How to go beyond the rule of thirds

  • Breaking the Rules of Traditional Composition, Beyond the Rule of Thirds tutorial by Celeste Pavlik

How to go beyond the rule of thirds

As photographers, we work so hard at mastering compositional basics that once we come to the realization that this particular aspect of photography has become an unconscious conscious decision in our shooting, it may be a bit scary to take the leap of breaking the rules.

Some of us may even wonder ‘why break the rules’ or ‘how to break the rules’?

For me, I began exploring my desire to move beyond the rule of thirds when I started noticing that a common theme among my favorite photographer’s imagery was that the majority of them were incorporating non-traditional composition in their work.

I realized that this was one of the things that drew me in to their work. I decided that I needed to learn the why, how and when to take this type of risk in my work in order to take my photography to the next level. I firmly believe when you know the rules and when to break them, this will also help to set yourself apart from others.

I began by scouring various photographer’s work on the internet and going back again and again to the favorite photos of my favorite artists. I read books like David duChemin’s Within the Frame: The Journey of Photographic Vision, and browsed the compelling and emotive imagery in books like Humanity where the rule of thirds is broken in the majority of every single photo it contained.

Then I continued this journey by taking two amazing workshops, Composition and Creativity and Elements of Design. Both of these workshops were pivotal in helping me understand and start implementing non-traditional composition in my portraiture. Why? Because once I knew why a broken rule of composition actually worked and how it became pleasing to the eye and to your viewer, it was as if a whole new style out of my own style was born.

I found a quote that I really like by photographer Paul Caponigro,

The key is to not let the camera, which depicts nature in so much detail, reveal just what the eye picks up, but what the heart picks up as well.

Although he’s not talking specifically about composition, I felt it still speaks to the subject of breaking the rules of photography.

We must learn to not let the camera define our vision, nor the technicalities, nor the rules, define what story it is that we want to tell. Let your heart and your soul and your connection to your subject lead you to the moment that you’ve chosen to press the shutter.

I want to talk about each of the photos below and explain why they work for me in regards to breaking the rules of thirds. But please don’t forget that first and foremost, they work for me because I made them for me, from my soul and only through practice and intention over time, I was able to effectively break the common compositional rules.

I speak of them here more in terms of the specific why’s. I feel it’s important for you as the reader to understand that when I pressed the shutter I did not ‘think’ about the composition, the picture was made through my vision of what I wanted it to be.

Breaking the Rules of Traditional Composition, Beyond the Rule of Thirds tutorial by Celeste Pavlik

Here a child is offering up a gift to whomever is willing to take it. You feel grounded with the darkness below him, yet you don’t feel as if his hands are just floating or unconnected to a body. There is so much power and emotion coming from these little hands that we forget that we cannot see the rest of him. In fact, because we see only his hands, dirty and gritty, in my mind it strengthens the feeling of giving and the hopefulness that one will take his gift. In addition, the sliver of diagonal light from the bottom of the frame almost shooting up to the fingertips also helps to create a feeling of ‘uplifting motion’ of the hands towards you as the viewer.

Breaking the Rules of Traditional Composition, Beyond the Rule of Thirds tutorial by Celeste Pavlik

Here is the essence of the amazing bond that my triplets share. My vision was to capture it and make that emotion palpable to my viewer. My goal was to create an emotive image that pulls in the viewer to feel the bond of these two brothers. Because it’s filled with diagonals it allows for comfortable exploration from corner to corner.

For me, discovering each part of the frame is important. Each little part has a story to tell, and had I used a wider angle to incorporate more of them I don’t think it would lend itself to be as an engaging moment for my viewer. I wanted the discovery of the hand hold that is really a ‘clutch’ to be foremost, and then take the journey with our eyes slowly through the frame down the face and up to the outstretched arm and then the discovery of the calm and relaxation of the other brother on the right as he lays in the more protected and darker area of the frame.

Breaking the Rules of Traditional Composition, Beyond the Rule of Thirds tutorial by Celeste Pavlik

This is probably one of my new favorite pictures. While technically his face is in the left third of the frame I was able to create many triangles with the composition. Shape, symmetry and space have probably been the most important things I have learned about non-traditional portraiture. Here you are immediately drawn in to the picture because of his intense eye contact and then you’re brought down to his hand which is just as important to me as his eyes. Hands tell a story. The texture and lines of the comforter add to the overall feel and journey that the viewer takes when looking at this picture.

Breaking the Rules of Traditional Composition, Beyond the Rule of Thirds tutorial by Celeste Pavlik

My son’s body appears somewhat tight yet his hands gently hold the nest. The fact that we cannot see the boy’s entire face works because we can clearly see his lips pursed together and combine that with his body centered within the frame, we immediately know that there is some serious business going on. I wanted to create the feeling of a boy concerned with this bird nest and leave the viewer wondering where he found it or what he planned to do with it including a deep sense of concern.

Breaking the Rules of Traditional Composition, Beyond the Rule of Thirds tutorial by Celeste Pavlik

For me, this image breaks several rules. First, the fact that we have 2 people instead of an odd number. However, the picture still feels balanced because of the lighter tones coming in to the frame from camera left with the sunlight onto the boy that is out of focus, and then carrying through to settle on the darker right side of the photo where you feel grounded. In addition, there is perceived motion with the boy walking out of the picture (broken rule) towards the viewer but we are stopped short of exiting the frame because of the boy on the right. We can comfortably settle on him and explore what he is holding and inspecting as he sits. The fact that I have cut the picture tight behind his back helps to bring the viewer back in to his hands between his knees. Had I left space to the right of him, I am afraid that my viewer would just abruptly exit the frame instead of coming back to settle on his hands and what he is exploring.

Breaking the Rules of Traditional Composition, Beyond the Rule of Thirds tutorial by Celeste Pavlik

One more perceived motion, two subjects, and filling the frame and slight out of focus, I like breaking those rules! Oh, let’s not forget the head and limb chops here too. Why this works for me, we are observing through glass. This composition for me is strong in that it lends itself to a perfect reason to fill the frame. The need to fill the frame is simple, I want to create a sense of privacy as well as engaging the viewer as much as possible to make him or her remember what it was like to create pictures and words on glass in the shower as a child. Most likely a childhood moment many can relate to.

Practice stepping outside of your comfort zone. Study the masters, study the works of your favorite photographers, and start shooting beyond the rule of thirds. I hope this inspires you to discover more about yourself as a photographer.

About the Author:

Known for her dramatic use of light and admiration of black and white photography, Maryland photographer Celeste Pavlik has a gift for capturing a wide array of emotions in her honest and organic imagery of her subjects. While the subject of her lens is most often one, or all four of her sons, she also immerses herself in the quietness of macro and still life photography. Receiving acclamation in several juried shows, she is finding herself happily pulled in to the fine art world. Celeste is a Canon photographer, Lensbaby lover, freelensing fanatic and enjoys processing 90 percent of an image in ACR with a final polish in Photoshop and or Lightroom. Besides photography, Celeste likes to spend time with her boys, explore new places, bake and snuggle in one of her well loved quilts. Visit Celeste Pavlik online.


  1. Melina Jan 16 2014 at 11:44 am - Reply

    I just love the texture, grittiness and soul these images possess! Absolutely beautiful! <3

  2. Marina Jan 16 2014 at 1:28 pm - Reply

    Love all of these. Stunning photography.

  3. Erin Konrath Jan 16 2014 at 4:29 pm - Reply

    SO great Celeste!!! I just love everything about your work. always.

    • Celeste Pavlik Jan 19 2014 at 10:01 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much Erin, you are so sweet! Missed you at IUSA this year!! xo

  4. Rachel Jan 17 2014 at 4:28 pm - Reply


  5. Lisa Benemelis Jan 17 2014 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    I loved this, Celeste, and the photographs are just beautiful. <3

  6. Linda Jan 19 2014 at 1:00 am - Reply

    Thank you Celeste! I am going back to some images that I thought were not within the thirds rules. I am coming back to these images and realizing the beauty that I was seeing them originally. Thanks so much! I was very much in need of an explanation of composition.

    Linda D>

    • Celeste Pavlik Jan 19 2014 at 10:03 pm - Reply

      Linda, it’s made my night to read what you wrote. It’s so amazing to find a little gem hidden in what you previously overlooked because of some ‘rule’. I’m so happy this was helpful!! xoxo

  7. Rebecca Jan 20 2014 at 8:00 pm - Reply

    So often I break compositional rules but cannot articulate “why” other than to say it just felt right. I love that you have taken the time to explore exactly why these broken rules work in these examples. Beautiful work and thank you for the self-critique which will help us all look that much closer at our own imagery.

    • Celeste Pavlik Jan 24 2014 at 10:07 pm - Reply

      Thank you so very much Rebecca for your comment. I also love reading others self critiques as I find it helpful to view photos from not only my perspective as the outsider but also get inside the shooters head just a little bit. Thank you for taking the time to comment!! <3

  8. Melissa Jan 23 2014 at 10:03 am - Reply

    I just love your work. So compelling. I love your compositions and how you tend to lean toward the darker end of exposure. It’s hard to do when subject matter is children, but you do it excellently! You are one of my favs to follow!

    • Celeste Pavlik Jan 24 2014 at 10:07 pm - Reply

      Aw, Melissa, you just made my night. Thank you so much for your kind words. I appreciate them!!! xo

  9. Kristin White Jan 27 2014 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    Oh my goodness Celeste, I absolutely adore these images. Your gritty-ness with these images of your boys exploring and bonding is just so honest and amazing. I love the tones in your image and how powerful they are. Thanks for sharing!

    • celeste pavlik Feb 18 2014 at 12:47 pm - Reply

      Kristin thank you so much for your compliments. You are so sweet!

  10. christine Mar 24 2015 at 8:08 pm - Reply

    Again, so much excellent advice here on thinking artistically and yet somehow within the framework of technical rules. One of the first things I learned in graphic design years ago that has always stayed with me is that you have to know the rules before you can break them (and break them well). But you have to break them to make something of impact, something that can really speak. I am loving your articles, thankyou!

    • celeste pavlik Mar 25 2015 at 8:42 pm - Reply

      Thank you Christine! I absolutely love breaking the rules too! I think it was the most freeing thing about photography for me; but like you said, I did feel that I needed to master the rules first to move to that level. I’m so glad you enjoyed this. <3

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