Facebook Pixel The Rule of Odds in Photography (An Easy Trick for Better Compositions)

The Rule of Odds in Photography (An Easy Trick for Better Compositions)

the rule of odds in photography

As a photographer, you might often find yourself juggling various composition guidelines, trying to bring that perfect harmony to your images. But sticking too rigidly to these rules can sometimes lead your photos down a path of predictability, stripping them of their unique charm.

This is where the rule of odds comes into play, a deceptively simple yet powerful tool in your photographic arsenal. It’s all about arranging your subjects in odd numbers to craft compositions that are naturally more pleasing to the eye. Unlike more static guidelines, the rule of odds offers a blend of structure and organic flow, making your images both aesthetically pleasing and impressively compelling.

So if you’d like to know what the rule of odds is and how you can use it to make better photos, read on!

The rule of odds in photography - three tulips
The choice of three tulips for this shot was very purposeful. I tapped into the rule of odds!

What is the rule of odds in photography?

The rule of odds states that, whenever possible, a composition should have an odd number of objects, not an even number of objects. So an image should have three flowers rather than two, and five people rather than four.

Why? The rule of odds taps into the brain’s propensity to create order. You see, when viewing a group of objects, we unconsciously want to group them in pairs.

But when we’re faced with three, five, or seven objects in a photograph, we have a group that can’t be easily organized. With an odd number of objects, one may become dominant. At the very least, the viewer will look longer at the image, moving between the individual elements.

That is the power of the rule of odds in photography: It creates a composition that makes the viewer’s brain work a little harder and look a little longer.

The rule of odds in photography - three umbrellas
Three repeating shapes play to the rule of odds. You can line them up…
three flowers in an implied triangle
…or arrange them to form an implied triangle, as with these three flowers.
three apples

Note that three, five, or seven objects can work well. Once you move beyond these single-digit numbers, we tend to treat all of the objects as a group – even if they’re odd.

the rule of odds in photography - five bottles
Five objects also adhere to the rule of odds!

Creating compositions with the rule of odds

Certain genres of photography give you, the photographer, complete power over your composition.

So you can arrange and compose your scene to include an odd number of subjects.

You can also arrange the odd number of subjects in pleasing ways; for instance, you can include strong compositional elements such as lines and triangles. In fact, these compositional tools are one more way to tap into the viewer’s brain as it works to find lines and patterns.

Often in still life compositions, we have the ability to arrange our subjects, choosing what, where, and how many objects are placed. And that makes it easy to apply the rule of odds, as I did in the photo below:

rule of odds still life with lantern
When you set up a still life photo, you have full control over what to include and exclude. Here, the lantern, gloved hand, and pickaxe are the three key elements in this composition, so it follows the rule of odds.

Of course, it’s not enough to think only about the number of objects. You still need to think about natural pairs, because while a cup, a saucer, and a spoon might make a pleasing composition, a cup, a saucer, and a screwdriver would likely puzzle your viewer – even though it follows the rule of odds!

violin, music, and flower still life
It was no accident that I chose a stem of flowers with three roses. And note the three objects in this light-painted still life: the violin, the sheet music, and the flowers.

Flowers can make great subjects for tapping into the rule of odds. If you are arranging the flowers in the scene yourself, think about using a group of three or five rather than an even number. If you’re shooting flowers in nature, perhaps you can frame your shot to include an odd number of subjects. (You could also clone out a flower afterward.)

three flowers together
This was a matter of framing the shot to include just these three flowers.
three leaves with water droplets
In this case, I framed the shot to only include three leaves.
tree before a lake
This triple-trunked tree was a perfect rule of odds subject.

The rule of odds for other subjects

Out in nature, perhaps shooting landscapes, you usually don’t have the option of moving around subjects. Instead, spend time exploring your scene – and find compositions that take advantage of the rule of odds in photography.

When shooting outdoors, see what you can do to create compositions with an odd number of major objects, be it mountain peaks, trees, rocks, or clouds. Note that you can still apply the rule during post-processing; if you have four elements instead of three, you can always clone one out, as I did in the image below:

four birds cloned down to three
The three posts worked well for this rule of odds shot, but four birds were on the front post. No problem; just clone one out! Do you agree that three is better than four?

Whether you’re composing in the field or editing on your computer, the rule will usually still apply. An odd number of objects will create a stronger image.

three seagulls for the rule of odds
There was a whole flock of gulls perched on this fence, but cropping down to just these three let me follow the rule of odds.
the rule of odds in photography - three Canada geese
This shot was mostly about the great reflections in the water, but the three geese worked with the rule of odds and enhanced the story.
groups of rocks on the sand
Three or five? The top shot was the original composition. There are six rocks, but because two of them are closely grouped, you could consider them five objects. Still, I think the cropped version – with just three rocks – is better.
seascape with huge rocks
When you can’t move objects, such as in landscape photography, you can still take advantage of the rule of odds. Just keep it in mind when composing your shot.
four trees on the left and three trees on the right
The simpler shot at the right has just three objects. It works better than the shot at the left with four.
windows in a row of five
The same goes for architectural photography. Here, the five-in-a-row repetition works well.
the rule of odds in photography -three bikers in a race
We’re used to a first, second, and third place winner in sporting events. So not only did the rule of odds improve the composition, but it also helped tell a story!
kayak racers
The original shot contained six kayak racers. I cloned one out to drop the count to five.

Exceptions to the rule

Do photography for a while, and you’ll hear all kinds of “rules” – the rule of thirds, the reciprocal rule, the left-to-right rule, and all manner of other compositional and camera operation rules.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules. And there are times when it’s good to break the rules for an even better composition. So when should you break the rule of odds?

First, when photographing people, you shouldn’t always stick to the rule. If you’re shooting a couple, then it wouldn’t make sense to have a third person (and this, in fact, would lend a new meaning to the rule of “odds”).

Of course, should that couple have a child, great; the group of three would make a nice rule of odds composition. Then, if the couple were to have another child, you’ll have to find a different way to pose them that works around the rule of odds.

Here’s another time to break the rule of odds: If you’re taking a photo of Mount Rushmore. Who are you going to leave out to adhere to the rule of odds?

Therefore, the rule of odds should be like the rule of thirds. Use it when it works to enhance your composition, but don’t feel constrained by it if your subject just doesn’t permit its use.

five men in front of a train
It was just luck that this group consisted of five guys, but it was helpful for composing the shot.
three police officers with lights and guns
Triple threat. There just happened to be three individuals in this group, and who was I to argue?

The odd one

Perhaps you’ve heard the song on Sesame Street, “One of these things is not like the others.” It’s a little game the show uses to teach children observational thinking.

Well, you can play a similar game with the mind of a viewer. Simply seek out scenes and compositions where something in the image is odd, different, out of place, or doesn’t match.

Such images can be powerful. They engage the mind of your viewer, drawing attention to the odd object and making your viewer look a little longer at your photo.

The rule of odds in photography - one dark tree in front of lighter rows of trees
Which of these things is not like the others? The nonconformist tree makes for a more interesting image.

Does the power of an “odd one out” image have anything to do with the number of objects in your photo? It might, or it might not. Perhaps it doesn’t conform to the standard definition of the rule of odds.

Still, it’s a powerful technique – and a great way to make captivating photos that engage your viewer.

The rule of odds in photography - one pink flower surrounded by yellow flowers
Where does your eye immediately go in this shot? Yeah, I confess that I colored the one flower pink – but the point is that the odd one out immediately becomes the focus of attention.

The rule of odds in photography: Final words

When someone tells you your photos are odd, take that as a compliment!

Seriously, they aren’t likely to say that, but if you can find ways to embrace the rule of odds in photography, you will have another trick in your bag.

Not only is it hip to be square, but it’s also cool to be odd!

Now over to you:

What do you think of the rule of odds? Will you try it out in your compositions? Do you have any rule of odds photos that you’re proud of? Share your thoughts and images in the comments below!

What is the rule of odds?

The rule of odds states that an odd number of objects in a photograph (3,5,7, etc.) will be more engaging to the viewer than an even number of objects.

In what kind of photography is the rule of odds most easily used?

Probably still life photography, where you have full control over the number of objects in your shot and how they are arranged.

Can I use the rule of odds in landscape photography?

Yes, you often can! Even when you can’t move objects in your scene, you can carefully compose and frame your image to capitalize on an odd number of subjects.
Sometimes, you can also crop your image in editing or add/remove objects to create an odd number of subjects.

What is the “odd one out” method of composition?

A good technique can be to look for things that break the norm or “stand out” because they’re different from the rest of a photo. Such objects will immediately draw the viewer’s eye and become the focal point in your photo. Think of a red flower in a field of yellow ones, a fork in a line of spoons, and maybe a baby chick in a carton of eleven eggs, and you’ll get the idea.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Rick Ohnsman
Rick Ohnsman

Photography isn’t just a hobby, it’s an adventure! Photography is about sharing my personal vision. From the ’70s, with a film SLR and a garage darkroom, college work with 4×5 view cameras, Kodachrome slides and into the digital age, I’ve pursued photography for over 45 years. An enthusiastic member of the Boise Camera Club, I share this common passion and enjoy teaching new members. See my work here – on 500px and on instagram.

I need help with...