Why the rule of thirds isn’t the most important composition rule

When it comes to composition, you’ve probably heard about the rule of thirds, golden spiral, symmetry, leading lines and many more theoretical guides for good composition, all of which will supposedly help you take better photos.

But they aren’t the best or most effective rules. I’m going to talk about what I consider to be the MOST important compositional rule in photography and share my top compositional tips.

When I create my images, I always have one very important compositional rule in mind, though it may be that I also use other compositional techniques too such as symmetry, juxtaposition, or the rule of thirds.

But no matter what I use, I always have one primary concern: keeping the viewer in the picture!

This might sound simple, and it is a simple concept, but it is also vitally important too.

Ultimately you can judge the success of your pictures by how long the viewer actually wants to look at them. If the viewer is easily distracted or driven out of the image then the image can be deemed a failure.

For an image to succeed it needs to deliver information and invoke emotion and holding the viewer’s attention so that they study the image is key.

In the video above I look at various examples and how I’ve used this compositional rule, along with a few others, to keep the viewer’s attention and ultimately create memorable images. But before we get into that, let’s find out more by looking at some of the more conventional compositional rules and techniques.

Rule of thirds example
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One of the most important things to remember about composition is this: although there are compositional guidelines such as the rule of thirds or golden ratio, they are simply that — guidelines.

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Photography composition rules & techniques

1. Rule of thirds

Example of rule of thirds composition

Perhaps the most well-known composition rule is the rule of thirds. As shown in the video, the rule of thirds divides an image into thirds both horizontally and vertically, ultimately creating nine equal blocks.

The idea is to then position the most important elements either on the dividing lines or intersection points.

2. Symmetry

Example of symmetrical composition in a basketball sports shoot photo

Symmetry is a commonly used composition technique as it helps to create simple yet effective images by minimising distractions and focusing the viewer’s attention.

I’ll often use this technique in conjunction with others, as you can see in this basketball image, which I shot as part of our advertising, product and still life photography course.

3. Leading lines

Leading lines in a portrait image
Leading lines in a couples portrait photo

Another composition technique that I often incorporate in my photos, leading lines are often used to lead the viewer to important areas of an image.

As you can see from the additional examples above, leading lines can take the form of straight or curved lines, and they can be both obvious (like the lines in the train carriage) or more subtle (like the waves in the image of the couple).

4. Juxtaposing colours

Juxtaposing colours

Colour is an important element of photography, and one of the most effective ways to make use of colour is to use juxtaposing colours. This results in high levels of contrast, which makes the image appear more lively and therefore eye-catching.

RGB colour model
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5. Framing

composition technique of framing using foreground objects
Composition technique of framing using lighting techniques

This technique refers to the use of other elements around the subject to frame and draw the viewer’s attention to the point of interest.

This often makes use of a technique called occlusion, which is where you add out-of-focus items in the foreground to enhance depth.

A further compositional rule not included in the video is the golden spiral, which is explained in further detail in our composition course.

Composition examples

To further reinforce some of these concepts, the video includes some further examples of my work to show how I use composition.

In this product shot of a bottle of Tom Ford cologne, the viewer’s journey is mostly locked. We can travel around the image but there are particular elements that make it difficult to escape. Barriers of shape, curves or intensities of contrast direct us back to the areas of importance and keep us locked within the frame.

This second example, a product shot of lipstick, also incorporates barriers of shape and intensities of contrast that help hold the viewer in place.

Composition tips

These are just a few basic examples of how I use composition, but it actually goes much deeper than that. There are also many other factors to do with colour, contrast, juxtaposition, narrative and emotion that also contribute to the effectiveness of an image.

When composing your image, remember that the goal is to create a memorable image. There are plenty of compositional ‘rules’ to guide you, but sometimes the best images break the rules! The critical thing is to keep the viewer interested by incorporating some of the techniques mentioned here.

These things are too complex to cover fully here, and they are the subject of my annual four-day workshop with fine art animal photographer Tim Flach, which you can find out more about here.

In the meantime, some of the information I showed you earlier is from our free ‘Introduction to photography’ course, specifically the chapter on photography composition, but there are also plenty of other great chapters to help brush up your skills.

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