Using the Rule of Odds in Landscape Compositions

Using the Rule of Odds in Landscape Compositions

If there are multiple objects that make up the subject in your photo, it can be wise to consider the rule of odds. An odd number of objects makes the image more interesting compared to an even number. As always, there are exceptions to this rule.

Every image needs a subject to make it interesting. It attracts attention and offers a clear understanding of what the image is about. An image allows only one subject to prevent distraction, but it is possible to combine multiple objects into one subject. I wrote about this in the article about Gestalt Theory. I invite you to take a look if you haven’t already.

Gestalt Theory tells us about the relation between objects and object placement. In any case, these objects together make up the subject in the image. The number of objects is also something to consider. An uneven number of objects is often more attractive compared to an even number. If there is a possibility to choose the amount of objects, use three, five, or seven objects. After seven, the amount isn’t that important anymore.

Three ducks swimming in the fog. I prefer three over two or four. This is according to the rule of odds.

Why Is an Odd Number More Interesting?

There is a well-understood reason why an odd number makes an image much more interesting. This has to do with the way we look at the content of an image. It turns out we try to combine multiple objects together in pairs on a subconscious level. We see two objects as a pair. Four objects will be two pairs, six become three pairs, and so on.

An odd number makes us feel less comfortable. That's why it makes the image more interesting.

This way of looking at multiple objects in a frame makes us feel comfortable. But that all changes when there is an odd number of objects. In that case, it isn’t possible to group every single object in pairs. There is always one left that doesn’t seem to belong. This results in a sense of tension. On a subconscious level, we try to find something in the image to pair the object that is left over.

The tension that occurs with an odd number of objects makes the image more exciting to look at. We become more aware of the image, and we look at it more carefully. It enhances the visual flow through the frame, making the image more interesting in the process.

I have chosen a composition with five rocks, even though there were many more. I followed the rule of odds and used the triangle composition ground rule. 

Three and Five Objects

Ignoring the number one, the next two odd numbers are the most obvious to use. Three is the easiest to use and perhaps the most common in the rule of odds. We see this number return in lots of different compositions. The significance of the number three can also be found in how we like to present our work in a triptych. For our homes, we often prefer to use three objects, like three vases or figurines on a dresser or mantelpiece.

There were four pillars, but I left one out of the composition because it made the image a bit more exciting.

For images, three and five objects work great in a triangle or a diagonal composition. The division of elements in the frame makes it more playful as well. It’s easy to use lines and curves that run between the objects.

Five trees.

Seven, Nine, or More Objects

When the number of objects increases, it becomes more difficult to combine the existing objects in pairs. We can pair elements within one single glance up until five without any problem, after which it becomes difficult or even impossible to do so without starting to count. I consider seven objects to be the maximum and nine objects as the absolute limit of what’s usable within the rule of odds.

How many rocks are there? It doesn't matter because there are too many for the rule of odds to work. This can be considered the rule of similarity, which can be found in Gestalt Theory.

Something happens when more than nine objects are in the frame. In that case, we don’t see separate objects anymore; it becomes a group. It doesn’t matter anymore if it's an odd or even number of objects. In the ideal situation, it will adhere to the rule of similarity from the Gestalt Theory.

The rule of odds doesn't apply in this composition. 

Using the Rule of Odds With an Even Number

The rule of similarity from the Gestalt Theory offers a solution for the number of objects that can be used for the rule of odds. As said, a large number of objects will be considered as a group, not as individual objects anymore.

If the large number of objects is divided into smaller parts, the rule of odds can be applied again, even with nine or more objects. Consider three groups of three elements, or three groups of four elements. In that case, each group with elements can be seen as one object. This can also be achieved by one or two combined objects and one single object, or in any other variation.

There are six cows in this frame (not including the ones in the background). But the rule of odds applies because there are two groups of cows, which can be considered one object.

This way of dividing objects offers a lot of flexibility, especially when the distribution of objects is less than ideal, or the scenery is somehow cluttered with different elements.

It’s also possible to divide an even number of objects in such a way that the rule of odds still applies. This can be achieved by breaking the connection of one object. In that case, the objects in the image can be considered as an object with an uneven number of elements and one standalone object.

I don't see four trees, but one in the front and three in the back. The three in the back follow the rule of odds.

This shows how much playground there is in distributing different objects and elements in the frame. Use the Gestalt Theory for this, and apply the rule of odds to the whole image or just a part of the image.

An Odd Number Is Not Mandatory

Although it is advisable to use an odd number of objects in the frame, it’s not always possible to do so. There are cases where an even number of objects is preferable. That’s why you don’t have to struggle and force yourself to comply with the rule of odds. Only use it when it adds value.

The rule of odds is a tool at your disposal, but it’s never mandatory. If there is the possibility to distribute the elements in such a way that an odd amount of objects can be achieved, it is something you can try. Just remember, if it doesn’t seem to work, or the composition becomes unattractive, just ignore the rule of odds and try something different.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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This is the most digestible explanation of the rule of odds principle that I’ve read. Great article :)

Thank you :)

Thanks Nando, a nice and useful read

Glad to be of help