. This does not have to be exact by the way. It’s only meant to be a guide. The biggest tree in the scene is then aligned with the right hand vertical line. Many cameras allow you to activate a rule of thirds grid on your back screen when using live view as an aid to composition.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using the Rule of Thirds - Street Photography
Temple Bar, Dublin

In this example of a street photograph, I’ve placed the woman walking along the street on the point where two of the grid lines intersect. The cobbled street roughly occupies the bottom third of the frame; the building fronts occupy the middle third and the upper floors of the buildings occupy the top third. Having the rule of thirds grid activated in live view really helped me when I took this photograph.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using the Rule of Thirds - Architecture Photography
Old Town Square, Prague

In this cityscape taken in the beautiful Czech capital of Prague, I placed the horizon on the top horizontal line this time as most of the interesting elements in the scene are in the bottom portion of the frame. The Church of Our Lady before Týn sits where two lines intersect. Personally, I want to know what happened to Our Lady after Týn. I also want to know what Týn is.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using a Centred Composition

Now that I’ve told you that it’s a good idea to not place your subject in the centre of the frame, I’m going to tell you to do the total opposite. There are plenty of occasions when a centred composition can be very effective. This is especially the case in scenes that are symmetrical. Architecture and engineering are often excellent candidates for a centred composition.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using a Centred Composition - Symmetrical Bridge
Ha’penny Bridge, Dublin

This view of the Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin is the perfect candidate for a centred composition.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using a Centred Composition - Buildings
Maynooth University, Ireland

Centred and symmetrical compositions often work very well in a square cropped frame.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using a Centred Composition - Reflections in Water
Dublin Docklands

We often think of symmetry in the vertical sense of the term. Don’t forget that symmetry can also work horizontally. Reflections offer are a fantastic opportunity for horizontal symmetrical compositions. Morning and evening time are the best times to capture reflections like this. As the air cools at these times, the wind tends to drop.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using a Centred Composition - Interior Architecture Photography
Belfast City Hall

This photo is an example of a centred composition of an architectural interior of Belfast City Hall in portrait format.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using Golden Triangles

The golden triangles composition method works in a very similar way to the rule of thirds. This time we use a series of diagonal lines to arrange the elements in the frame. In this case we draw a diagonal line from one corner to the other. It doesn’t matter which. We then draw smaller lines from the other corners to meet this line at a right angle as in the examples below. Diagonals can be a powerful composition tool as we will see in more detail later.

It is often said that diagonals add dynamic tension to a scene. This is because diagonals are jarring to our sense of balance. We are used to flat, horizontal surfaces. This is what creates the sense of visual tension. You can also talk about dynamic tension to sound intelligent (or annoyingly pretentious) in front of your friends.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using Golden Triangles - Streetscape
O’Connell Street, Dublin

This photo of O’Connell Street in Dublin is an example of using the strong diagonals in the scene with the golden triangles principle. Notice how the light trails and tops of the buildings to the right align with the long diagonal line. The shorter diagonal to the left roughly aligns with the buildings on the other side of the street. As with the rule of thirds, this does not have to be exact. The diagonals act as a basic guide for arranging the elements in the scene.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using Golden Triangles - Urban Photography
Eiffel Tower, Paris

This photograph of the Eiffel Tower is a subtle example of the golden triangles principle in action. The heads of the statues through to the bottom left hand base of the Eiffel Tower itself create an “implied” diagonal from one corner to the other. This is often the case with composition. Frequently, the lines that link elements in the scene are implied rather than explicit.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using the Golden Ratio

Golden Ratio Formula
Adobe Stock

What exactly is the golden ratio? Well it’s actually quite simple: two quantities are in the golden ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. See, told you it was easy. Ok, maybe that is a bit complex. Perhaps this mathematical formula will help make things a little clearer:

What do you mean you’re even more confused now?

The golden ratio can seem quite complicated at first but it’s actually a lot simpler when it seems. You don’t need to understand long winded definitions and mathematical formulae to use it.

Golden Ratio Diagram
Adobe Stock

The golden ratio is actually a slightly more complicated version of the rule of thirds and golden triangles combined.

Rather than dividing the frame into equal rectangles, it is instead divided into a series of squares as in the example above. This is known as a “Phi Grid”. These squares are then used as a guide to add a spiral known as the “Fibonacci Spiral”. These squares, lines and spiral are then used to lay out the elements in the frame as with the rule of thirds and golden triangles.

The spiral is supposed to lead the eye around the frame and show us how the scene should flow. It’s a bit like an invisible leading line. We will look at leading lines in more detail shortly.

Golden Ratio Spiral Diagram
A Blend of the Rule of Thirds and Golden Triangles | Adobe Stock

The similarities with the rule of thirds and golden triangles becomes clearer once we add a few lines to the diagram. The golden ratio also divides the frame in to 9 parts although this time they are not all the same size and shape. The diagonals we saw in the golden triangles examples can also be added here.

It is believed that this method of composition has been in existence for over 2,400 years having been devised by the Ancient Greeks. The Golden Ratio widely used throughout history in many types of art as well as architecture as a way of creating aesthetically pleasing compositions. It was particularly well employed in Renaissance art.

Golden Ratio in Classical Architecture - Parthenon Athens
The Parthenon, Athens | Adobe Stock

It is believed that the golden ratio was used to lay out the proportions of buildings such as the Parthenon in Athens. Note how the golden ratio grid and spiral can be placed in different orientations.

Golden Ratio in a Shell
Adobe Stock

The golden ratio is often said to be quite prevalent in the natural world and that this may be one of the reasons that compositions that are based on it seem so attractive to us.

Now I have to admit something here. Not once have I ever set out to deliberately use the golden ratio in one of my photographic compositions! As an exercise, I went back through my photographs and discovered that I had used it inadvertently a few times. In reality, I was probably just using the rule of thirds or golden triangles and accidentally stumbled into golden ratio territory.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using the Golden Ratio - Street Photography
Women by a Bridge in Venice

Here is a perfect example of one of my accidental uses of the golden ratio. The side of the building lines up with the vertical line on the right and the Fibonacci Spiral leads us from the bottom left corner to the two women sitting by one of the many bridges that traverse the canals of Venice.

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using the Golden Ratio - Streetscape Photography
St. Anne’s Square, Belfast

Here is another accidental golden ratio example from the city of Belfast. I meant it. I swear!

Arrange the Elements in the Frame by Using the Golden Ratio - Street Life Photography
Dancing in the Streets of Paris

In this case the Fibonacci Spiral starts in the top right hand corner and finishes on the street mucician’s face.

The fact that I accidentally stumbled upon the golden ratio a few times shows how many of these composition “rules” may actually be manifestations of our internal aesthetic preferences. Woah. Deep. It reminds us that these should be used as ideas and not strict rules.

Balancing the Elements in the Frame

The first composition idea we looked at was the rule of thirds. I told you that it was often a more attractive composition when you place the main subject to the side rather than in the middle of the frame. One issue with this is that on some occasions, the image can then appear to be “unbalanced”. One side of the frame is filled with our subject whereas the other side is relatively empty by comparison, creating a sort of lopsided feel to the image. One of the ways of avoiding this issue is to place another less prominent subject on the other side of the frame to create a sense of balance in the composition.

Balancing the Elements in the Frame when composing your photograph - Eiffel Tower and Street Lamp
Pont Alexandre III and Eiffel Tower, Paris

In this photograph, the ornate street lamp on the Pont Alexandre III in Paris dominates the left hand side of the Frame. This is counter-balanced by the distant Eiffel Tower in the otherwise relatively empty right hand side of the frame.

Balancing the Elements in the Frame when composing your photograph - Church Tower and Street Lamp
San Giorgio Maggiore – Venice

In this photograph, a lamppost once again dominates one side of the frame. The bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore in the distance creates a sense of balance on the other side of the frame. This also has a secondary effect on the composition. The tower in the distance is obviously much taller than the lamppost. It obviously appears smaller in the photograph as it it is in the distance. This perspective effect helps add a sense of depth and scale to the scene.

In the next tutorial , we will examine how best to use the space in the frame.

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I am a travel photographer from Dublin, Ireland. I specialise in urban, street, architecture and landscape photography. One of my favourite activities is wandering around a new and unfamiliar location with my camera at the ready. In the blog section, I share photography tutorials and tips as well as some of the stories behind my photographs and travels.

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