The danger in teaching rules of composition is that some will come to think that the rules must be strictly enforced. Nothing could be further from the truth. The rule of thirds is an age old compositional tool for laying out two-dimensional space. The rule of thirds should be seen merely as a starting place. Feel free to twist it and bend it and break it at will. Doing so will result in superior photographs.
Simply put, divide any rectangle into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Where the horizontals and verticals intersect are positions of heightened impact. Let's call them "hotspots". Placing compositional elements in one, two and even three of these hotspots usually leads to a more balanced and striking composition. Using all four intersections usually doesn't work, resulting in a muddle.
The rule of thirds: placement of subject where the thirds intersect can add to impact to your photos.
In this assignment, head out into your neighborhood and photograph anything and everything using the rule of thirds. Look for opportunities to compose a single subject juxtaposed with an empty background. Then try two subjects, juxtaposed with each other across one of the diagonals. After that, try placing a single subject across both hotspots on either the right or the left-hand side of the frame. Then make it complicated and try to fill three hotspots. Look for ways to keep the background clean and limit distractions.
This photo of Filipino smelt fishermen in Vancouver's Stanley Park is almost compositionally identical to the next two photos though the subjects are quite diverse. The subjects in all three images are placed in both left hand hotspots while the opposing right hand hotspots are left open.
A temple granny at Kyoto's Tofukuji Temple sweeps up leaves on a warm fall day. Note that the rule of thirds is just one of the tools in your bag of tricks now. Among the topics we've looked at through this series of assignments, this photograph incorporates backlighting, the considered placement of shadows and timing. All of these elements come together to create a "keeper". Like the traditional oil painter, a photographer has a full palette from which to create each image.
An egret in Kyoto's Kamo Gawa occupies the two left-hand hotspots. Note how the right side is not really blank. Instead it's filled with non-distracting elements which are just as essential to a complete composition. In this case, the bird is balanced against the wildly dancing froth which adds to the overall image without competing with the main subject.
This photo, taken in a levee in California, suffers from almost perfect composition. As a result the image seems contrived and static, like something out of the 19th Century. With the heavy foreground element placed in the lower left hotspot balanced across the diagonal against the attractively leaning tree in the top right hotspot, and echoed in the distant ridgeline, there's little room left for movement in the tightly structured space. This demonstrates how strict adherence to compositional rules will put your art in a straitjacket.
All photographs were taken by Brian Grover.