Breaking the Mold: Ignoring the Rule of Thirds in Landscape Photography

Landscape photography is a captivating art form that allows us as photographers to capture the beauty of the natural world. Among the many composition techniques employed by landscape photographers, the Rule of Thirds has long been considered a fundamental guideline for creating visually appealing and balanced shots. However, in this article, we will explore a less conventional viewpoint: why you should consider ignoring the Rule of Thirds in landscape photography. We will delve into the limitations of this rule and uncover situations where breaking away from it can lead to more unique, compelling, and creatively satisfying landscape photographs.

The Rule of Thirds: A Brief Overview

The Rule of Thirds is a well-known compositional guideline that divides an image into nine equal parts using two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. According to this rule, important elements of the scene should be placed along these lines or at their intersections, creating a balanced and harmonious composition. While the Rule of Thirds can undoubtedly yield aesthetically pleasing results, its ubiquity in landscape photography has led to a certain predictability in the genre.

The Power of Breaking Conventions

Before we even dive into why you should consider ignoring the Rule of Thirds, let's examine the idea that breaking away from conventional guidelines can be a powerful tool in any creative pursuit, including photography. Here are some reasons why.

Uniqueness and Originality

By deliberately ignoring the Rule of Thirds, you open the door to more unique and original compositions. When you break free from the expected patterns, your images can stand out in a sea of conformity. Us landscape photography enthusiasts are constantly seeking fresh and innovative perspectives, and unconventional compositions can be a breath of fresh air. After all when we arrive at a location, it is easy to take that bucket shot, and I would recommend doing this, as you don't have your version of a well-known shot. However, perhaps it's time to break the mould and find something unique?

Creative Freedom

Rules can sometimes stifle creativity. When you feel bound by the Rule of Thirds, you may limit your creative potential. Ignoring this rule grants you the freedom to experiment with alternative compositions and allows your artistic instincts to take the lead. Some of the greatest discoveries were made when the rules were bent slightly or even broken totally, and the beauty of landscape photography is these rules should really only be tools in the end.

Highlighting Neglected Elements

The Rule of Thirds tends to emphasize certain elements in a scene while relegating others to the background. By ignoring this rule, you can bring neglected or unexpected features to the forefront, giving them the attention they deserve and offering viewers a new way to perceive the landscape. This can be particularly true when it comes to seascape photography as the flowing water can form part of your composition and in fact has the potential to be the best part of your frame should you nail that exposure time.

When to Break Away From the Rule of Thirds

Now that we've explored the advantages of defying conventional composition guidelines, let's discuss specific scenarios in landscape photography where ignoring the Rule of Thirds can yield exceptional results.

Symmetry and Reflections

Symmetrical landscapes, such as perfectly mirrored reflections in calm waters, are prime candidates for disregarding the Rule of Thirds. Placing the horizon line dead center in the frame can accentuate the symmetrical beauty of the scene, creating a striking and balanced composition. If you are forced to stick to these best practice rules then you may end up with a shot that isnt as good as it could have been. The key here is to assess the acene and see what works best.

Minimalist Landscapes

In minimalist landscapes, where simplicity and minimal elements are key, centered compositions can be highly effective. A solitary tree in a vast desert or a lone rock formation against an expansive sky can make a powerful statement when placed at the center of the frame. Using the negative space to your advantage here provides you with the opportunity to make your image more striking too. 

Emphasizing Depth

Landscape photographs often aim to convey a sense of depth and dimension. Placing prominent foreground elements, such as a rocky outcrop or wildflowers, at the center of the frame can draw viewers into the scene, inviting them to explore the layers of the landscape. You can, of course, use the rule to add supporting characters to your shot in this case if the scene permits, but the star of the show is dead center.

Astronomical and Celestial Events

When photographing astronomical phenomena like meteor showers, eclipses, or the Milky Way, the Rule of Thirds may not apply. Centering the celestial event in the frame can provide a sense of balance and focus, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the cosmic spectacle. However, should you have a strong foreground that can be used for these shots, then of course, use it to your advantage to draw the eye into the scene. 

Abstraction and Artistry

For photographers seeking to create abstract or artistic interpretations of landscapes, ignoring the Rule of Thirds can be liberating. Play with unconventional compositions to evoke emotion or provoke thought rather than adhering to traditional guidelines. In this form of photography, there are zero rules as such, just the ones that work for you more so. 

Alternative Composition Techniques

Now that you've considered scenarios where breaking the Rule of Thirds can be advantageous, let's explore alternative composition techniques to experiment with in landscape photography. Remember, if we consider these "rules" more as "tools," then we can allow out creativity to flow and potentially capture those banger shots.

Centered Composition

As mentioned earlier, centering your subject or horizon can create a powerful and balanced composition. This approach can work well in scenes with strong symmetry, reflections, or a single dominant subject. I find in this situation I take all sorts of shots while in the field, some using the "rules" and others where I throw them out the window and concentrate on experimenting more so than being steadfast in my approach.

Leading Lines

Leading lines can be used creatively to guide the viewer's eye through the frame. Experiment with leading lines that converge at the center of the image, drawing attention to a focal point. Starting at one side of the frame and ending in the middle can work well. One word of advice, however, is to avoid leading lines that lead you up and out of the frame, as this will take the viewers eye out and on to the next image. Instead, aim to have the eye start, move, and return back into the frame where possible. 

Frame Within a Frame

Create intrigue and depth by framing your subject within the landscape. This technique can draw attention to the center of the frame while adding context and layers to your composition. Overhanging trees can work well here, or even clouds, which act as a stopper for the example mentioned in the previous point.

Diagonal Lines and Patterns

Consider incorporating diagonal lines or patterns into your compositions. These elements can disrupt the traditional Rule of Thirds grid and introduce dynamic tension into your photographs. The more the eye explores the image, the better, and this method can work fantastically. A key point here is of course that you need these diagonal elements in your frame. However, when you are looking for them, you stand a better chance of actually finding some to make it work. Large rocks can work well, and branches in trees or fallen logs in waterfalls can work well also. 

Negative Space

Leverage negative space to emphasize your subject or convey a sense of solitude. Placing your subject at the center of the frame within a vast expanse of negative space can potentially evoke powerful emotions for your viewer. Look for lone subjects in the scene to help with this method, and if not, then either try to remove the distracting elements while at the location (where possible, of course) or wait until you get back to base and use your clone tool to remove and simplify the scene.

Post-Processing and Rule Breaking

Now, as mentioned in the last point about removing items when in post, in today's digital age, post-processing plays a significant role in photography. When intentionally ignoring the Rule of Thirds, post-processing can become a valuable tool for fine-tuning your compositions. Here are some post-processing techniques to enhance your rule-breaking images:

Crop and Recompose

After capturing your image, you can use post-processing software to adjust the composition further. Cropping and recomposing your photo can help you fine-tune the placement of elements within the frame. There is a risk here of reducing the quality of your image, as you are effectively removing quite a lot of pixels and then stretching the result. However, given the quality we now have in out cameras, this shouldn't pose too much of a risk, unless, of course, you are only wanting to take one single flower from a large scene as your entire photo.

Color Grading

Experiment with color grading to enhance the mood and impact of your image. By adjusting colors and tones, you can draw attention to the center of the frame and create visual harmony. This was something that I did recently when the conditions weren't ideal and I wanted to convey a moodier scene that it actually was. It felt moody while there, so I did the same when editing. 

Dodge and Burn

Selective dodging and burning can be employed to subtly emphasize the center of the frame or specific subjects within it. This technique can help maintain balance and visual interest. I find the key here is to once again ignore the rules and see what works for you. Of course, you don't want to send that slider up to 11, but 8 might actually work. Again, I employed this method on a recent shoot when I wanted to portray some fine art style of photos. Given that I hadn't done it before, I wanted to challenge myself.


Vignetting, when applied thoughtfully, can draw the viewer's eye toward the center of the frame, reinforcing the central focus of your composition. The word of caution here is to not over do it. Less is more, otherwise you will end up with a shot that looks totally unnatural, unless that's what you were aiming for.


In the world of landscape photography, the Rule of Thirds has long been a trusted guide for creating balanced and visually pleasing compositions. However, breaking away from this conventional guideline can unlock a world of creative possibilities, allowing you to capture unique, original, and emotionally resonant landscapes.

As you embark on your journey to explore the art of landscape photography, remember that photography is ultimately an expression of your creativity and perspective. While the Rule of Thirds remains a valuable tool, don't be afraid to embrace the freedom of rule-breaking when the situation calls for it. By doing so, you'll discover new ways to convey the beauty and wonder of the natural world through your lens, creating images that are truly your own.

What are your own thoughts on this topic? Are you a rule-breaker?

Darren Spoonley's picture

Darren J. Spoonley, is an Ireland-based outdoor photographer, Podcaster, Videographer & Educator with a passion for capturing the beauty of our world.

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I'm gonna have to respectfully disagree because pretty much every one of your examples still conforms to the rule of thirds even if unintentionally.

I could go over each image but that would take too long. I can tell you that the main reason is because you're trying to keep the majority of the figure within the frame and that usually results in the rule of thirds in one form or another. A perfectly symmetrical composition often places the figure in the middle 3rd of the frame so you're back to the rule of thirds again. A minimalist composition with the horizon line in the top 3rd is still the rule of thirds. The way to break the rule is to force the viewer to focus on the edges of the frame and outside of the frame's borders. But "professionals" always say that's bad composition so they teach not to do it. The only way to really break the rule of thirds is to study how famous artists that have done it in the past and get away from the advise and prejudices of professional photographers.

BTW, I can break the rule of thirds but rarely successfully. The few times I've done it well painters and illustrators will tell me it's great but photographers always say it's "bad composition."

Also, I'm very respectfully disagreeing because you put a lot of effort into the article and this is a very tricky subject matter.

I'm sorry but I'll have to disagree with you. The rule of third is not that prevalent in art...

The Rule of Thirds, a commonly advocated compositional guideline in photography and art, often finds itself in a dogmatic spotlight, despite its absence in the works of Renaissance painting masters and many renowned photographers throughout history. This rigid adherence to the Rule of Thirds reflects a prevailing viewpoint that it should be an unwavering cornerstone of image composition.

In the Renaissance era, artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo pursued a more symmetrical and geometric approach, prioritizing the golden ratio over the Rule of Thirds. Early photographers, facing technical challenges, likewise had little use for this rule.

It wasn't until the 20th century that the Rule of Thirds gained prominence, evolving into a widely accepted principle. However, it's interesting to note that the Rule of Thirds was loosely theorized earlier in history by John Thomas Smith in his book "Remarks on the Rural Landscape." Smith's work offered an early glimpse into the concept of dividing the frame into thirds, though it had not been widely recognized or discussed until much later.

Contemporary photography, even with its modern masters, reveals a fascinating departure from this dogmatic perspective. Many photographers now emphasize personal vision and creative experimentation over rigid adherence to the rule, recognizing that artistic expression transcends fixed compositional guidelines.

Renowned photographers like Ansel Adams, who mastered the art of landscape photography; Henri Cartier-Bresson, celebrated for his candid and decisive moments; and Joel Meyerowitz, known for his vibrant street photography, are all exemplary artists who did not strictly adhere to the Rule of Thirds. They crafted their unique styles by exploring a wide range of compositional techniques, often defying conventional rules. Their work serves as a testament to the limitless possibilities within photography, where creativity takes precedence over rule-bound conventions, challenging the once-dogmatic dominance of the Rule of Thirds.

You'll find more informations in the following youtube video (in french, but with english subtitles):

Have a nice day.

Honestly, I skipped through the video because it's just basic information that I heard in the first hour of my first design class in art school. There's not necessarily anything wrong with
that but I'm talking about something else and those basics are for beginners.

We would all probably agree that the "rule of thirds" is derived from the golden mean or golden ratio (there are many names for the same thing.) The great artists of the Renaissance were also geometers, so they often filled their compositions with complicated applications of the golden ratio. There's a famous book by Jay Hambridge that today's artists will often refer to when learning how to compose with some of those geometric formulas: "Dynamic Symmetry"

If you take a look at that book, there is a section on the rule of thirds. But the book is extremely complicated and the average hobbyist artist usually doesn't want to bother with all of those "rules." Most photographers are even more intimidated and they usually don't want to bother with learning any of those rules at all.

In the 20th century, a vulgarized version of the rule of thirds became popularized as a "rule of thumb" and that's what is described in the first sections of the wikipedia article on the subject: (The rule of thumb version is what I think Darren Spoonley is following in his examples even if only unintentionally)

The vast majority of photographs taken in the 1900s were snapshots taken by point and shoot type of cameras with the subject in the dead center of the frame. Amateur and professional photographers were quick to adopt the simpler version rule of thirds in order to avoid dead center compositions and separate their work from the average snapshot picture taker. Today, the rule of thirds is still discussed by amateur and professional photographers as a compositional strategy to separate themselves from GWCs. But, there is rebellion against it as "dogmatic" for the same reason that people in earlier times rebelled against the complicated geometry of dynamic symmetry. The easiest way to rebel is to go back to shooting the subject in the dead center of the frame exactly like the snapshot photographers used to do. But that's not rebellion, it's just atavism.

Also, the golden ratio is still present in a lot of the subject matter that photographers shoot. If a photographer shoots something like a tree or a face and puts it in the dead center of the frame, then there's still a good chance that the golden ratio is present in the subject matter so he's often still dealing with the rule of thirds but just in another form.

Here's a better link than the one I originally posted to Jay Hambridge's "The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry"

Some new amateur pops up about composition rules; then they learn to spout them off 1,2,3,,,,, spend more time fussing about? I suggest you spend some time with the the photography of Vincent Versace,

Quick search and I found this page where he discusses "breaking the rules" on Scott Kelby's site:

What does he do to rebel? He puts the subject's face in the dead center of the frame just like the average point-n-shoot photographer did in the 1900s (and today). You can read my previous post in this thread where I explain that isn't rebellion at all but is just pure atavism. If that's his strategy then it's so predictably unimpressive that it's embarassing.

Mike, did you review his work or did read the article you cited? Your comments fall a little short of the mark.

I just took a good look at his site since he seemed to have had some positive influence on you. My first impression was that he has what I like to think of as an Art Center look. What I mean by that is there is a very clean and clear way of shooting that is kind of a professional standard in LA and among the Hollywood photographers and cinematographers. Then I checked his "About" page and sure enough it says he's in LA. I'm just mentioning this because I'm very familiar with the look and how he shoots and I wish every professional photographer could at least shoot to the standard of an Art Center graduate. Again, he may have no affiliation whatsoever with that school at all and I'm just talking about the clean and clear shooting standard that is often associated with it. However, I definitely think he benefits from "the rules" and it really shows when he tries to break them. That photo of the boy on Kelby's site might be a cute snapshot but it's not to be taken too seriously IMHO.

To be clear, I'm not bashing his body of work at all and I'm sure it's great for people to check out. I'm just taking issue with what I see as a kind of faux rebellion of "breaking rules" that usually just means lowering standards back into GWC/point-n-shoot territory. Many of the people that talk about breaking rules have portfolios filled with rule following to the max, so it really can appear as disingenuous posturing.

Mike, well said. I do enjoy Versace's work along with Michael Melford. Michael has a different visual vocabulary and a different approach.

Thanks Larry, I'll make sure to check out Michael Melford too

Thank you for taking the time to write an article that fosters discussion.

Thank you very much Delighted you enjoyed it