Website Photography & The Rule of Thirds

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Digital technology led to some major advances in the world of photography. When it comes to shooting good photos, however, some rules forever remain unchanged. The art of composition and the principles that make up a well-composed photograph have been in place for centuries. They likely will continue well into the future.

The Rule of Thirds: A Brief History

Perhaps the best-known and the one that’s most useful for photographers of all levels is the Rule of Thirds. The history behind the Rule is somewhat murky. At times, it caused a bit of contention in the art world. Some people believe it was first developed and used by artists during the Renaissance.

Others believe it is an outgrowth of a similar but more complex, widespread theory known as the Golden Ratio. What is known for certain is that the first published explanation of the concept behind the Rule of Thirds appeared in 1797. Originally published in a book by painter, engraver, and sculptor John Thomas Smith.

The Rule of Thirds & The Golden Ratio

A similar composition theory, known as the Golden Ratio, often links to the Rule of Thirds in both history and technique. The two concepts share some of the same frameworks. However, there is no proven historical relationship between them.

The concept of the Golden Ratio is fairly complex. In its most general terms, it refers to a ratio of approximately 1.618 to 1. When mathematically calculated, it tends to appear within visual works or scenes considered memorable by humans. The ratio pops up in artwork of all kinds.

It can also be calculated within the measurements and angles of everything from tree branches to features on a model’s face. While scholars of the Golden Ratio agree that it can be used as a composition technique similar to the Rule of Thirds, the Ratio does not share the same convenient method of application. Thus, it isn’t as easily taught or used by artists.

The underlying idea, however, does share some similarities. Both concepts are rooted in the fact that the human eye is naturally attracted to specific measurements, placement, and arrangement of visual elements within a frame or image. Using those measurements when creating art can lead to overall more appealing and interesting works to viewers with greater longevity in the field.

The Basics of the Rule of Thirds

Boiling the Rule of Thirds down to a simple explanation is fairly easy to do. The idea behind the Rule is that dividing a visual space into thirds makes it more appealing and interesting to the viewer than an equal division into two or four parts.

In other words, the human eye and mind prefer the slight imbalance of odd numbers and unevenly shared visual space. Things off-center draw the viewer into the work in a way that centered, equally-balanced subjects do not.

The Rules of the Rule of Thirds

Execution of the Rule of Thirds relies on a few simple steps. These become almost second nature to visual artists who practice them regularly. While every situation differs, most photographic work can run through the mental “filter” of the Rule of Thirds. If done correctly, the Rule can provide a handy guideline for composition that a photographer can draw upon regardless of what they shoot.

To use the Rule of Thirds, simply follow the steps below:

1. Estimate the framing of your photo.

Choose your subject. Roughly sketch out in your mind what you want to include within the shot. This is best done using both your eyes and the viewfinder or preview screen on your camera.

Since the application of the Rule changes your framing, this step is just a basic approximation. The point is, to begin with, an idea of what the main subject of your photograph will be and how much, if any, of the background you want to include in the shot.

2. While studying the scene through the framing of the lens, imagine some lines across the scene.

This takes some practice. It is simple once you understand the concept. First, draw one horizontal line in your mind across the frame, extending from side to side, about a third of the way down from the top edge. Your line doesn’t need to be mathematically precise. Place it as close as you can to the one-third mark.

3. Draw another imaginary line.

This is also horizontal, from side to side across the frame, another third of the way down from the first line. In other words, two-thirds down from the top of the frame. Now, imagine the frame divided by two lines. Create three equal bands of space running horizontally across your potential picture.

4. Draw the third line.

This time draw in a vertical direction, running from the top edge of the frame to the bottom. Place it approximately one-third from the left side of the image frame. You probably see where this is going by now.

5. Draw the fourth line.

Again, draw one-third the distance of the whole from the previous one. This second vertical line should go two-thirds of the way across the frame from the left. It should extend all the way up and down the frame.

Resulting in a division of the photo into three even vertical sections. The end result of your mental line placement should be an imaginary grid across the photo, consisting of six equal squares or rectangles, with three on top, and three on the bottom.

This grid is the basis of your composition according to the Rule of Thirds. Where you place objects within the photo in relation to this grid is where your artistic sensibilities and judgment calls come into play.

Okay, I have a Grid. Now, what do I do with it?

The mental division of a potential photograph into six sections in this manner is easy to do. If you practice it enough, it likely can become a type of second nature. Many who study composition techniques see the Rule of Thirds grid laid over nearly any pleasing piece of visual art they observe, whether the Mona Lisa or the front of a cereal box.

Practice the Rule!

Make yourself familiar with the grid layout by doing the same. Spend some time imagining it placed over various visual scenes and works you encounter in your everyday life. The key to using the Rule of Thirds is to call the grid to mind instantly when composing a shot. You can rely on its basics on a subconscious level.

How the Grid Ties Into Composition

You’re probably saying, “Okay, this makes sense. But, what benefits come from imagining a grid over my photos?” The answer is somewhat subjective. It ties in with your artistic sensibilities and choices you make while composing your works.

With that said, the guidelines below are more or less universally accepted by artists and critics. They have been time-tested by studies done on what the human eye finds interesting within a visual work. If the imaginary grid is the lock mechanism of the Rule of Thirds, the guidelines below should be considered the key that opens them. Remember these as they’re important.

Guidelines for Using the Rule of Thirds

Guideline #1

Place horizontal lines or divisions of space within the image either within the top third of the frame or the bottom two-thirds. The most common type of horizontal line within a photograph tends to be that of the horizon itself. The division between earth and sky.

Whether the shot is of a smiling friend on the beach or a distant cornfield, it probably has a sky/ground line in it. The Rule of Thirds is firm about where in the shot to place that line. To make a photograph interesting and visually appealing, place the horizon line or any other strong horizontal lines in the shot according to the division of the frame into thirds.

Imagine, for a moment, looking at a photograph of a sunset. Say the photographer took the shot in such a way that the horizon line runs directly through the middle of the frame. The top half of the photo is sky, and the bottom half of the photo is ground.

Now, imagine that same picture taken in such a way that the horizon is two-thirds of the way down the frame. The sky fills the top two-thirds of the image. Imagine the same photo again. This time with two-thirds of it taken up by the ground and a sliver of sky in the top third of the frame.

The word “interesting” is open to interpretation…

It’s hard not to admit that the second two options sound like they’d be more interesting to examine. Right? Maybe a photograph filled up with two-thirds sky creates the sense of how overwhelming and empty the sky can feel on the prairie. Maybe an abundance of ground in the shot gives a sense of vertigo, as though the ground rises up before the viewer’s eyes.

It’s not just about the message, either. The Rule of Thirds is about movement. It is generally accepted that the human eye “travels” around a visual work as it takes in the details. It moves from one area of the image to another depending on what catches its attention and the composition of the image. The catch here is that the eye needs somewhere to go.

Placement of a horizon line or any main subject in the dead center of the shot causes a “flat” effect. The eye simply lands on the target and sits there. There is no reason for attention to travel around the image and absorb it.

The corners become details unimportant to the central subject. This, in turn, leads to human beings feeling disconnected and uninvolved with the work they inspect. It leads to boredom and lack of interest.

Guideline #2:

Vertical lines and subjects within the frame of the photo should be placed along, or near, the vertical divisions of the imaginary grid.

This guideline outlines the same principle as the one above, but it is specifically dealing with vertical subjects in the photo rather than horizontal ones. Like the previous guideline, the point here is that major vertical lines should be placed off from the center of the shot to avoid the bulls-eye dead-end effect of center placement.

One specific detail crucial for the use and application of this guideline is to remember that not everything that qualifies for this type of placement is necessarily a “line.” Horizontal lines in photos are common. A large number of photographs tend to include some type of horizon, whether ground meeting sky or floor meeting wall.

Vertical lines tend to be less ubiquitous. Unless you shoot a lot of city scenes with buildings in them. Keep in mind that any major subject with a vertical nature qualifies for this guideline. This often includes people, whether standing, sitting, or if their bodies run vertically in any way within the shot.

If you tend to look “up and down” the subject to take in its details, then it qualifies for this placement rule. Aim to keep these subjects either to the left or right-hand third of the photograph. Make them take up two-thirds of the shot rather than ending directly in the center. For subjects such as people from a median distance, practice lining them up with one of your two imaginary vertical lines.

Guideline #3: Points of intersection equal points of interest.

There is something about the areas within the Rule of Thirds grid where the lines intersect. Proponents of the Rule say that the human eye is naturally drawn to these areas. This is why the intersections of the lines are just as crucial as the one-third divisions themselves.

This makes sense according to the theories explained above regarding the nature of human vision and where eyes tend to travel within a photograph. If you have specific areas of your picture that you believe should hold some extra weight, or areas you want to emphasize, try placing them in one of the four areas of your grid where the vertical and horizontal lines cross one another.

Notice that these four areas are near the center of the frame, not in the center. This is key. Once again, it helps you take advantage of the off-center nature of the Thirds Rule. It gives the viewer’s attention somewhere to go within the photo.

Areas of impact that benefit from placement near these intersections include:
  • Peoples’ faces or eyes in close-up portrait shots
  • Prominent background features such as trees by a roadside
  • Lens flares caused by sunlight

Experiment with what you think deserves special attention within your subject. Try placing it in one of these locations. The effect tends to be subtle, which is usually beneficial.

Imagine a close-up portrait of a person whose eyes are directly in the middle of the frame. Now, imagine the same shot with the eyes located off to the left and below the center near the bottom left line intersection on the grid. The photo gained a level of nuance and interest it didn’t have previously.

A Brief Word on Breaking the Rule

Some people don’t handle the idea of artistic “rules” too well. There tends to be a backlash against any such things, particularly by the artists themselves. After all, the point of art is often to break rules. Create things that haven’t been created before. Inspire new emotions and reactions in people.

The thing to remember is that application of the Rule of Thirds, or any composition technique for that matter, is not exclusive to the idea of rule-breaking in art. Sometimes to break the rules effectively, you must first understand what those rules are and why they exist.

Look at it this way…

Say you shoot the same close-up portrait photo discussed above, where the person’s eyes are near the center of the frame. Now, say that the person, your subject, is a famous politician, with a controversial history, many strident detractors, and rabid followers.

This politician is not just controversial in their ideas and career. They’re also well known for refusing to “play the game” of the public figure. They keep their private life strictly private. They’ve been known to drag people into court for trying to pry into their family life and personal beliefs. They’re an intimidating person.

Finally, imagine the portrait is destined to be printed on the back of their upcoming memoirs. Highly anticipated by the public, they are bound to cause a lot of heated discussion among those familiar with the subject’s career.

If you, as the photographer, go into the shoot knowing that the Rule of Thirds exists, you are well equipped. You can take an outstanding photograph that expresses the true nature of this person and captures their essence.

Why?

Because, having studied the Rule, you know the two major effects of using it.

These include:
  1. Drawing the viewer into the photograph and causing them to feel a connection with it.
  2. Adding nuance and subtlety to the photo and its underlying meaning.

Both of those effects run counter to what you want to express about this person. As the photographer, you can deliberately choose to break the Rule of Thirds to create the opposite effects. You can shoot the portrait with their eyes dead center in the frame.

Staring out unblinking, they “block” the viewer from feeling connected to them. The viewer’s eyes stop dead on those of the subject. They feel shut out, perhaps uncomfortable. As though they learned nothing and not interacted with the person in the least by looking at this portrait.

The point is that the term “Rule” is something of a misnomer. It would perhaps be better to refer to it as the Thirds Technique, or something similar. Usually, it’s implied that a rule is something that must be followed

In this case, as in many others particularly related to art, following the rule is contingent upon wanting the effects that rule produces. If you don’t want that effect, deliberately breaking the rule can be just as useful and valid of an artistic choice. Knowing the rule in the first place is crucial to knowing when, and how, to break it.

The Rule of Thirds in Your Photography

Ideally, by now you understand the concept of the Rule of Thirds and what it can do to improve your shots. Whether following it deliberately, subconsciously referring to it, or flaunting it all together. Because the Rule of Thirds is based upon such organic ideas as the nature of human interest and observation, it is flexible enough to be useful in any type of shooting situation.

Whether you want to improve your family photos, start a website or blog including photography, or become a professional, application of the Rule of Thirds to your everyday shooting makes an excellent step. Knowing how the Rule works, why it exists, and how to use it gives you all kinds of new options that can expand and ultimately improve your resulting photographs.
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