Photo Tips: [Breaking] The Rule of Thirds


Photo Tips: [Breaking] The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is a fundamental technique of photographic composition, and to be clear, composition is how we decide to arrange the elements in a scene, within the four edges of the frame.  (Hint: It’s just as important what you include in the frame as what you exclude from it).

Do remember, though, that all “rules” in photography are made to be broken, so be sure to experiment and try new and different things as often as possible.  I truly believe in the importance of the Rule of Thirds, but I’ll be the first to try to bend and bust it wide open.


Mexico and Handprints, No Person by Ralph Velasco

This is the original shot.


This image was made in the Zócalo of Mexico City.  I was on assignment to shoot the travel and cultural images to compliment the food photography for a cookbook on the various regional cuisines of Mexico, and part of my job was to follow a shot list for capturing Mexico City’s historic center.  The client was looking for iconic scenes in this area, such as the Mexico City Cathedral, the National Palace and other landmark governmental buildings located around the perimeter of the square.


Mexico City Cathedral and Tents by Ralph Velasco

Tough exposure shooting with the cathedral backlit at sunrise.


Early one morning, just before sunrise, I made my way over to the Zócalo to capture the scenes the client was looking for.  This was somewhat difficult to do because there was a long term political demonstration going on in the square and there were dozens of white tents, barricades, cars, banners and other unsightly elements in just about every wide angle shot I could see, so I had to get in closer and look for detail shots.


Government Buildings and Tents in Mexico City, Mexico by Ralph Velasco

Beautiful sunrise, but less than interesting foreground.


As I always tell me students and tour participants, I started looking up and looking down for photo opportunities, and at one point  in the square I saw what I thought was something very iconic to Mexico, and it happened to be a scene of hundreds of individual white handprints artfully displayed against a blood red background with the word “M E X I C O” across the top.


Mexico and Handprints in Zocalo by Ralph Velasco

This is the shot after the other person showed up.


I started to make a series of images of this unique scene I’d discovered below my feet, and up walked another person who saw what I was doing and he started taking some shots, as well.  Instead of getting upset that someone walked into “my” scene, I decided to add a human touch and so started to make some images with this person included in the frame.  That being said, in order to show the whole scene of the handprints and the word MEXICO across the top, I had to place the other photographer in the very top left corner of the frame.


Mexico and Handprints with Grid by Ralph Velasco

With an overlay of the Rule of Thirds grid.


The Rule of Thirds has you place a virtual tic-tac-toe board across the scene by having two vertical horizons and two horizontal horizons (some cameras even have this capability built in so you can see this grid in the viewfinder or across the LCD screen as you frame up the shot).  The idea is to place your subject in or around one of the four points where two of the yellow lines meet (represented by the black circles in the image below).  This forces you to place your subject off center and not smack in the middle of the frame, which is often the easier thing to do but something that’s usually not ideal.


Grid and Black Circles with Mexico and Handprints by Ralph Velasco

Place your subject off center.


My intent, too, was to add the Power of One (see my previous post on this subject) and not to just have the handprints and MEXICO in the scene, but to provide a sense of scale and that human touch I mentioned earlier.  I much prefer the version with the other person than the original image.


Grid with Arrow, Handprints and Mexico by Ralph Velasco

Opting to break the Rule of Thirds paid off here.


So I chose to place the other person quite a bit off the Rule of Thirds point and way in the upper left hand corner of the frame. This allowed me to more or less maintain my original composition but to include another valuable element.  Often times I hear the participants on my tours and in-the-field classes grumble when another person enters their composition, but I encourage them to get at least a frame or two with the person in the scene to see how it compares to the scene without them, and more often than not they’re pleasantly surprised with the results.

How are you breaking the rules?


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September of 2011 and has been completely updated for comprehensiveness and accuracy.


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Mexico City Romantic Vacation on raveable

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