The rule of thirds by Mr Smith



– John Thomas Smith –

“Antiquity Smith”, or John Thomas Smith, first coined the term the Rule of Thirds in 1797
in his book “Remarks on Rural Scenery.”

I am not going to quote him here as he rambled backward and forwards on the issue; suffice it to say that there was a great deal of skepticism towards his comments
in the art world of the time.

Mr. Smith would probably be amazed that his idea was taken up and adopted by the modern photographers. Besides, here was a man who was born in the back of a carriage, who turned out to be quite outspoken in many ways, held grudges against people and whose social skills were lacking, and he became the father of the rule of thirds. Fame came too late for the poor man though, as it often does.


It works! 

The fact is that the rule of thirds does seem to work well as a general principle of composition; that when you use two horizontal lines and two vertical lines to divide an image, fitting the main parts roughly into this structure, that the result is often more interesting than by simply following other patterns.

The working out of the rule of thirds varies as much as the ways different religious groups interpret their scriptures.

In other words, it’s a loose system, not dogmatic at all. It is as flexible as the myriad of styles that photographers develop over time, and to become inflexible about “the rule” is to miss the point altogether. The point of the rule of thirds is to make your photography more dynamic and your compositions alive with creative tension. You may even decide not to use it at all, and that is also fine.

Don’t allow the rule of thirds to restrain your creativity. Use it to fire the imagination and in so doing, become a better photographer.

This sugar bird was photographed at Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden.

I decided to place the eye of the bird on the rule of thirds intersection not only because that was the right place according to the rule, also because the surrounding shapes added to the visual flow. The curved shape of the plant stem and the breast of the bird added the visual impetus almost like a stretched bow  – and the vast negative space to the right seemed to be balanced by this tension.

ISO 1000   275mm   f 5,6   1/640

This image was taken at the London’s New Year Day Parade in 2015.

To break rules on purpose is sometimes the better option.

There is a rule that suggests that in portraiture, one should leave more space in the direction a face is pointed. In this portrait, the face is pointed to the right; this means we should leave more space on the right. (However, the eyes are looking to the left.)

My dilemma was that I preferred the background to the left of the “nun”. I liked the blurred reds and yellows, passionate colours which would counter the austere looks on this beautiful face.

The choice, for me, was the right one; pressing her to the right meant greater visual tension. Cropping the image meant that that face was given greater visibility. I broke the rules. Sorry.

Notice how the rule of thirds works so well with her face.

ISO 1250    260mm    f 5,6   1/640

Where to place what you select as your main subject 

In this image, I had a quandary. In the original image, the tug and the man were in exactly the same position with equal spacing to their respective edges. Horizontally they were about equal. As I studied this, I came to the conclusion that both elements seemed to cancel each other out – there was no visual tension. In addition, they were both facing to their sides.

By cropping close to the tug, and placing the man nearer the grid intersect, I was able to play down the tug, accentuate the meditator, and restore visual tension.

ISO 100    82mm    f / 16   0,8sec


The beach walk to Blouberg Strand, Cape Town 

Using the rule of thirds for landscapes has many advantages. The rule applies to the placement of the horizon – either close to the top horizontal line or to the bottom one. With a great sky, place it lower and with a great landscape, place it higher. Never place the horizon in the middle – that tends to divide the image in two and destroy visual tension – unless of course there is a reflection in the water.

Notice how the right-hand vertical line intersects the buildings.

ISO 100    45mm   f / 11    1/15sec

Finding the place the eyes see first

In most images, there is a primary point in the image that viewers will notice first. In terms of composition, it’s important where you as the photographer place that point.

Have a look at the Strelitzia as shown above.

The blurred yellow area behind the neck of the Strelitzia is probably the most visible and attractive point. There are reasons for this, and one of them is that the neck of the flower bends around it and holds it. The rule of thirds suggests that if this area is placed as close to one of the four cross points of the grid, the composition will probably be more successful visually.

Note that in the second image, I have removed the vertical leaf on the base that touches the strelitzia. That improves the composition as the important horizontal shaft is not fixed to anything.

“You cheated,” I hear some people saying.

That all depends if you are doing photography as a way of recording an accurate depiction or as an artist. Apart from journalistic work, I see no reason not to remove guilty leaves.

ISO 1000   330mm    f 5,6   1/500 sec

Photographing flowers should include good composition 

It’s important to realise that good composition should spread throughout all aspects of photography, including botanical work where flowers and groups of flowers might be thought of as random and chaotic.

Yes, it does become harder to achieve good composition, but not impossible and the rule of thirds can help out here. Negative space (space left that is fairly neutral and where there’s not a whole lot going on) becomes more important to bring a balance to all the activity.

One can use depth of field as well and choose to make one group sharp so that this group stands out from the rest of the flowers that are intentionally blurred. Placing the group that is sharp on or near the grid line crossovers does make a difference.

SO 1600    400mm    f 5,6   1/1640 sec

I want to challenge photographers to test this so-called rule and find ways of applying it to their images. Having said that, rules like this cannot cover every image taken and in addition to this, should be used only when it makes sense to do so. The key to using this rule is to interpret it and use it without applying it dogmatically to every image you produce.


Have fun

Best Wishes 



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