The Rule of Thirds

2006-5-20 The Angel Gabriel with Rule of Third Lines WEB

Many of you know of my disdain for photographic “rules” and so you might wonder why I’m writing about the “rule of thirds.”  It’s because I’m writing about my rule of thirds:

A great image is comprised of 1/3 vision, 1/3 the shot and 1/3 processing

A great image begins and ends with your vision.  Vision is a tough concept to describe, but I think each of us instinctively know how we want our image to look, and our job as an artist is to bring that image into compliance with our vision.

When we pursue an image with vision, then equipment and process becomes the servant and the creative process the master.  It’s only then that great images can occur.

Vision is everything.

32 Responses to “The Rule of Thirds”

  • Shivakumar Says:

    WoW this is a lovely n inspirational post Cole. I had been thinking in thes elines but you relating the rule of thirds to the concept is really fantastic.
    Am really inspired by this one ..


  • Pete Says:

    Ha Ha, you had me going there for a moment. Thanks for these thoughts. Vision has been an on going life’s work for me. Actually, seeing the final photo before it has ever been taken, has not been easy for me. It is something I need to really engage and think about when I’m out and about. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Hagen Says:

    Heartily agree. Your ’emphasis’ also aligns very closely with the Canadian Association of Photographic Arts (CAPA) judging rules in priority of consideration: 4 points for ‘impact’ (your vision), 3 points for composition (your ‘shot’), and 3 points for technical (your processing). It’s not exact, as they only judge ‘in camera’ output with no PP (but that is another can of worms with the new in camera ‘styles’ and modes).

    For them, composition includes things like subject, negative space, lines etc, while technical relates to exposure, focus, white balance etc.

    So just as you say, the purpose for the image, or the message or the why, comes before how to, or the gear.

    Vision is everything.

  • Gary Larsen Says:

    Hi Cole,

    Yes, this is another strong perspective on the making of a great photograph. I especially like the balance of 1/3 each for the facets of the process… that’s exactly how I find the balance myself. What I do often find, however, is that my initial vision for a particular image goes through a strange transition during the post-processing. It starts with my expections high, then it frequently struggles for expression as some doubt arises about its being fulfilled by what I’m doing and seeing on the screen… then some fresh inspiration strikes that seems to bring a leap forward into achieving the vision… and my satisfaction. That intermediate phase seems to be a common step in my process… sometimes not overcome for days or weeks of being away from what had seemed like a doomed image. I’ve learned to expect this phase and not be frustrated by it any more.


  • Cole Says:

    Hagen, you Canadians are pretty smart then! I lived in BC (Nanaimo, Cranbrook, Kamloops) and I have very fond memories of this beautiful land.

    Gary, your comment reminds me of something I heard from Brooks Jensen about “when” does the vision take place. As I recall, he talked about it occurring in front of the camera or later, in front of the computer during processing.

    I’m not sure it’s important to define how or when or why vision takes hold, as long as it does. Otherwise we’ll produce just another pretty postcard picture.


  • Bill Says:

    Greetings Cole,
    Prior to becoming aware of your work and blog, I did see the process as having the 3 components you outline. However the ‘vision’ component involved freeing my mind from any rules or preconceived ideas of what makes a good image so as to let myself shoot freely without any intellectual constraints; in essence a subconscious vision. (In this attitude I see a parallel with your not wanting to view other peoples work.) I never considered themes ( e.g. harbinger, one man) nor went looking for a particular image or style. As a result of your work and blog, I now see value in and I am more open to a more considered approach up front, and vary between taking a conscious and subconscious approach to seeking out images.
    I also find that if I look back at my images, the amount that conceiving a vision (conscious or subconscious), taking the shot, and processing the image contributed to the final result varied significantly. Clearly, a subconscious approach in essence reduces that active nature of the vision component. In addtion, when I am making a decision if and how to process an image, a key variable is how much processing this image requires. Some images stand out as ‘winners’ right away, require minimal processing and would actually suffer from over-processing. Other images lay hidden. Only after an extensive exploration of one or more processing alternatives is a winning image discovered. I can think of two examples where images I had taken many years ago (one of which was a 30 year old 5×7 matte print) would not let me abandon them. Over the years, repeated processing attempts were unsuccessful. Finally, this year I was finally able to create images of both that I consider to be among my best. I believe this was made possible by the parallel improvement in digital darkroom software, my ability to use this software and the expansion of my vision (conscious or otherwise) of what makes a good image.
    To summarize, I totally agree with the three components, and would add that it is important that one remains open to the idea that the amount of influence each component has may vary by individual and or image. Freedom within a framework….let the framework provide a guide but retain the freedom to be flexible according to your needs and the needs of the image.
    Thank you once again Cole for motivating me to think about my art and how I can continue to grow as an artist.

  • Bill Says:

    Cole just saw your response to Hagen and yes, that provides even more freedom within the ‘rule of thirds’ framework. The vision can come later!

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    I think Vision is best when it comes to us at the front end, but heck, take it whenever it comes!

  • Chris Kovacs Says:

    Well said Cole! I agree one hundred percent!


  • Jan Enger Says:

    Is it really so important all this rules? Is it really so important whats wrong or what`s best? Thats in your mind! And from your mind the picture vill come, and make a process. So I`m agree Cole – yes,yes vision and empathy.

  • Cole Says:

    Jan is right, despite all of the words and all the experts and all the talk, it comes down to us and what we do. Best to please yourself and what you believe inside than to impress others.

  • Olivier Says:

    I like this 1/3rd 1/3rd 1/3rd thing. You gave the rule of thirds another meaning Cole!

  • Doug Chinnery Says:

    Interesting. Landscape photographer Joe Cornish talks of thirds too but in a different way – he describes Craft, Art, Soul. He describes how the first step is to become proficient at our ‘craft’ – that is operating the camera proficiently in a technical sense. Once mastered this allows us to focus, not on apertures and shutter speeds etc but to now develop our ‘art’. This is mastering composition. Once this is accomplished (or we reach a level of ability in composing images – because do we ever really master composition?) we can then try and develop the ability to give our images ‘soul’ which he describes as being able to make an image which moves the viewer emotionally – it creates an emotional response from the viewer. Just another set of thirds to consider.

  • Eduard Crispi Says:

    Hi Cole, apart from admiring your work – I’m an enthusiast of your style – I find your thoughts very inspirational. The way some photographers understand the art of Photography has not changed that much (from Ansel Adams till now the philosophy is almost the same). The process may change but not our vision.

    Great thought!

  • torsten winkler Says:

    hi cole,

    sorry, you’re not consistend in those very few lines. i think i know what you’re meaning – that vision is your startingpoint that drives you through the whole process. but at first you’re explaining, that vision is 1/3 and at the end you conclude that vision ist everything.

    one can’t make the “wrongs” in the world right with doing the opposite wrongs. like fixing the tech-geeks dominance in photography by becoming an art-geek. vision without technique and skill is just a thought one can’t share with others. so vision can’t be “everything”.

    and i think, every artist/photographer who’s proclaiming “vision is everything” is lying – most of all to himself. because he’s forgetting all the years spent in learning what to do with that strange thing that helps us making pictures. and all the years getting a decent print (analog or digital). and worst of all – that lie is misleading everyone following on the trail to become a decent photographer. because what that statment is saying is: “I know my tools and techniques. so vision is the only thing important. everyone should not learn anything else but vision.”

    so i can accept your rule of thirds, but that “vision is everything” is plain wrong.


    ps: i didn’t mean to offend anybody. i just wanted to show the consequences of what that last statement is saying.

  • Cole Says:

    Torsten, thanks for a different view! I suspect our language differences gets in the way of delicate ideas. When I say “Vision is everything” I don’t mean it literally, it’s a way of saying that vision is the key ingredient or the catalyst that makes everything else work.

    And while I do concede that skills are important, for example I couldn’t have created the Ghosts in the Auschwitz images without a lot of background and practice with long exposures, I do think that if skills are put first above vision, then one becomes a technician rather than an artist.

    But this is all just semantics, because regardless of the words we use to describe the process, each of us finds our own formula.

    Thanks for contributing and you didn’t offend anyone!


  • torsten winkler Says:

    okay, in this light i can go along with the statement much better. 🙂

  • ernesto Says:

    Very interesting Your view. I also move, step by step, just in this direction.

    Ciao 😉

  • Danuta Antas Says:

    I always find your discussions very interesting Cole and your honesty has great value to me. Your personal rule of thirds appeals to me in particluar:), regardless of Torsten’s remarks. Giving much attention to vision is what makes a real piece of art. I am sure that every visionary person feels themselves the need to pursue technique for to show better their visions. What I frequently notice in the field of serious photography, the great technique is everything and then there is nothing more. If an image doesn’t touch my soul, it is not an art; it is just an object. I may notice greatness in other people works that are not in my personal taste, but I feel when somebody did the work with vision in mind rather than technique itself.
    By the way, excellent technique is like beautiful woman with empty mind and empty heart:)
    Thanks Cole that you deal with this issue:)

  • Cole Thompson Says:

    Hi Danka, thanks for your great thoughts and support!

  • Scott Foster Says:

    Hey, Cole.

    Well, I’m a bit late to the party. What a nice piece of writing; a great presentation of a topic I needed to be reminded of. From here on out, when I think of The of Third’s I will be reminded of Cole’s Rule of Thirds.


  • Artem Sapegin Says:

    Good rule! I agree with that 🙂

  • aNette Says:

    Ahhhh, Zabriski Point/ Death Valley. One of the most beautiful places of the world. I love it and so I like this Foto so much. Rule or not a rule, it is wonderful 🙂
    Greetings, aNette

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