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At first glance, it may seem that using the rule of thirds in abstract photography makes no sense. After all, abstract photography is all about being vague and breaking all the typical photography rules.

Because this basic rule of compositon is about adding dynamics to an image, it can be a great tool for your abstract photos, too. The application of the rule, however, may be a bit different than if you were creating a landscape image or a portrait.

This lesson offers a quick overview of the rule of thirds and dives into several examples of how you can use it to improve your abstract photography compositions.

Quick Review: Rule of Thirds

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We’re assuming most of you are familiar with the rule of thirds, but just in case, here’s a very quick explanation:

The rule of thirds breaks an image up into nine quadrants of equal size by dividing the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically. Composing your image so that the main subjects are inline with these dividing lines or, ideally, at the intersections of these lines creates visual tension in the image and draws a viewer's gaze to those subjects.

How to Use the Rule of Thirds in Abstract Images

Using the rule of thirds in abstract photography is a bit more of a challenge, though. Without a clear subject, how can you even use the rule of thirds grid?

There are actually two answers to this question. The first and shortest answer is that you throw convention out the window and ignore the rule of thirds. Rule breaking can lead to some awesome photos, after all!

The second answer is that rather than aligning a specific subject along the gridlines, look instead for abstract elements that you can place with purpose within the rule of thirds grid to give the image greater interest or dymanics. Let’s look at some examples.

Off-Center Your Subject

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In the image above, the subject is offset to the right - if we placed a rule of thirds grid onto the image, it would align with the rightmost vertical gridline.

Offsetting the subject to the right is a classic example of the use of the rule of thirds grid. Composing based on thirds in this way lets your eyes flow through the scene and settle on the area of interest. That movement gives the image a more dynamic quality in a genre where many images are too static.

Compose Based on Areas of Color

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Another way to use the rule of thirds grid is to compose your image based on color.

Imagine a grid on top of the image above. The green background would occupy fewer quadrants of the grid than the pink color, yet the image remains well balanced.

Additionally, even though the curving pink line extends into the left side of the frame, there is still a sense that this image has an off-center composition, with the subject more to the right of the frame, just like in the previous example. Again, this image is more dynamic than it would be with a centered composition.

Compose Based on Areas of Light and Dark

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Much like the preceding example, this image is nicely balanced, but for a totally different reason. In this shot, balance from left to right is achieved by using the rule of thirds grid to isolate areas of dark to the left and the lightest areas to the right.

Again, we have the feeling that the shot has a good off-center composition because the shadowed areas in the bottom left corner carry so much weight. So, even though this area is equal to about one quadrant of the rule of thirds grid, we get a well-balanced shot nonetheless.

Final Thoughts

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As we’ve seen in the sample images above, it’s possible to use the rule of thirds to improve your abstract compositions. But clearly, doing so is a bit more difficult than with other types of photos.

Rather than striving to align a clear subject with one of the gridlines, focus instead on using the grid to balance your shot by moving a focal point off-center, dividing the image based on color, or using light to bring greater balance to your shots. You don’t even need to strictly align your abstract elements along the gridlines or at intersecting points – just use the grid as a loose guide and see how your abstract compositions might improve!

Lesson Summary

  • The rule of thirds is a tool you can use to create a composition that is more interesting and dynamic.
  • The gridlines created by the rule of thirds can be used as a guide for aligning areas of visual interest either left or right of center or above or below the midline of a photo.
  • Use the rule of thirds grid to divide your abstract compositions by color or light – these interpretations of the grid can help you achieve greater interest without losing the abstract nature of the image.

Assignment

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of using the rule of thirds in abstract photography is using it to divide the image based on color or light. Practice this skill by selecting subjects with varying colors or contrasts, and framing up a series of shots in which you strive to use the rule of thirds to make better sense of the colors or contrasts present in the subject. Try placing the brightest or darkest areas of the subject along the grid line or at an intersecting point of the rule of thirds grid. Do the same with color. Doing so will help you improve your understanding of the rule of thirds and will also train your eye to see abstract elements in everyday objects.

Further Study