Digital technology has led to some major advances in the world of photography, but when it comes to shooting good photos some rules will forever remain unchanged. The art of composition and the principles that make up a well-composed photograph have been in place for centuries and will likely continue well into the future.
The Rule of Thirds: A Brief History
Perhaps the best-known of these principles, and the one that’s most useful for photographers of all levels, is known as the Rule of Thirds. The history behind the Rule is somewhat murky and at times has caused a bit of contention in the art world. Some people believe it was first developed and put into use by painters and other artists during the Renaissance period, while others believe it’s an outgrowth of a similar but more complex and 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 as it is known today appeared in 1797. It was originally published in a book by painter, engraver and sculptor John Thomas Smith.
The Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio
A similar composition theory, known as the Golden Ratio, is often linked to the Rule of Thirds in both history and technique. While the two concepts share some of the same framework, there is no proven historical relationship between them.
The concept of the Golden Ratio is fairly complex, but in its most general terms, it refers to a ratio of approximately 1.618 to 1, which, when mathematically calculated, tends to appear within visual works or scenes considered memorable by human beings. The ratio pops up in art of all kinds and 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 as the Rule of Thirds, and thus isn’t as easily taught or used by artists. The underlying idea, however, does have some similarity. 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, and using those measurements when creating art can lead to works that are overall more appealing and interesting to viewers and have 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 is 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, which become almost second nature to visual artists who practice them regularly. While every situation is different, most photographic work can be run through the mental “filter” of the Rule of Thirds, and if done correctly, the Rule can provide a handy guideline for composition that a photographer can draw upon regardless of what they’re shooting.
To use the Rule of Thirds when shooting a photograph, simply follow the steps below:
1. Estimate the framing of your photo. Choose your subject and 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. Remember that, since the application of the Rule will change your framing, this step is just a basic approximation. But the point is to begin with an idea of what the main subject of your photograph will be and how much, if any, background you would like to include in the shot.
2. While studying the scene through the framing of the lens, you are now going to imagine some lines across the scene. This takes some practice, but it is very 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, but place it as close as you can to the one-third mark.
3. Draw another imaginary line, 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). You should now be imagining the frame divided by two lines to create three equal bands of space, which are running horizontally across your potential picture.
4. Draw a third line, this time 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 a fourth line, one-third again the distance of the whole from the previous one. This second vertical line should be two-thirds of the way across the frame from the left, should extend all the way up and down the frame, and should result 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, and where you place objects within the photo in relation to this grid is where your artistic sensibilities and judgment calls will come into play.
Okay, I Have a Grid… Now What Do I Do With It?
Mental division of a potential photograph into six sections in this manner is easy to do, and if you practice it enough, it will likely become a type of second nature. Many people who have studied composition techniques see the Rule of Thirds grid laid over nearly any pleasing piece of visual art they observe, whether it’s the Mona Lisa or the front of a cereal box.
Practice the Rule, and 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 every day life. The key to using the Rule of Thirds is to be able to call the grid to mind instantly when composing a shot, so 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 to that is somewhat subjective, and is tied in with your artistic sensibilities and the choices you make while composing your works. With that said, the guidelines below are more or less universally accepted by artists and critics, and have been time-tested by studies done on what the human eye finds interesting within a visual work. If the imaginary grid explained above is the lock mechanism of the Rule of Thirds, the guidelines below should be considered the key that opens them. Remember these; they’re important.
Guidelines for Using the Rule of Thirds
Guideline #1: Horizontal lines or divisions of space within the image should be placed either within the top third of the frame, or else within the bottom two thirds.
The most common type of horizontal line within a photograph tends to be that of the horizon itself, i.e. 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, and the Rule of Thirds is firm about where in the shot to place that line. To make a photograph interesting and visually appealing, the horizon line or any other strong horizontal lines in the shot should be placed 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, but taken in such a way that the horizon is located two-thirds of the way down the frame, and the top two-thirds of the image is filled with sky. 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, but it’s hard not to admit that the second two options sound like they’d be much more interesting to examine, right? Maybe a photograph filled up with two-thirds sky would create 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 is rising 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, moving from one area of the image to another depending on what catches its attention and how the image is composed. The catch here is that the eye must have somewhere to go. Placement of a horizon line (or any main subject, as explained below) in the dead center of the shot causes a “flat” effect, because the eye will simply land on the target and sit there. There is no reason for attention to travel around the image and absorb it, because the corners become details unimportant to the central subject. This, in turn, leads to human beings feeling disconnected and un-involved with the work they’re inspecting, and 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 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 because a very large number of photographs tend to have some type of horizon in them, whether it’s ground meeting sky or floor meeting wall. Vertical lines, however, tend to be less ubiquitous, unless you shoot a lot of city scenes with buildings in them.
Keep in mind, then, that any major subject with a vertical nature to it qualifies for this guideline. This often includes people, whether standing or sitting, if their bodies run vertically in any way within the shot. If you would tend to look “up and down” the subject in order to take in its details then it can and should qualify for this placement rule. Aim to keep these subjects either to the left or right-hand third of the photograph, or have 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, which 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 settle and 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 have emphasis, try placing them in one of the four areas of your grid where the vertical and horizontal lines cross one another. You’ll notice that these four areas are near the center of the frame, but not in the center. This is key. Once again, it helps you take advantage of the off-center nature of the Thirds Rule and gives the viewer’s attention somewhere to go within the photo.
Areas of impact that tend to benefit from placement on or near these intersections include peoples’ faces (or their eyes in close-up portrait shots), prominent background features such as trees by a roadside, or lens flares caused by sunlight. Experiment with what you think deserves special attention within your subject and 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 just gained a level of nuance and interest it didn’t have previously, didn’t it?
A Brief Word on Breaking the Rule
Some people don’t handle the idea of artistic “rules” very well, and there tends to be backlash against any such things, particularly by the artists themselves. After all, the point of art is often to break rules, to create things that haven’t been created before, and to inspire new emotions and reactions in people, is it not?
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 in order to break the rules effectively, you must first understand what those rules are and why they exist.
Look at it this way. Let’s say you are shooting the same close-up portrait photo just discussed above, where the person’s eyes are near the center of the frame. Now let’s say that the person who is your subject is a famous politician, with a controversial history and many strident detractors as well as many rabid followers. This politician is not just controversial in his ideas and career; he’s also well known for refusing to “play the game” of the public figure. He keeps his private life strictly private and has been known to drag people into court for trying to pry into his family life and personal beliefs. He’s an intimidating man.
Finally, imagine the portrait you are shooting is destined to be printed on the back of his upcoming memoirs, which are highly anticipated by the public and are bound to cause a lot of heated discussion among those who are 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 to take an outstanding photograph that expresses the true nature of this man and captures his essence. Why? Because, having studied the Rule, you know that two major effects of using it are: 1. To draw the viewer into the photograph and cause them to feel a connection with it, and 2. To add nuance and subtlety to the photo and it’s underlying meaning.
Since both of those effects run counter to what you want to express about this man, you as the photographer can deliberately choose to break the Rule of Thirds to create the opposite effects.
You can shoot the portrait with the man’s eyes dead center in the frame, staring out unblinking, “blocking” the viewer from feeling connected to him. The viewer’s eyes will stop dead on those of the subject, and they will feel shut out, perhaps uncomfortable, and as though they have learned nothing and not interacted with the man in the least by looking at his 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. It is usually implied that a rule is something that must be followed, but in this case, as in many other cases (particularly those 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 you’re following it deliberately, subconsciously referring to it, or flaunting it altogether.
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 your goal is to improve your family photos, to start a website or blog including photography, or to become a professional, application of the Rule of Thirds to your everyday shooting is an excellent step. Knowing how the Rule works, why it exists, and how to use it will give you all kinds of new options that will expand and ultimately improve your resulting photographs.
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