While a lot of skills you study in photography are scientific in nature, like f-stops, shutter speeds, and ISO, the composition of the photo is a matter of art. The artistic approach is what makes an image captivating. Photographers are said to have “a good eye” when they can take compelling photos. But what makes a photo appealing and pleasing to the eye of the viewer? More often than not, it has to do with a Rule of Thirds composition and mastering this can have a huge impact in the quality of your photography portfolio.
What is the Rule of Thirds?
It is a concept to help photographers compose exciting and beautiful photographs. It’s not a hard and fast “rule,” meaning it doesn’t always apply, and there is no proper definition of the Rule of Thirds. But in most situations, it will improve your pictures. It’s especially helpful for beginners since it provides a starting point from which to learn.
The rule is so ubiquitous that it is often found in your camera settings. Many modern cameras can overlay the gridlines of the Rule in your viewfinder or on your LCD. Doing this makes learning to use the rule easier than ever before.
How to Use the Rule of Thirds
To begin Rule of Thirds photography, start by imagining the grid you will overlay on your compositions. In your photo frame, visualize two vertical lines dividing your frame into thirds and two horizontal lines dividing your frame. The result is that you have divided your photo frame up into nine smaller boxes, or a 3 x 3 grid. But the essential things are the locations of the lines and the points where the lines meet.
Where these lines meet are perfect points to place subjects of importance. They’re slightly off center but not at the edge of the frame.
The lines themselves are also useful. Find the natural lines of the image you are creating. Does it have a horizon? Does it have a division, say between beach sand and the sea? Are there trees in the forest, with their tops meeting the sky and their trunks meeting a grassy mountain meadow? These are examples of lines that you can use to help create the Rule of Thirds photos.
Point of Interest and Important Elements
No matter what type of photography you are taking, capturing Rule of Thirds photos can be done.
When taking portraits, what is the point of interest? Usually, it is the eyes of the subject. When taking landscapes, what is the prominent landmark that makes the location unique? When shooting macros, compositional details like lines and points usually abound.
One of the reasons the Rule works so well is that it helps photographers avoid centering their subjects.
When a person encounters an interesting photograph or any masterful work of art, we are drawn into the composition. Their eyes move around and appreciate various elements of the image. The multiple elements draw us in, and they make us appreciate the subject of the photo or at least learn a little more about it.
Centered subjects usually don’t allow for this. The viewer’s eyes settle in the middle on the subject, at the loss of everything else in the image. An off-center subject avoids this by forcing the viewer to look around. The rule helps photographers move the subject around.
So what happens if the composition has more than one subject or more than one point of focus? The beauty of a Rule of Thirds composition is just how flexible it is. All of those points and lines can be used at once. Maneuver yourself and your camera so that the two subjects are on opposite points. Line the objects up along a thirds line. The combinations are endless.
Rule of Thirds Examples
The Rule in Landscape Photography-Landscapes is fertile grounds for the rule. The horizon is a natural starting point. Try placing it on the upper or lower horizontal line, depending on the rest of the composition. This will nearly always make an immediate improvement over a photo with the horizon in the middle.
Next, focus on the subject of the photo. Can this be placed on one of the four points?
The Rule in Portraiture-Portraits may at first seem like a more difficult place to apply the rule. But once you think about it and use it, portraits can get the most out of it. When framing your models, think about their location in the frame. Orient the camera so that their body is along one of the lines. The main subject of a portrait is the subject’s face, so place their face, or more specifically their eyes, on one of the four points.
If your subjects are using props, like speaking into a microphone, playing a musical instrument, or using a tool, try to align the photo so that the prop is on the opposite grid point.
But what about headshots? The rule can be applied just as easily here. Their eyes and mouth are the primary subjects. Use the rule to align them interestingly.
The Rule in Photojournalism-Pictures taken “on the fly” or in photojournalistic style are slightly more challenging. Imagine you’re a wedding photographer. You only have one chance to get the kiss photo, the ring photo, or the cake photo. You’ve got to compose it right the first time and do so in a dynamic and challenging environment. There are people in the way and lighting problems. Beyond pointing the camera and quickly applying the rule, there’s not much time to think it through any further.
Rule of Thirds Pictures in Editing
The Rule can be applied just as easily in photo editing and post-production. Cropping is all about using the Rule of thirds to your advantage. Many editing programs even have the gridlines of the Rule overlayed on your picture when you click on the crop tool. This rule of thirds grid can be used to your advantage to make the picture look appealing.
A great thing about using the Rule in post-processing is that you can experiment with it. You can create many versions of the original, all cropped in different ways, and compare them side-by-side. Experimenting in this way is a great way to get a feel for composition and will help make you a better photographer while in the field.
The rule can also be applied to any orientation or dimension of photo. It works equally well on portrait-oriented images or square Instagram posts.
Situations Where the Rule Fails
Composing good photos is an art, not a science. As such it’s essential not to take any rules too literally. Most photographers will agree that the Rule of Thirds isn’t so much a “rule” as it is a learning device. It’s a great way to learn composition in photography, but after a while, you will start thinking about it less and less.
One thing you may quickly realize is that the rule is not as rigid as it sounds. If you can’t get your subjects or composition lines to frame perfectly on the gridlines, don’t sweat it. Try getting them close. Just avoid putting things right in the middle or right on the edge of the frame.
Now it’s time to start breaking the rule entirely. Sometimes, rules are made to be broken. In situations where photos are very symmetrical centering the image and ignoring the rule might make the most sense.
There are also times when an image is just so captivating that the composition matters little. Sports photographers know this well. There isn’t enough time to compose photographs as you would want to; you have to capture what is happening. Things can be cleaned up in post-processing, but sometimes the story a photo tells completely overrides the need to meticulous composition.
Moving Beyond Rule of Thirds Pictures
Once you get comfortable for the rule and can apply it on the fly in the field, it will be about time to step out of your comfort zone again. There are many other theories of composition from which to learn. Lead lines and the Golden Ratio are just a few. As a photographer, it’s essential to keep learning and keep pushing your boundaries. All of these concepts are tools, and the ultimate goal of any photographer is to have a deep toolbox full of ideas and inspiration to pull from.
Rule of Thirds photography isn’t complicated. It is an easy way for everyone to improve their pictures. Perhaps the most valuable part of this rule is that it forces us to slow down and think through the composition. By now you must have understood what the Rule of Thirds is. For many, this makes the difference between a ho-hum snapshot and a stunning image. In the words of the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”