When we take a photograph, we make a decision on how we wish to place our subject within the frame. This is the art of photographic composition at its most fundamental level.

We can further influence our composition with our chosen focal length, for example. Or, by changing our angle or position relative to that of our subject and any other elements we may wish to include or exclude.

These factors can introduce a huge variation into compositional possibilities. Add in the fickle nature of subjectivity, and for me as a wildlife photographer, the complexities of animal behaviour, it means there are limitless possibilities.

Crucially, there is never one composition which can ever be considered as the ‘correct’ one.

There are a number of established guides we can use which aid us in enhancing impact by using composition. For example, leading lines, golden ratio, golden spiral, golden triangle and the subject of this blog post, the rule of thirds.

Rule of Thirds

The principle of the rule of thirds is to imagine your frame divided into horizontal and vertical thirds. This produces a grid of nine small rectangles with four intersecting points.

It sounds more complex than it really is, so let’s take a look…

Rule of Thirds Grid (Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill)
Rule of Thirds Grid (Southern Yellow-billed Hornbill)

Early adopters of the rule of thirds were renaissance artists. They determined that most people looked around these intersecting points rather than being drawn in to the centre of an image. By placing key areas of interest on these intersecting points, or along the gridlines, we help the viewer engage with the photograph.

How I use Thirds

The problem with following ‘rules’ in our photography is the danger of limiting ourselves by stifling creativity. Especially if we do so with the absolute rigidity of the example above.

With this in mind, I use the rule of thirds as a general guideline which helps me consider my subject in relation to its surroundings. In practice, this means I prefer to place a subject loosely around the thirds areas and allow room for negative space.

Using Negative Space with Thirds

Negative space is the area around our main subject. It doesn’t refer to something being bad! When deciding which of the thirds intersections or gridlines I wish to use, I’ll consider…

Which direction is my subject looking or moving towards?

Atlantic Puffin, Composition and Negative Space
Atlantic Puffin – Composition 1


Atlantic Puffin, Composition and Negative Space
Atlantic Puffin – Composition 2

This Atlantic Puffin was flying from my left to right. Both versions are from one photograph which I have cropped to give two very different compositions. I’ve loosely used thirds to place my subject away from the centre.

With both compositions, our eye is immediately drawn to the subject. In the first composition, the Puffin is moving towards or into the negative space. Because the negative space is in the direction the subject is moving in to, this negative space also becomes a complimentary part of the overall photograph.

In the second composition, the subject is moving and looking straight out of the right-hand side of the photograph. The negative space is behind the subject and no longer compliments the subject.

Which one do you prefer, and why?

What surrounds my subject?

I often look to photograph wildlife in the context of its habitat or with other animals, see my previous Fujiholics blog, here. When deciding how to compose a photograph I look the subject’s surroundings to determine if there is anything I’d like to include or exclude.

Elephant Savannah
Elephant Savannah – Fujifilm X-H1 & Fujinon 100-400mm.

I could have opted for a frame filling photograph of this Elephant in Kenya’s Masai Mara. Instead, I chose to zoom out to give a feeling of the vastness of the Savannah. I included the iconic African Acacia trees to provide habitat interest in the negative space as well as giving balance to the overall frame.

Lemek Lions
Lemek Pride Lions. Fujifilm X-H1 & Fujinon 200mm f/2.

Using fieldcraft knowledge, I was confident this Lioness was about to yawn and reveal the drama of her huge canine teeth. I placed her head as near to one of the intersecting thirds as I could without cutting her body from the frame. I included the out of focus male Lion in the ‘negative space’. My intention was that the male should compliment, but not distract from the focal point.

Kittiwake. Fujifilm X-H1 & Fujinon 100-400mm

This photograph of a nesting Kittiwake was taken during one of my Farne Islands wildlife photography workshops. We were at sea photographing the the cliff-face nesting habitats towards dusk. I composed the Kittiwake towards the bottom right of the frame to give me space to include the habitat. The contrast of the dark dolerite rocks and the green algae, illuminated by the warm evening sunlight provides interest in the negative space.

Parting Shot

Using thirds as a compositional aid can work very well, but don’t let it stifle your creativity. There’s a great saying that once you know ‘rules’, you also know when to break them! Treat it as simple yet effective guideline and maybe as a springboard to explore how your subjects can be photographed to add impact and interest.


Alan Hewitt is a freelance wildlife photographer, writer and photography holiday tour guide. He can often be spotted on Northumberland’s Farne Islands but migrates to warmer climates to help people point their lenses at wildlife across Europe, Asia and Africa.