Have you ever heard of the Rule of Thirds? Here’s our guide to using the Rule of Thirds in your photos.
Anyone who enjoys taking photos has likely heard of some of the rules of photography. One of the most important and helpful is called the Rule of Thirds. While it’s more of a guideline rather than an actual rule, it’s important to know what it is and how to use it in your photography.
Here are the main components of the Rule of Thirds:
- Power Points (Intersection Points)
- Using Grids
- Where to Position the Horizon
- How a Portrait Benefits from Rule of Thirds
- Posing Groups
- Architectural Photography
- Landscapes and Other Nature Scenes
- Close-Up and Macro Photography
- Editing Images and Cropping
What is the Rule of Thirds?
The Rule of Thirds is a photo composition technique which asserts that a scene may be divided by two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. By drawing these lines as an evenly spaced grid inside a frame, the result is nine boxes of equal space with four intersection points. By placing a subject at the intersection points, along with either the horizontal lines or vertical lines, or inside any of the nine boxes, the photograph will have a more appealing composition.
Theoretically, the Rule of Thirds can be applied to any artwork, and not just photography. If you take a tour of any fine art gallery, you will find examples of the Rule of Thirds in art created by masters of the classical era, and by modern artists as well.
Power Points (Intersection Points)
When photographers talk about the power points in Rule of Thirds composition, they are referring to the four intersection points created by the horizontal and vertical lines. Instead of centering the frame, placing the subject on one of the power points creates a dynamic feel that is often more visually appealing.
As an example, suppose one is photographing a player during a soccer game. The first instinct may be to zoom in and center the subject. However, if the photographer pulls back a little and places the athlete on an intersection point, it can create a sensation of importance.
The photo becomes even more powerful by strategically utilizing the negative space. For this type of picture, having the negative space in front of the subject effectively draws a viewer into the action. Negative space behind the subject may weaken the impact, making the viewer feel as though the subject and action are not as important.
Power point placement works great for wildlife, too. Scenic elements in nature and architectural photography all benefit from the proper use of negative space.
Some cameras come equipped with a visible grid available on the viewscreen. It might appear as an interchangeable focusing screen or as an electronic pattern in the viewfinder. Some of these camera grids aren’t necessarily showing the Rule of 3rds, but the lines are easy to envision. If there aren’t any grid lines available in your camera viewfinder, simply try to envision them in your mind’s eye. Once you start doing that, you’ll begin to notice the rule of thirds even without having a camera viewfinder or viewscreen to frame the composition.
Practice putting subjects on those lines, not just on the power points. Use the boxes, too. Experiment with different placements, using intersection points, horizontal and vertical lines, and the boxes altogether. Place one element on an intersection point, a couple of background objects in the boxes, and then place another component of the scene on one or more of the lines. You’ll be amazed at the results. While these steps may not be necessary for simple compositions, if you have a complex scene this approach will greatly improve the final image.
Where to Position the Horizon
One big question amateur photographers often have is, “Where should I put the horizon?” Surprisingly, the answer isn’t always one of the horizontal lines. For many scenes, the Rule of Thirds may not apply to horizon placement. If the foreground subject is on one of the lines, or on an intersection point, horizon placement should be where it naturally falls.
However, if the horizon is an important or dominant aspect of the picture, then placing it along one of the horizontal lines adds balance to the image. If the emphasis is on a foreground subject, it may make sense to place the horizon on the topmost line. Or perhaps using the bottom horizontal line creates a more powerful photographic composition. You’ll be able to determine the best result by experimenting.
How a Portrait Benefits from Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds guidelines works great for portraits! The one thing most casual snapshots of our friends and family have in common is that they are often a full-length view, with the subject square in the center. And usually, the subject is squinting into the sun. Your portraits will improve greatly when using the Rule of 3rds.
Some of my favorite portraits are Rule of Thirds headshots. A head and shoulders portrait should position the subject’s neckline over one of the vertical lines. Their shoulders will fall on a horizontal line of the grid, giving the subject a natural and relaxed appearance.
The portrait will be especially successful with the proper use of the negative space. If the face is on the vertical line on one side, having the person look into or lean towards the open 2/3rds of the frame draws the viewer into the scene. If the subject is oriented toward the negative space behind them, tension is created, which may work well for some images.
Imagine a mother and child posing. Positioning the mother’s head on one of the upper intersection points, with the child’s head across and on the lower power point is a classic composition in art and photography. Other subjects that work with this technique could include a couple in a romantic setting, one seated and one standing, business partners at a desk, sports-themed portraits, and the list goes on.
Posing a group can intimidate even a seasoned professional photographer. Very large groups are often photographed with the people in the center third of the frame. With very large groups, this allows for a panoramic crop which looks good when enlarged. Smaller groups might do well with the heads of the subjects along one of the horizontal lines or in the middle third.
A simple view isn’t the only option, however. Using the Rule of Thirds grid when posing a group can result in an excellent final photograph. Placing some people along one or more of the horizontal or vertical lines, and others on one or more of the intersection points can create a very dynamic feel. This style is popular in a variety of settings, from corporate boardrooms to intimate destination weddings, and can be utilized in our everyday photos of family and friends.
Architectural photography is very popular because it’s so rewarding and inspiring. Certain historical landmarks and modern buildings seem to call out to be photographed. Using the Rule of Thirds grid in relation to the strong lines or other interesting aspects of a structure help us to see the edifice as a work of art itself.
Architectural photography also includes cityscapes. A cityscape could end up having the same visual impact as an epic landscape vista. Composition, coupled with exposure manipulation, can transform any urban scene into an interesting and magical image.
Real estate photography is a rapidly growing money maker in the world of digital imaging. Using compositional guidelines can ensure that marketing photos stand out and are high quality. It’s important to understand the importance of realism in real estate photos. When we place parts of the home or business on the horizontal or vertical lines, or on the intersection points of the Rule of Thirds grid, the viewer is transported directly into the image. This increases customer satisfaction and drives sales, enabling a photographer to retain real estate clients.
Landscapes and Other Nature Scenes
When landscape scenes are discussed, many photographers automatically envision a sweeping vista of a mountain range or seascape. However, be aware that by isolating aspects of the scene, you just might make a better picture.
In this case, applying the Rule of Thirds is a great guideline for determining where to place the point of interest that we want to isolate and enhance. Composing the dominant branches of a gnarled oak onto the power points will create a very dynamic image. A flower photo should be framed with the stem along a line, or with the core of the flower on one of the intersection points.
Even wildlife shots will fit into this guideline. We may not be able to tell the bear, eagle, or chipmunk how to pose, but we can definitely use our control of the camera to follow the Rule of Thirds. The next time you’re at the zoo, you’ll be able to capture an image that viewers will think belong in a major nature magazine.
Close Up and Macro Photography
Some of the most interesting photos of nature are extremely close-up views of plants, flowers, insects, or particular aspects of those subjects. Since macro photography often has a very shallow depth of field or depth of focus, using the Rule of Thirds as a guideline for composing can give us more control over what the viewer sees in the final picture.
Negative space control becomes very important for close up photography. What is seen in the frame of view of macro images is usually so far out of focus it is virtually unrecognizable. Besides the Rule of Thirds photography guidelines, proper exposure is additionally very vital to the impact and appeal of our final image. A dark, out-of-focus background has a very different effect on the final image than a bright, out-of-focus background. Knowing how to expose for low key and high key photos is a skill that comes with experience and experimentation.
Editing Images and Cropping
When we don’t have full control over the framing of our subject matter, using post-processing image manipulation programs can help us achieve our original vision. Learning how to use Lightroom would be very beneficial in this situation.
Of course, it helps when the original image file is high quality. Exposure enhancements can be done to separate elements in the picture or to help them blend in, depending on your intent. The sharpening and blurring tools can be used creatively, too.
The main tool we are likely to use, though, is cropping. If we begin with a properly exposed, high-resolution RAW image file, we have the luxury of being able to crop into a Rule of Thirds composition after the fact. While this could also be accomplished with a high-resolution JPEG file, there are good reasons why professional and other serious photographers shoot in RAW most of the time.
When Can the Rule of Thirds be Broken?
When is it okay to break the Rule of 3rds? The short answer: Any time we want to break it. As mentioned at the outset of this discussion, these “rules” of photography are guidelines rather than rules. The Rule of Thirds was never meant to be rigidly applied to every photographic situation.
When you become familiar with the rules, you’ll be able to understand when to break them. When framing an intended image, ask yourself using the Rule of Thirds, “What is the best position to put objects of interest?” If no good answer comes to mind, then perhaps this is one of those times to break the rule. Maybe this time, a dead-center composition will work. With some portraits or certain architectural subjects, framing right in the middle will result in a great image. The edges of the frame might be the preferred placement for other subject matter.
Other compositional rules can be used as well. Using “S” curves, also known in the art world as arabesque, is a fantastic technique. Using triangles or diagonal lines also enhances your photographic art. This technique is often referred to as dynamic symmetry. After gaining experience using these various techniques, you’ll find yourself using the best technique without even thinking about it. So even your quick and casual snapshots end up looking good.
Sometimes you may find that mixing two or more guidelines to a varying degree is what the photographic compositions needs. As you gain experience you’ll improve control over your photographic imagery. Same holds true for exposure rules, focusing, subject movement, and use of negative space. In certain instances, your pictures may actually benefit from being centered, blurry, and darkly exposed. As the saying goes, film is cheap. In most cases, your “film” is actually a collection of digital files. Try taking different shots of the same scene and change up how you compose, focus, and expose them.
Why the Rule of Thirds Works
The Rule of Thirds works because of the way it relates to the Golden Ratio and other aspects of perspective and balance. Certain compositions simply have more of an aesthetic appeal than others. When people look at a scene through their own eyes, their brain filters things out and assigns importance to some things over other elements in the scene.
This occurs naturally, and it’s why we have these art and photography guidelines in the first place. When we attempt to take a snapshot of the scene, all those issues that our brain compensated for are right there in the image frame. That’s why so many people make statements such as, “Well, you had to be there,” or “It looked so much prettier in person.”
Using guidelines like this one and others, you’ll begin to create a work of art. You can control how others see the image that was in your mind when composing the scene. You want to lead the viewer to what is important and dynamic, or what is peaceful and calm, in the picture. The Rule of 3rds allows you to achieve this goal.
In other 2D art forms, artists can add or subtract as they choose. They can place what they want in the image and where they want it in the frame. In photography, we can’t move mountains, but we can control subjects by varying our point of view, using different lenses with different characteristics, and even by adjusting exposure. Post-processing image manipulation with a program like Lightroom can also be employed.
We can also use the Rule of Thirds as a stepping stone to other important techniques of art to improve our end results. Dynamic symmetry and the use of diagonal lines coincide nicely with the Rule of Thirds since many time-tested art techniques can be transferred to photography.
Who Invented the Rule of Thirds?
Interestingly, unlike most of the many rules and guidelines in art, we can actually trace back to the first printed mention of this composition technique. In 1797, artist John Thomas Smith wrote a short book entitled Remarks on Rural Scenery. In this book, he looks at works of art from the masters and deconstructs them in the light of both art and science. Smith asserts:
Analogous to this ‘Rule of Thirds’ (if I may be allowed to so call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds; or else at about one-third, so that material objects might occupy the other two: again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the other two thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives.
In what is perhaps the longest single sentence ever written, Smith acknowledges the Rule of Thirds used by earlier artists. Looking at art from the Renaissance, we see examples of it in various works. The Rule of 3rds is also apparent in classical Greek frescoes.
What Does Rule of Thirds Mean to Me?
The Rule of Thirds will help you create a more pleasing balance in an otherwise chaotic image. You can emphasize the importance of the subject matter or specific elements, or choose to create tension. Control of the art and craft of photography will improve as you move forward in your abilities.
Once you understand why Rule of Thirds is important and how it works, then you will be able to determine when to use Rule of Thirds, as well as when to break the rules. In order to learn more about this and other photographic techniques, methods, and guidelines, join a group of fellow photography enthusiasts. Cole’s Classroom has many helpful articles full of hints, tips, and suggestions. Sign up for free! Whether you are a novice photographer, on your way to serious photography, or a long time professional, you will enjoy the benefits of the communities.
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