I will say right up front that rules are meant to be broken and ignoring this one doesn’t mean your images are necessarily unbalanced or uninteresting. A wise person once told me that if you intend to break a rule you should make sure that you understand it first. In this blog I am going to cover this “rule” so that you will understand it comprehensively.
The Rule of Thirds is perhaps the most well-known ‘rule’ of photographic composition. It is one of the very first things that aspiring photographers learn about in classes on photography or their own research, and rightly so as it is the basis for well-balanced and interesting shots. There are actually no rules at all in photography. What I will cover in depth below is essentially a well-established composition guideline which can be applied in almost any situation, to enhance the impact of a scene. These guidelines will help you take more compelling photographs, lending them a natural balance, drawing attention to the important parts of the scene, or leading the viewer's eye through the image to see the story behind the picture.
What is the Rule of Thirds?
The basic idea behind the rule of thirds is to imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 parts, as demonstrated below:
You would use this grid to frame your shot. This grid identifies four important parts of the image by providing the lines which you should consider as the frame for your image. Place your points of interest here.
The rule of thirds says that you should place the most important aspects of your scene along these lines, or at the points where they intersect so that the viewer will engage with it more naturally. Studies have shown that people’s eyes usually go to one of the intersection points most naturally, rather than the center of the shot. Using the rule of thirds works with this natural way of viewing an image rather than working against it.
The rule of thirds allows the use of open space to suggest movement. For example, put two thirds of open space to the left of the child to suggest that the child is walking into the picture (along the beach). Put two thirds of open space to the right of the child to suggest the child is walking out of the picture.
For subjects which have a definite focal point (e.g. a person’s eyes), place the focal point on one of the intersections of the grid. This just breaks the common practice of placing everything in the center of the frame. This creates a well-balanced photograph.
Point of view
Take the scene of being at a lake for example. You will most likely have three elements in your picture: the water, the land, and the shoreline that divides the two. Put the shoreline on the lower third to accent the houses, trees, boat launch, park, etc. on the land. Or put the shoreline on the upper third to accent the water, or what is in or on the water.
These are just a few examples of how rule of thirds can be used to emphasize certain elements of an image. The number of uses are limited only by your imagination, and the situation.
For some photographers using the Rule of Thirds comes naturally but for many of us it takes a little time and practice for it to become second nature.
In learning how to use the rule of thirds (and then to break it), the most important questions to be asking of yourself are:
- What are the points of interest in this shot?
- Where am I intentionally placing them?
If you are looking to move away from the “snapshot” arena and make your photographs look more professional, rule of thirds, in most cases, assists in this regard.
If you have been using the rule of thirds for some time, you will notice that your subjects are not always on one of those imaginary lines. Your subjects are further out, or closer in than 1/3. Quite often I find myself lining up on a line of third, and then moving the camera a little to get a better composition, using the rule of thirds as a starting point.
Take a day to go out and experiment with this. Place the subject dead center, right, left, top and bottom line of third. Play around with the positioning of your focal points using the rule of thirds and see how it influences the look of the scene. Once again – remember that breaking the rule can result in some strikingly beautiful shots – so once you’ve learnt it, experiment with purposely breaking it to see what you discover.
With the above knowledge, you will quite easily be able to understand why some photos appear exceptional while others feel just like snapshots. Keep this rule in mind the next time you take out your camera and then you can decide for yourself if this is a “rule” you wish to break or a guideline you choose to follow!
Here are some spectacular shots which bent the rule of thirds yet still produced a beautiful picture.