The Rule of Thirds

Going Beyond Auto - The Rule of Thirds

Composition is one of the most important aspects of photography.  A well composed image instantly captivates you and pulls you into the scene without you even noticing.  Most of you will not recognize a properly composed image, but you will certainly notice one that is not.  As with all of the basics of photography, this becomes more natural over time.  There are many rules to consider when composing a shot, but we are going to focus on the easiest…The Rule of Thirds.  This is so easy that you can do it with any camera, even if you don’t take it out of auto…but you should.

What is The Rule of Thirds?

The Rule of Thirds is the most basic of all composition guidelines.  If you were to take a photography class, this would be one of the first things you would learn. In fact, most modern cameras even have an option built in to them to help you master this technique.  Essentially, the Rule of Thirds is where you break the image into thirds with nine parts as shown below by gray lines.

Going Beyond Auto - Rule of Thirds

When you look through your viewfinder or at your LCD screen, think about this grid and try to place the focal point of your image either along one of these lines or at one of the intersections as show with blue squares.  That’s it!  I told you it was easy.  Now let’s dive in a little deeper.

Why Use The Rule of Thirds?

Over the years, thousands of studies have been done to determine how our eyes work.  One of the results of these studies shows that our eyes naturally look at one of these intersecting points first and then toward the center of the frame.  Placing your focal point outside one of these intersections or lines seems awkward some times and the picture becomes less visually appealing.  Notice I said some times, this is not always the case and we will talk about that at another time.  For now, when you are composing your photos, try to visualize this grid and you will be pleased with the results.

Focal Points

I have used the term Focal Point a few times in this post, and I simply mean the object that you want people to focus on.  If there is too much going on in the image, the focal point becomes lost and the image tends to be chaotic.  Nine times out of ten, if you have a single face in your photo, that should be your focal point and it should be placed on one of the intersecting points.  If you are taking a close up photograph of a person’s face, generally you would want one of their eyes to be at an intersecting point.

In the photo below, my focal point is my dog Mapa when she was a puppy.  Notice that the bottom left intersection is where I placed her face in the frame to compose this shot.

Going Beyond Auto - Rule of Thirds - Mapa

Using The Lines

I have given a lot of attention to the intersecting points in the above diagram, but the lines are just as important.  If you are taking a landscape image, your horizon should land on one of the two horizontal lines above and not in the center of the frame in most instances.  If the sky is not interesting, put the horizon on the top line.  However, if the sky is your goal, place the horizon on the bottom line to give it the proper emphasis.

Going Beyond Auto - Rule of Thirds - Sunset

The vertical lines are just as useful for placing a person, tree, building…anything that is tall that you want to draw attention to.  If you had a cliff, place it at one of the vertical lines and your image becomes much more pleasing to the eye.  The key here is to play around with this rule and find what works best for the scene you are trying to capture.

Going Beyond Auto - Rule of Thirds - Space Needle

Showing Motion

If you are watching any kind of race on TV, (runners, horses, cars, etc.) you will find that the racer is usually on the left third of the screen with the other two-thirds remaining empty.  This is the same thing you want to do with your photos and the Rule of Thirds is the key.  When you are showing motion and put your subject at the center of the image it is boring…unless they are coming right at you.  You need to provide space for your moving object to go.  Show that your runner is not just jogging in place but has a whole field in front of them.  Show that the car is not just sitting there, but has a track or road to drive down.  To clearly show motion, your mind needs to know that your focal point has somewhere to move to.  Your eye needs a target, even if that target is empty space or open road.  Objects moving toward you, as I mentioned, are the exception because your eye accepts that they are heading right toward you and that you are the target.

Going Beyond Auto - Rule of Thirds - Ferry


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