Thinking Outside The Rule of Thirds

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Tiffany Mueller is a professional music and fine art photographer. She has been published in multiple publications including magazines, art journals, and various photography books. She blogs at Life Is Unabridged.

Chances are, at some point in your training as a photographer, the rule of thirds was embedded into your mind as an axiom of composition. The rule certainly holds merit, but it is not the only component one should reach for when composing a photograph. When used in conjunction with other important elements of composition, the rule of thirds can give you an image that really pops. Next time you’re lining up your viewfinder, take some of the following tips into consideration and see how they can all work together to have a positive effect on your photography.

Harmonize Negative and Positive Space – In a nutshell, the positive space in a photograph is any space filled by your subject. Conversely, the negative space is any space that does not contain your subject. Negative space is commonly used in photography as way to single out the subject such as in high key lighting, product photography, or when the sky is being used as a background to a bird flying through the air. The negative space, or background in such instances, is usually ignored all together, while the eye focuses solely on the subject. Generally speaking these are all effective uses of negative space, but it is not the only way to use it.

When taking a photograph, look to see if you can compose it so the negative and positive space provide definition and compliment each other. Below, Yogendra Joshi, shares a great example of this by using the green, textured leaf as the background and negative space, which is just as essential to the photograph as dew drop that serves as the positive space.

Use Multiple Layers of Interest – It’s our duty as photographers to pay attention to the background and middle-ground of an image. In fact, it’s almost second nature to make sure that the two compliment each other. However, too often the foreground is paid little attention when it is not the primary focus of the image. Take note of the scene you are shooting and look for interesting elements that can provide an additional layer of interest. For example, look at the photograph below. Notice how the fallen tree and rocky path in the foreground lead the eye to the middle of the image, which uses sunlight as a natural contrast and separation. Now look at the background of the image, the mountains in the distance and the dramatic sky add a third stratum to the image.

Giver of Life by papalars, on Flickr

Start Using Your Feet – Don’t forget that you and your tripod are mobile. Avoid falling into the habit of setting yourself up in one spot and staying put. If the situation allows for it, move around and explore the scene. Take photographs from many different angles and perspectives. Yes, you’ll probably end up trashing a majority of the shots, but you’ll be surprised at how often your initial vision of a photograph can be improved by a simple change of location. That is the beauty of shooting digital, it gives you the freedom to experiment without putting a huge dent into your pocketbook.

Of course, there are many other elements to composition that can improve a photograph. Let’s not forget about the incorporation of leading lines, texture, symmetry – the list goes on and on. We may like to call them rules, but when it comes down to it, composition is just as subjective as any form of art. So go ahead and bend the rules a little bit, without experimentation we can never progress.

Tiffany Mueller is a professional music and fine art photographer. She has been published in various publications including magazines, art journals, as well as photography books. Tiffany is fortunate enough to have been in a perpetual state of travel since her youth and is currently working on a 50-states project. You can keep up with Tiffany via Twitter, Google+, or, on her personal blog, Life Is Unabridged.

6 thoughts on “Thinking Outside The Rule of Thirds

  1. Jason

    I agree. I have found that when I learned of the rule of thirds first starting photography, it was a great way to frame images. Then as I advanced, in wanted something more and that’s when I found the golden ratio – this is what “the Masters” used. I use it a lot in post processing when I am trying to crop for effect.

    1. Avatar of tiffanytiffany Post author

      Yes, I started to touch on exactly this when I was writing the article above and then I realized that this process deserves it’s own post, which I will hopefully get to sooner rather than later!

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