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Composition Basics (4): Diagonal Composition and the Rule of Thirds

Diagonal composition and the Rule of Thirds are basic composition rules that have been used since the era of paintings. They are still very commonly used in the visual arts. Find out more about them in this article. (Reported by: Tatsuya Tanaka)

Previous articles in this series:
1. Framing, Horizontality and Verticality
2. Main and Secondary Subjects; Triangles
3. Centre Composition, Symmetrical Composition


Diagonal composition: Creates dynamism and depth

Diagonal composition diagram

In diagonal composition, the elements in the image are organised based on a diagonal line. Such a composition can emphasise perspective, give the image a sense of depth, and also add dynamism.


Examples of diagonal composition

1. Single diagonal lines

i) Using the lines on a mountain surface

Mountain slope with forest

Diagram showing centre diagonal line

I chanced upon this steep mountain slope in the late autumn and used a telephoto lens to draw the scenery closer.  The shot was composed to align the diagonal line with the natural lines on the mountain surface.


ii) Architectural details against a nightscape

Nightscape with architectural details of observatory window in foreground
(Photo courtesy of Canon)

Diagram showing diagonal lines formed by architectural details

A simple wide-angle shot of a nightscape might be pretty, but there are tons of similar shots out there. For this shot, the photographer has incorporated the architectural details of the observatory that he was shooting from into the foreground. It’s unexpected, graphical, and makes the shot look more dynamic.

Tip: The diagonal line doesn’t have to be exactly in the centre
For this shot, the diagonal line (red line) has been placed lower down from the centre diagonal line (blue dotted line). It’s an unexpected angle, and makes the shot look even more interesting. 


2. Using intersecting diagonal lines to guide and focus attention

Airplane in sky
Diagram showing intersecting diagonals

When you have two intersecting diagonal lines, viewers’ eyes will be drawn to where they meet. You can make use of that when you decide on where to place key elements in your composition.

In this example, the "X" shape formed by the body and wings of the airplane is located at the top diagonal half of the image.

Note this: The larger the area below the diagonal lines, the more stable the composition.


Rule of Thirds composition: The most balanced type of composition

Rule of Thirds diagram

The Rule of Thirds composition is one of the most frequently-used techniques. In this composition, the image frame is divided into 9 equal segments, and the main subject is positioned near one of the intersections between the lines.

Tip: Turn on the 3x3 grid
If can be hard to visualise the thirds in the image frame. But don’t fret—your camera has a built-in visual guide. Simply turn on your 3x3 grid display (refer to your camera user manual for instructions). This can also help you see if your lines are vertically/horizontally level.


Examples of Rule of Thirds compositions

1. Placing subjects on intersecting points


Diagram showing 3x3 grid and placement of flowers

These two hibiscus flowers growing side-by-side have been placed on two points where the lines on the 3x3 grid intersect.  The photographer also has included a third flower at the back in the shade of the leaves to bring out depth.


Lamps in cafe
(Photo courtesy of Canon)

Diagram showing placement of lamps on intersections of 3x3 grid

This shot of ceiling lamps in a café might appear like a simple, unstructured snapshot. However, notice how the photographer has placed the lamp shades or near the intersections on the 3x3 grid, resulting in a neat, balanced composition.


2. Dividing the composition into a 6:3 ratio

Natural landscape with sky, land and lake
(Photo courtesy of Canon)

Diagram showing 6:3 composition

In this image, the sky and clouds (the main subjects) take up two-thirds of the image, and the lake and land takes up the last third. Dividing the composition in a 6:3 ratio like this helps to create a stable composition.


3. Combining the Rule of Thirds with the split composition

One composition technique that is often employed together with the Rule of Thirds, especially in landscape photography is the split composition. In this technique, the image frame is divided vertically or horizontally into two even parts. Doing so makes it easier to create a sense of stability.


Diagram showing how image is divided into halves

A shot depicting the gradation of the sky and the illumination. Here, the split composition has been employed to bring out the contrast effectively.

Tip: How to make your shots look more compelling
The Rule of Thirds composition and split composition are both good for creating shots with visual balance and stability, but they also can easily result in a boring shot. To tackle that, don’t fall into the trap of mechanically placing your subject on the lines and intersections! Instead, find ways to make your subject look more visually compelling. You can start by considering the relationship between main subject and other elements. We will explore that in the next series of articles.


For more about the Rule of Thirds composition, also see:
Simple but Essential Compositions (Part 1): Rule of Thirds & Rule of Quarters
How to Apply the Rule of Thirds in Portrait and Street Photography


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Tatsuya Tanaka

Tatsuya Tanaka

Born in 1956, Tanaka is one of the rare photographers who produce works across a wide variety of genres from an original perspective. These genres range from objects in our daily lives, such as insects and flowers, to landscapes, skyscapes, and celestial bodies. Besides photography, Tanaka has also developed his own approach in post processes including retouch and printing.