Composition and the Mind – A Modification of the Rule of Thirds

When I go to take a photo of something, I think first about the composition. I go through all of the rules I’ve learned about what looks best to people and where to position each element in the photo. But I’ve often wondered why some of these rules of composition work in the first place.

It really comes down to how we think when we see things, and it is interesting and very helpful to know this when setting up for a shot. Here’s an example…

This one item in particular has fascinated me: It is the traditional landscape shot and how the composition of some photos just seems to work and others don’t.

Take the rule of thirds for example. You are never supposed to have the horizon in the center of any photo. You are supposed to put it in line with the upper third or lower third line. But which one works the best?

Traditional teachings in photography say that if you have an interesting sky, then show more of it by putting the horizon at the lower third line, and if you have an interesting foreground then show more of it by putting the horizon at the upper third line. This kind of makes sense.

But why doesn’t it work? Try looking at a photo where the horizon line is at the lower third (less of the foreground or lower half of the image showing). Where do you look first? Where do you look the most? What portion do you study more over time during viewing of the image?

I would bet that it is the lower portion of the image that you look at in more detail and probably look at first. But why? If the upper two thirds is more interesting with nice clouds, a beautiful sky, maybe a great sunset with colors, etc., why are you looking at the smaller, less-interesting, lower portion?

The answer is, you can’t help it! Your brain is hard-wired to look at the lower part first and/or most.

The human brain has evolved over the years since the dawn of man, but there are some portions that are instinctual that are not changed very much since early times. One of these is the self-preservation instinct. All threats and obstacles that humans first encounter usually come from something on land. Therefore we look first and scrutinize more closely the land portion of any image in our vision. We look there first and foremost because this is where our instincts tell us to look first. That is why when you look at a photo, you look at the ground portion more than at the sky part.

I encourage you to try this with several photos and see for yourself. It is one of those things that will get you every time, because it has to by the laws of human nature!

For the photos I take, I keep this fact in mind and have adjusted my thinking about composition and the rule of thirds when it comes to landscape shots. I now place more emphasis on the lower portion of my photos. Wherever I place my horizon, upper third or lower, I always try to make sure and have some interesting foreground elements to capture the viewer’s first glance and hold their attention. I want people to look at my photos for a long time and like what they see, and it is, after all, my main goal!