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The rule/recommendation of thirds in compositions

From “thirds” to “eighths”...

We begin this text with a beautiful image of the great painter William Turner, whose work is characterized by his frequent use of "the rule of thirds" in his paintings.

The challenge for many photographers is often to make an image dynamic, deep, attractive, as if it were a three-dimensional work... Often our creative vision is overshadowed by the grid, rigidity and little creativity that dominates our society, our educational system, jobs, our urbanism etc ... and therefore our daily lives.

One of the tips to break with that rigidity and add dynamism to our images is to apply "the rule of thirds", although instead of using the terms "norm", "rule" or "law" (words that sound somewhat authoritarian, rigid and that I have very associated with the system we suffer), I prefer to use the words "advice" or "compositional suggestions". It is as valid to make use of this compositional advice as to ignore it, as long as it is in a conscious and / or conceptual choice, and not an inertia or an obediently following of the ways of functioning of our society.

The recommendation or suggestion of the thirds, basically says, that if we divide our images into lines of thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and put our main object (and the horizon line) in the lines of the thirds or even better, in the areas of their intersections, the image is generally more dynamic and attractive than if we place the main motif right in the center of the photo.

Here is an example of a sunset photo in which the author has put the horizon and sun right in the center, something that is usually not the most appropriate if our intention is to transmit the beauty, peace, magic, melancholy, etc. of the moment.

The image with the sun and horizon placed at the thirds of the frame is generally more attractive and dynamic and avoids the spoiler effect of symmetry and gridish compositions.

In the sample of the icebergs we see something similar. In the first image we can observe the iceberg surrounded by more or less the same amount of water on all four sides which makes it look like a static and trapped object, as if it were a moored ship.

In the second photo we can perceive more dynamism (apart from the lines drawn in the water by the wind), the compositional position allows us among others to imagine that the iceberg is floating from the upper right corner to the lower left or that it is moving in the opposite direction.

If we now draw the lines of the thirds we will see that the position of the iceberg of the second image complies with the rule of thirds. 

The rule / suggestion of the thirds is interesting to apply in simple or minimalist compositions for our images to be more dynamic and striking

Below we will see some examples:

Here the prominence has been given to the sea and the stones leaving them two thirds of the frame while only a third has been left to the sky, which completes the image and its environment very well, but it does not provide too much information to the whole.

Here, on the other hand, the sky has been given prominence for its spectacularity.

Both the horizon and the most prominent mountain formation meet the suggestion of the thirds.

In this abstract image, the mimicked stone has also been placed in the area of the thirds in order to dynamize the whole.  

Dynamism in compositions with more elements, increasing "the thirds" to "the eighths".

In compositions with more than one prominent element or in the case of more complex settings, the suggestion of the thirds no longer works so well and we should adapt it, which means in many cases "stretching" it until it becomes "the rule /recommendation of the eighths".  In many compositions the complexity and interaction of several elements often turns out to be the greatest attraction of the image. Many main subjects do not shine without counterweight, balancing elements, scale indicators, frames or other subjects that serve to enhance, contrast, put context, etc ...

Below we will see some examples of these compositions and the limitations of the rule/suggestion of the thirds in this regard.

Here we have a splendid centenarian gall oak whose impressive shape inspired me to turn his silhouette into my company logo.

This photo would be great to be incorporated into a catalog of centenarian trees, on the other hand it is not a very artistic or especially attractive image, due to its documentary character and too simple composition. To make it more attractive we need to change the composition and add more elements…

Now we see the same image with more compositional elements; the tree to the right of the frame that serves as a balance for the great gall oak, and for being relatively small also enhances that grandeur. The blue sky works as a frame and the white cloud on the upper right is another key element, in this case it is useful to balance the proportions  between white and blue in the sky as well as to fill the negative space. 

Let us now look at the position of these three elements according to the rule/suggestion of the thirds:
We can notice that only the trunk of the large tree complies with this suggestion advice, the other elements are located outside the red lines and their intersections. It is not actually possible to comply with this suggestion for the simple reason that there is no space in the frame to locate the three key elements into the thirds, since they should not overlap. 

In complex compositions or with several elements the rule / suggestion of the thirds no longer works so well and my recommendation is to "stretch it" to "the eighths" turning it into "The suggestion / advice of the eighths".

If we analyze the image now we will see that two of the three key elements and even a part of the horizon coincide with the intermittent white lines that mark "the eighths" and comply with "the advice / suggestion of the eighths".

This advice can also be useful to distribute the elements with enough space between them, to increase tension, dramatize a scene even more, etc ...

I do not recommend "stretching" beyond the eighths, it is not advisable to put elements or horizons so close to the edges; in photography as in graphic design, subjects and objects need "air" around to be able to "breathe".

Here is another example of a composition with a certain complexity where "the eighths" have been applied, in this case to better frame the waterfall with the trunks and stones.

Here "the eighths" have come in handy to further dramatize the scene. Leaving only 1/8 of the frame for the earth makes the pastureland seem even smaller and more vulnerable to the great storm.

Here I have quickly cloned the field to bring the proportions to the thirds, to show how the image would have been according to the advice of the thirds. In my opinion the ground gains prominence to the detriment of the sky, which detracts drama and impact from the scene.

Here (in the image on the right) the horizon has been placed in an eighth, turning the sky only into something anecdotal to highlight and give all the prominence to this beautifully flowered field. In the image on the left the "cloned" version, more sky means less feeling of spaciousness... 

In the following frame the presence of the sky has been limited to highlight and emphasize the grandeur of the mountain.

And to finish this chapture  three more examples, in which of the (cropped) images does the mountain appear taller and more majestic? 

How does this aspect relate to the “thirds” and “eighths”?

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