The Rule of Thirds: It’s Just a Suggestion

To clear up some confusion, the Rule of Thirds has nothing to do with the minimum number of trips you’re supposed to take through the line at a Las Vegas buffet. Turns out it’s a useful and simple technique for guiding composition!

That said, the word rule can be a little oppressive, so I’m going to write this post about the Suggestion of Thirds. In short, it goes like this: A composition divided into thirds (or fifths) is natural and pleasing to the eye, like a National League pitcher, while a composition divided in half or into an equal number of parts is cumbersome and awkward, like an American League hitter trying to bunt or pull a jersey over his steroid-engorged head. (The Suggestion of Thirds is really just a simplification of the Golden Mean or the Golden Ratio. There’s a good post on that here.)

Some rules are designed to be ignored as soon as you learn them (see speed limits), while others are ignored because some people missed that week of school (see Shea and punctuation). The Suggestion of Thirds is one that you should know, but once you learn it, you may decide it’s not necessary in every occasion.

With all of that as preamble, the Suggestion of Thirds is widely used for good reason. Take the case of the adorable kitty cat souvenir in Greece.

In this original, uncropped version, our adorable kitty cat souvenir is smack-dab in the middle of the photo. It’s not terribly interesting.

Using the Suggestion of Thirds, you might crop it like this.

The lines that occur naturally in the photograph (in this case, the horizon and the wall) fall roughly on the superimposed guidelines that divide the photograph in thirds. The focal point of the photograph (in my opinion, the cat’s eyes) falls on an intersection of one vertical guideline and one horizontal guideline.

This is another possible cropping of the same photo.

This cropping has the advantage that one of the secondary visual elements, the mannequin in the background, falls on one of the vertical guidelines.

The Suggestion of Thirds can be applied to most images. This caterpillar in Malaysia curls around a vertical guideline and a horizontal guideline, with its head landing right at the intersection of two guidelines.

The focal point of this photo is the pillars of Apollo’s temple in Delphi, Greece. The pillars land roughly on an intersection of two guidelines.

And the eyes of this koala outside of Melbourne, Australia, fall right on the first horizontal guideline.

With landscapes, many photographers push the Suggestion of Thirds to the Suggestion of Fifths, as with this photograph of Philadelphia. (Note that the tallest building in the skyline, the Comcast Center, falls on one of the vertical guidelines.)

In instances where the Suggestion of Fifths is employed, the horizon typically falls either on the bottom guideline to show a lot of sky, as with the photo of Twin Lakes, Colorado, above…

…or the horizon falls on the top guideline to show the terrain, as with this other photo of Twin Lakes, Colorado.

The very worst thing you can do with any composition is put a starburst in it. The next worst thing you can do is split it in half, as with the photo of Puerto Rico here. This is one of the reasons we oppose centering things, and it’s one of the reasons we suggest that compositions like interpretive panels and even individual pages be divided into an odd number of columns.

One of your responsibilities as a designer is to edit images that are delivered to you. None of the photos I’ve used as examples in this post arrived perfectly cropped and ready to use. They all had to be cropped in some sort of layout program.

As a designer, you should be thinking about the Suggestion of Thirds at all times, even when you’re watching The Big Bang Theory or combing your goatee. You should use it when laying out compositions, cropping photos, or combing your kid’s hair. It’s easy to remember, simple to implement, and visually pleasing.

But it’s just a suggestion.

A Moment, Captured

The top four moments in my life—and I am careful not to rank these in any particular order—are my wedding day, the birth of each of my two children, and the final pitch of the 2008 World Series. For each of these moments, there is an emblematic photograph—an official wedding portrait by a river in the Colorado mountains almost 10 years ago, hospital-sanctioned portraits of the grotesque, misshapen heads of my newborn children (they’re much cuter now), and Phillies pitcher Brad Lidge on his knees at Citizen’s Bank Park in Philadelphia with his hands raised to the heavens as a city celebrates around him.

Really good photographs are like interpretive presentations. They capture our interest, tell an engaging story, and invite us to investigate further. My Japanese friend Masanori Shintani recently shared the above photograph of his daughter Aina with me. At first, it looked like a nice vacation photo, and the idyllic location—El Nido beach in the Philippines—is certainly somewhere I’d like to go. My interest was captured by the composition—the rule of thirds has been used effectively, the calming blue-green color palette is punctuated with bright warm colors—and the story it tells, of a gleeful child running along the beach, is uplifting. But it was the further investigation that turned the meaning of this image on its head (so to speak).

You don’t have to look long before you realize that there’s a rope that attaches the small blue and white boat in the image to some unseen anchor on the shore. Aina, running at full speed, has cleared the rope with her right foot, but her left foot is planted perilously in the sand underneath it. The way Masa tells the story, a split second after this photograph was taken, his daughter face-planted in the sand. (He laments not having an “after” picture, but his daddy mode kicked in and he ran to tend to his daughter.)

Suddenly, as I was looking at it, this image went from being a nice vacation photo to being packed with the energy of the moment to come. It stands on the razor-thin precipice between the glee of a playing child and the thump of a face on wet sand. It’s filled with conflict—you can practically feel the tropical breeze and the lulling motion of the anchored boats, but there’s a visceral reaction to the realization that this happy moment will end with a wet slap.

The real power of the image isn’t revealed until you discover the story behind it.

Unfortunately, photography can be used to disguise truths rather than reveal them. A story on CNN, ‘The sexy lady’ and other hotel photo tricks, shows how hotels use unscrupulous photography (and Photoshop) techniques and unrealistic-looking models to lure travelers. For some reason, I am on the email list for the Luxor hotel in Las Vegas, which uses the attractive model technique to advertise its pool. My own experience is that the Luxor pool feels more like a Tony Siragusa family reunion than the natural habitat for exotic models.

I am usually distrustful of photographs, if for no other reason than that people tell me that I look like Clay Aiken in my photo on the back of IBD (the book), and I know for a fact that I look like a cross between Ted Koppel and Howdy Doody. (Besides, I look nothing like Clay Aiken; he’s wearing a suit, and he parts his hair on the other side of his head.)

However, photographs can be powerful interpretive tools, used to create impact and emotional connections. And like all forms of communication, any photograph that draws viewers in and communicates on multiple levels, as the photo of Aina above did with me, can be considered successful.

Just be sure you’re using photography for good rather than evil.