Landscape and Nature Composition – Rule of Thirds, Part 2: Subject

  Posted in Composition on

  by Chris

This is part 2 in the series, the previous concerning itself with the placement of horizons, the next with the placement of leadind lines (the most subtle and tricksy of the three).

So the question is, what about the Rule of Thirds in subject placement? The answer is, initially, of course, not to rely rigidly on the rule of thirds! But the in-depth answer first begs some questions concerning the subject: 1. How much of it are we showing, and 2. What feel/message/emotion are we trying to communicate with it?  and 3. Are there other subjects of importance in the frame? and 4. What direction is the subject facing?

The first question: how much of the subject are we showing? Be it rock, tree, animal, or person, is it face, root-to-crown, a far off view with environmental context? The answer for how much to show is answered with the question: What are we trying to communicate? If the picture is to be a standard portrait (flower, person’s face, rock, animal, et cetera), then we can expect to try to fill the frame with the subject. Ideally, nearly everything except our subject will be out of focus (think simplification). The direction the subject is facing will often dictate the position in the frame. If the subject is facing head-on, then place the subject either in the middle of the frame, or, if it does not fill the frame (or is a flower or other stemmed thing…), perhaps set it on the 1/3rd-3/8ths line. If facing to the side,place it on the 1/4th-1/3rd line, providing it room to look in the frame.

However, if we are trying to provide context (environmental portrait, cliff face with a river, a mountain with a field…), then we must decide if a balance of the compositional units within the frame. This will often be determined on a case-by-case basis. Do not place the subject in the center unless formal symmetry is present. Place subjects on the 1/3rd line if you wish to emphasize them (but balance them). Place subjects on the 1/4th line (or less) if you wish to frame with them.

The second question: what message, feeling, and emotion are we communicating? Much indeed could be written concerning emotive photography, but here we will confine ourselves to the emotional impact subject placement has on a photo. Though there are many possible feels an image may produce, they may be categorized by the following: dynamic or static, and positive or negative. Dynamic vs. static is influenced greatly by subject placement; positive vs. negative is is influenced greatly by subject nature: both are influenced by both, though to differing degrees. As such, we will focus on dynamic vs. static here.

A static feel will be achieved  primarily by placing the subject square in the center of the frame. Alternatively, it may be achieved by placing the subject as a frame (for example:  a tree and its branches on the edge of the image framing a mountain ridge in the center frame). Placing the framing unit on the right side of the frame will produce a much more solid feel than on the left side (most readers read from left to right). A sky on image left leading to a lake leading to a mountian side will feel solid. The same in reverse, with the sky on the right side, will feel freer and airier.

A dynamic feel will be achieved by placing the subject on the 1/4th-3/8th part of the frame.  Again, the feel will be more dynamic if the subject is placed on the left side of the frame. The eye may look at the subject, then feel freedom as it scans toward the right side of the frame.  If the subject is on the right side, the eye will stop when drawn to it, producing a more static feel.

The third question: are there other subjects of importance in the frame? The purpose of the prescence of more than one subject in the frame is to communicate context, perhaps tell a story, or maybe to serve as an aesthetic element of sorts (caution: the more elements, the more possible it can be to lose sight of the message…).  Hence, where to place our main subjects? Because of the innumerable possibilities, this must be determined on a case-by-case basis, though there are principles which if followed, will produce a better image, to wit, balance, triangles, contrast, among others.

In general though, if the image has two subjects, one should not be in the middle unless there is something to frame the image. Placing the two subjects on the left and right (or top and bottom) third lines will produce a static feel. Bumping  one of them to the 1/4th or 3/8ths line will produce a livelier feel.

The final question: what direction is the subject facing? For a good, traditional feel, place the subject slap on the 1/3rd line, facing away from the closest edge of the frame (if facing left, place it on the right).  Bonus points if you can align parts of the subject (boles, outcroppings, horns, lips, eyes, maybe?) with the top and bottom 1/3rd lines.

Perhaps though, we wish to try for something fresh, something new feeling. How might we achieve this? Perhaps try the above, but have the subject facing the near edge. Know though, that this is not something to try often… though it can generate a sense of mystery or finality. If your subject is faceing other subjects, placing between the 1/4th-3/8ths area will provide a reasonably dynamic feel. Placing the subject on the top or bottom of the frame will certainly deviate from orthodoxy. But wherever your subject is facing, the viewer’s eyes will be drawn. And if your viewer’s eyes are drawn there, what will meet them? The difference between subject placement on the 1/3rd and 1/4th line will communicate largely if the subject is the main subject, or a participant or maybe frame for other subjects (frames can be main subjects!). 

The real question is not what is the best place to position a subject, but what do we desire to communicate? The Rule-of-Thirds is neither good nor bad; it is merely a tool. If overused, it will become mundane. If used in accordance with the communication of our overall message for the image (you do have a purpose/message/idea in each image, right?), then we can make great use of this potentially powerful tool. The key, however, is knowing what it does and when to use it. The 1/3rd line is not the only line to use, but can be impressive when used with the right subject with the right message.

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