The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

This week’s Lens Artist Photo Challenge, hosted by Tina Schell of Travels and Trifles, is all about the Rule of Thirds, a theory of composition which divides a photo or a painting into horizontal and vertical thirds, forming a grid of nine equal segments (Picture the opening credits of The Brady Bunch or a typical Zoom meeting).

The rule suggests (stress, suggests) that the central point of interest is not placed centrally but off towards a side or corner, optimally where grid points intersect.

But for one exception, I’ve not really paid attention to the Rule of Thirds when actually composing a shot. That exception is when I’m shooting sports or some kind of action which, for me, demands that the photo shows some space for the movement, whatever that movement is, to go to.

In the photo below Javier Lopez is winding up to throw a pitch. The scene asks for a big section of space for the pitch to be delivered through.

Likewise, the hockey players should have someplace to skate to,       

the surfer some water to surf towards,         

and the wave a place to break.

The “empty” space in front helps to convey the feel of action taking place.   

Placing a person or thing in the dead center can leave the story incomplete. There’s nothing in the shot below that is centered (unless you count the players watching from the dugout). When I shot this the batter was the main subject but to leave out the catcher with his glove at the ready or the umpire’s concentration would produce a nice photo of a batter, but a photo with no storyline.

The Rule of Thirds allows for a frame of reference.

The statue of Donald Driver making a fingertip catch is the main subject of this photo. Had I centered the statue it would just be a picture of a statue, but by placing the statue to the far left the viewer is given a sense of place; the train station in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

In the photo below, the Molton Barn is the main subject. Just photographing the barn doesn’t say anything about the barn itself. It’s just a barn. By placing it in the lower left of the photo, the story is made more complete. The barn is in the shadow of the Grand Tetons.

The rule isn’t hard and fast. The same morning that I took the photo above I took the photo below of the barn, centered. The barn is the star, framed by autumnal foliage.               

The two images below of Winnewissa Falls in Minnesota are from the same photo. The waterfall is of course the main subject. The first image is the original and the second is with waterfall centered and the rock wall cropped out. Which is more pleasing?   

In the photo below, the horse is the main subject but by putting him off to the left I was able to compose a pastoral setting rather than just a picture of a horse. (I cropped the original in order to give the photo an arboreal frame).

The most important thing, for me, is that the Rule of Thirds is not a RULE. Think of it as a suggestion or a guideline.  The photo below of the Golden Gate Bridge demanded to be centered.

Art is art just by virtue of the fact that there are no hard and fast rules. 

To view Tina’s post, please click on the link and visit Travels and Trifles, and then scroll down to her comments section for links to other takes on the Rule of Thirds.

23 thoughts on “Lens-Artists Challenge #197 – The Rule of Thirds

  1. Cool post Paul. The pictures are well picked examples with the thoughts you are putting. I very much agree with the priciple of leaving room in a picture in order to provide context. The horse in the meadow underlines that perfectly. Interestingly the waterfall picture gets a kind of abstract feeling when cropped. I also agree that there are no rules in art. (Perhaps it is exacly that what defines art, no rules)

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you Peter. If there were rules to art there would be no art. Here in America we have people who are trying to apply rules to art, particularly the art of writing.
      Not good.

  2. Jane Fritz says:

    OMG, Paul, you have real talent … both with photography and writing. I love both the photos and your explanations. I especially love the lighting in the photo of the barn and the Grand Tetons. And as a Canadian it’s hard not to appreciate the guest appearance of the CN freight cars!

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you so much Jane. You taught me something. I didn’t know what CN was until you mentioned it and I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, the current world’s greatest authority having taken that mantle from “Professor” Irwin Corey, CN serves Canada and the Midwest and Southern States, which I guess explains why I don’t see CN out here in California.
      And since I dropped the name “Professor” Irwin Corey, you know that I go back a ways.

      1. Jane Fritz says:

        And I certainly didn’t know that Canadian National “serves” the Southern States! What would we do without Wikipedia?!

  3. JohnRH says:

    WOW. Great selections! Excellent action shots. Love the cabin, and the horse makes a GREAT banner shot. Superb.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you so much John. The horse and Molton Barn in front of the Grand Tetons are two of my own favorites. I don’t print many of my photos but those two made the cut as far as printing goes.


  4. Toonsarah says:

    Excellent combination of example photos and accompanying text. I completely agree with you that the bridge needs to be centred and I prefer the waterfall cropped even if it does break the rule! Interestingly I think it could be argued that your ‘barn only’ shot does follow the rule to some extent at least, as the apex of the roof echoes the grid and provides a point of focus.

    1. Paul says:

      Hello Sarah, Thank you for visiting and commenting. You aren’t the only one who thinks that the apex of the barn follows the rule. Only goes to prove that art is subjective. As it should be.

  5. M.B. Henry says:

    Sometimes rules are meant to be broken and the barn shot proves it. A beautiful photo as are they all.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you M.B. There seems to be some discussion as to whether or not that framed barn breaks or just barely adheres to the rule.

  6. Tina Schell says:

    Terrific post Paul – well said and shown. I loved the pastoral horse especially, and of course the uber-famous barn with the mountainous backdrop! Agree wholeheartedly w your comments on your sports images and giving them a sense of action and place.

    1. Paul says:

      Hi Tina,
      So, you’re familiar with the Moulton Barn eh. When I got out there at sunrise I joined about 100 photographers all set up with their tripods. We all started clicking away until one fellow announced that our shadows were in the photos, so en masse we all gathered our gear and took giant steps back.
      Thank you for visiting and commenting.

  7. Beautiful photos. I love that calm pastoral scene with the horse; the off-center composition works very well. The same goes for the “thirds” photos of the waterfall and the barn. The sports photos come out well with the off-center placement too. Interestingly, in the “centered” photo of the barn interesting portions like the point of the roof and the shadowed front wall are also off-center, and get your eye to move over the whole photo

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting.
      The horse photo is a favorite of mine. It was taken at the Kentucky Horse Park near Lexington.

  8. eden baylee says:

    Hi Paul,

    You know I love your photos. I’d say the rule of thirds is a good one for those who are new to photography and want to learn about composition. As with writing or music or any other art form, it’s easier to break a rule once you’ve learned the foundational basics of the craft.

    Both your barn pictures are good, but I like the first one because it provides more of the story. The second excels in its light and details with the foliage out of focus, but I wouldn’t know there was a mountain range behind it.

    Same goes for the waterfall shots. The falls are beautiful, but the rock face provides it with texture and contrast.

    Your sports’ pictures convey movement with the space around the central figure because my mind fills in that space with action. Really well done. 🙂

    My fave is the horse picture because it’s absolutely not about the horse for me. It’s about setting, and how calm and warm and peaceful the day must’ve been when you made that shot.


    1. Paul says:

      Hello Eden,
      Thank you for reading and commenting.
      I prefer to think of it as a suggestion of thirds. Art should have no boundaries unless you’re one of those fans of censorship.
      The barn. That barn is one of the most photographed barns in the world. I showed up at sunrise and set up my tripod with about 100 of my fellow photographers.
      The horse is one of my favorite photos. The opportunity was due to traffic in the Lexington, KY area. I’d had enough so I figured I’d stop at the Kentucky Horse Park. That particular horse is probably worth most houses. The horse park is home to Kentucky Derby winners among other equine A listers.

  9. Leya says:

    “If there were rules to art there would be no art. ” Excellent! Love all your photos, the horse and barn are both favourites.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you so much. The horse and the barn are two among the few of my photos that I printed and framed.

      1. Leya says:

        Great! I understand why!

      2. Leya says:


  10. selizabryangmailcom says:

    So interesting to think about “where” to frame the subject of photos in photos. I never thought about giving a surfer “somewhere to surf to,” etc. Perfect explanation! And beautiful pics.

    1. Paul says:

      Thank you so much.
      For the longest time I always thought that the main subject should be front and center until I started doing my own photo editing.
      Imagine that surfer on the other edge of the photo. In our minds he’d have no place to go. There would be no story.

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