Composition: The Rule of Thirds and Leading Lines

Composition is something that comes more naturally to some than others, but no matter where you are starting, it is something that can be improved with practice.  It is an element of photography that can be practiced without and without your camera.  Sometimes life is too busy or the weather isn’t cooperating and I am not able to get out and take photos, so I find ways to practice my composition skills without my camera.  When I am driving to and from work or our many activities I look at the landscapes around me and practice taking mental photos.  I try to imagine ways of creating an interesting composition with familiar scenes.  I also take a few minutes each day to look at amazing photography.  Looking at the leaderboards on, 500 PX, or View Bug is inspiring and educational.  When there is a photo I really like, I try to pinpoint what it is that makes the photo stand out.  This is especially true when I see a unique photograph of a location that has been photographed to death.

There two main rules, or guidelines, that come into play when trying to compose an image: the rule of thirds and leading lines.  Photography is an art and, like with all art, photographers develop their own styles and make creative decisions about the composition of their photos.  These guidelines are a good place to start and are a solid foundation for creating a good photography.  There are also creative reasons to disregard the rules and those are decisions each photographer makes based on the desired outcome and the elements in the scene.

The Rule of Thirds:

When considering the rule of thirds, think about a tic-tac-toe grid dividing your photo into nine equal rectangles.  The intersection points of the lines divide your photo into thirds both horizontally and vertically.  These intersections are where you want to place your most important objects in the frame.  Imagine the iconic images of a single tree among rolling hills. That tree is not usually placed in the center of the frame, but is usually offset to coincide with the intersection points of the grid lines.  This rule can be difficult to apply when you have many objects competing to be the most important. These situations are where practice and creativity are needed to create the best possible image.

Here is the obligatory shot of the lonely tree.
Here, the location of the leaves and the shallow depth of field make the leaves the focal point of the photo.

Leading lines:

Consider the classic photos of a rivers rolling off into the distance or the middle-of-the-road shot where the road continues off out of sight, or the gentle S-curve running along the top of a giant sand dune.  These are all examples of leading lines.  Leading lines are strong visual lines that pull you into a photograph and cause your eyes to travel along a certain path.  For me, these are the types of photos that draw me in and make me feel like I am in the photo.

11-2-15 008
In this photo the road originates in the lower right third of the photo (rule of thirds) and extends out of sight on the horizon (leading lines).
Even a simple staircase can lead the eye into the photo.


If you take a few moments to consider these two guidelines each time you admire a photo, chances are that you will recognize one or both of these guidelines at play.  Next time you go out to take a photo, take an extra moment to consider all of the elements in the scene and make some creative decisions about how you want those elements to appear in the final image.  If there is one main element, try placing it on one of the gridlines.  Some cameras will actually display these grids in the LCD screen or in the viewfinder. Otherwise, just imagine where the grid would be.  Look for any strong visual lines that appear in the scene and consider how those lines can be used to draw the viewer into your photograph.  The more you get into the habit of considering these guidelines, the more natural it becomes any time you pick up your camera.

Often times I return to the same location numerous times before I am satisfied the composition.  However, there are also many times when I only get one shot at an image so I want my composition skills be sharp.  Studying excellent photos and taking mental photos when I don’t have my camera in hand is one way of continually refining my composition skills.


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