Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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When photographers talk about the rule of thirds, they say sometimes they will break the rule and still the photo will have great composition. When should I stick with the rule of thirds and when should I break it? And when I break it, what should I use instead to drive eyes to specific points in the photo?

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I think I'd give the same answer to this one as I gave to When is it OK to place the subject in the middle of a picture?, even though it's not technically a duplicate. –  mattdm Dec 15 '11 at 4:33
    
Also useful to start with the answers on What is the “Rule of Thirds”?, which cover some of this ground. Particularly, I think it's worthwhile to note that while the "rule" has stood the test of time, it's neither ancient nor particularly rooted in science. –  mattdm Dec 15 '11 at 4:37
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when? whenever it gives you the result you want. NEVER mindlessly follow "rules", always keep thinking. –  jwenting Dec 15 '11 at 6:29
    
When I can say to myself in a delightful realization "Ah! Why don't put the subject at the far edge, this should be great!!" , I break it. Like most discovery, it doesn't happen frequently, but when it does, you know its good, but it is also true that you can rarely force a discovery. –  Gapton Dec 15 '11 at 7:55
    
@mattdm Thanks for the links, they help alot –  akram Dec 15 '11 at 15:26
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4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The rule of thirds to me is a rule of thumb, a reminder not to mindless frame my subject dead centre of the frame, or else I will probably end up with static or boring images overall.

As a beginner, it's a good rule to keep in mind. Not to blindly follow, but to help encourage you to try different framing, perspectives and so forth. As an experienced photographer, you'd probably not even think about it but you'd naturally tend to frame subjects off centre to make them more interesting.

Specific situations where rule of thirds might be "broken"? I would say primarily this is where symmetry is the focus of the image:

  • if you have a nice, symmetric water reflection, you might place the horizon in the centre of the image to give equal space to the subject and its reflection

  • in landscapes, if you have an interesting sky you tend to place the horizon towards the bottom of the image, or if sky is bland, place the horizon towards the top. But if you have an interesting foreground and a dramatic sky, you might give them equal weight

  • close ups of people and pets, like the dog in mattdm's link, especially where there is nothing in the background to balance off the subject. If the subject is interesting and engaging enough, centre placement might be all that's needed.

  • symmetrical subjects, for example the Taj Mahal. Beautiful symmetry might be accentuated by centering it in the image.

  • portraits, especially formal ones tend to be centred. Environmental or street photography would be different, where the background can be very important to the image so it needs more weight than a plain paper/muslin background.

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For specific effects

The bottom line is that you are the boss and if you think it looks good then don't worry what the rest of us think!

Given that, here are some suggestions...

Placing a subject in the centre can:

  • give an impression of strength and stability. (especially if you shoot looking up at something / someone).
  • emphasise symmetry in the subject or environment
  • be appropriate where your aim is only to produce a faithful representation of an object. e.g. when documenting an object, or for some technical architectural photography

... Or you might go the other way and place a subject right at the edge of the frame. An example is someone peeking into the frame. This makes the viewer think about what is outside the frame, and creates a not-entirely-comfortable feeling that the image is out of balance. Usually photographers want to avoid this, but if it is what you are looking for in your work then go for it.

How to drive the eye?

The human eye:

  • naturally follows diagonal lines
  • naturally follows the gaze of the subject(s)
  • is drawn to faces (especially the eyes)
  • is drawn to bright things

... that's a bit of a random selection, but I hope it helps.

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+1 Thanks for answering the question "How to drive eyes" –  akram Dec 16 '11 at 15:31
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I agree with the comments above. It's a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule you MUST follow. Go with what looks right to you in the viewfinder.

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The best way to know how, and when, to break the rule is to consume photography - eat up other people's works and develop your taste, find what you like and who you like. Soon, you'll develop your eye to the point where you know how to compose a scene to best do that subject the way you wanted it.

The other suggestions are good, for giving you a general perspective of what effect certain compositions might have, but they are just the outward effects of innately being able to compose a scene from having consumed enough photography (and other art, too) of others.

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