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Photography Tips: When to Break the Rule of Thirds

Skill Level: Beginner

This photography tip was taken from the curriculum of my online course "Composition for Dramatic Landscapes." It's just a little tidbit taken from Week 1: Compositional Basics.

The rule of thirds is a pretty common compositional tool (notice I said tool, not rule) for creating better compositions in most scenarios. It's covered in beginning books everywhere and is one of the first composition tools you'll learn in photography. The idea is simple: just imagine your frame divided into thirds horizontally and vertically like so...

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

Then, place your main subject on one of the crosshairs and/or divide your landscape into 2/3 foreground and 1/3 background/sky. It will often times result in a better composition, but not always.

It's a great tool no doubt, but I've found that in landscape photography, there is one particular situation where breaking this rule of thirds and doing the dreaded "horizon through the middle" actually works much better. That's when you want to highlight symmetry.  In these instances, it can be most beneficial to put your subject or horizon right in the center of the frame. Doing so highlights the symmetry better than placing it off-center, per the rule of thirds.

For example, all of the following images are about symmetry through reflections. You'll notice I divided the frame into 1/2 foreground (e.g. lake, sand) and 1/2 background (e.g. sky, mountain, rocks) instead of the guidelines laid out by the rule of thirds.

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

This last example is a little less obvious, but I wanted to highlight the symmetry between the texture of the rocks with the textures of the clouds. The clouds seemed to be mimicking those rocks and I wanted to show that in the final image. Breaking the rule of thirds and putting the horizon through the center was just the right recipe for showing that symmetry.

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

There you go! So don't be afraid to break the "rules"!

Photography Tips: Careful Composition

Skill Level: Professional

Although this tip isn't particularly difficult to apply and, truthfully, anyone of any skill level can use it, I'm classifying it as "Professional." This is mainly because this tip is one of those things where your mind really has to be completely freed up in order to use it. In other words, you'll find it hard to use this tip in the field if your attention is even remotely distracted with shutter speed, aperture, ISO, filters, focus, metering, etc. All these things must be second-nature and require hardly a thought, as with a professional, before you can apply this tip with success on a regular basis.

This tip is essentially about being nit-picky with your composition. Finding those tiny little details that no one will ever notice but will make or break the composition.

Next time you're framing up a picture, set aside 10-20 extra seconds to really pick apart the composition to see if there's anything you could do better. And I mean really pick it apart. Look at every intersecting subject, every corner and edge, every line, shape and texture. Then decide if maybe a few inches this way or that way or a slight nudge of the zoom ring will make it better. These tiny little shifts will make a huge difference.

Believe me when I tell you...it's this kind of scrupulousness that separates professional pictures from amateur. Let's take a look at a few examples to see what I'm talking about.

So in this first picture, I framed up a composition I felt was pretty good...

Mono Lake

...but in reviewing it more closely, I saw there was room for improvement. The tufa in the foreground overlapped the reflection in the background just a tiny bit.

Mono Lake

This made the front tufa kind of blend in with the background tufas and, thus, created a little bit of a distraction in the composition. It also pulled away from the depth of the scene (i.e. suddenly the background doesn't look so far away). But just by raising up my viewing angle a bit, I knew that foreground element would drop lower and the background reflection would raise up. This would create the separation I needed between the two elements. It was going to be a hassle changing my position - I was already spread thin as it was - but I knew it would make the shot much better. So with a minor adjustment of my tripod...

Mono Lake

...there you have it. The shot is barely any different, but that minor change made a big impact. Now the foreground is more separated from the background, depth is restored and it doesn't look as cluttered.

Here's another example, also from Mono Lake, where I very carefully adjusted my composition in order to get the reflection of that tallest tufa to line up perfectly in the "dip" of that foreground tufa. Even just a couple inches to the right, left, up or down would have placed that reflection to intersect with the foreground element and render it much less pleasing. This was no accident - it was very deliberate and was vital to creating a strong composition.

Mono Lake

Mono Lake

And in this picture from Torrey Pines State Reserve, I positioned myself to place that smaller tree perfectly centered under the arch of the bigger tree. This kept the composition nicely balanced, neat and uncluttered.

Torrey Pines

Torrey Pines

So there you have it. Simple in concept? Yeah. Easy to apply? Sure it is. But don't be surprised when you get home and review your compositions only to think "How the hell didn't I catch that?" This takes some practice and, again, if you have to think twice about anything else out there like your shutter, aperture, ISO, focus, metering, filters or otherwise, it'll be harder to find these things. So learn your photography basics so you can free your mind up to get better compositions!