Rule of thirds in photography composition
The more you know about composition, the better your photographs will be.
A well composed photograph is visually appealing, uses what we know about human interaction and communicates directly with your viewer.
The rule of thirds is probably the best place to start when learning about composition, because it’s the easiest photography composition technique to learn.
Why do you need to know the rule of thirds?
The thirds rule is based on how humans interact with images.
When we look at photographs, our eyes naturally go to the intersection at the centre of the rule of thirds. We don’t naturally look at the middle of a photograph, according to studies that have been conducted.
Also, you need to know the rule of thirds, because it leads on to other photography composition rules.
This way you’ll gradually build up a knowledge base of composition techniques. When you’re photographing, you’ll automatically start thinking about your composition with every frame you take. Photographing on purpose to create beautiful images is what it’s all about.
How do you use the rule of thirds in photography?
To make it easy for you, check out your camera and see if you have a thirds rule grid setting in your viewfinder. You might need to refer to your manual.
If you have the rule of thirds grid (2 horizontal lines and 2 vertical lines) like the photo below, it will be so easy for you to use rule of thirds composition when photographing.
If you don’t have a rule of thirds grid setting in your viewfinder, don’t worry. It really isn’t that difficult. You just have to get used to thinking in thirds.
When you see an image, divide it up like this…
Note that the eye closest to camera, which is the eye to focus on, is on the intersection of the rule of thirds grid.
Now that you know what the rule of thirds grid looks like, let’s talk about what to do with it.
What to do with the vertical lines?
Place your subject on one of the vertical lines of the grid rather than smack bang in the middle.
A bullseye composition works in very specific circumstances, but the vast majority of the time it doesn’t. We’ll talk about bullseye composition another time.
If a person is in the middle of the frame, the viewer’s eye can’t flow around the image and you don’t leave your subject room for movement within the frame.
Speaking of movement…
We know that we need to use one of the two vertical lines, but which one? This is important to know too.
If a person is facing to camera right, they should be on the left vertical line.
Because it will then lead the viewer’s eye into the photo. If they were on the left vertical line and looked to camera left they’d be looking at the edge of the frame, which creates unnecessary tension.
Sometimes we want to create that tension, but let’s first get used to rule of thirds photography composition before we start playing and breaking rules with intention.
If you don’t know the rule, you won’t know how, when or why to break it.
When a person or object is moving, they should be moving into the frame, rather than out of it.
The reason for this is that the eye will go to where the person/object is moving. You don’t want your viewer’s eye to bump up against the edge of the frame. That’s like walking into a lamppost when you’re not concentrating on what you’re doing. Been there, done that (on my first date ever!).
Further reading: Why the rule of space is so powerful in photography composition
So, we’ve talked about the vertical lines of the rule of thirds grid.
What about the thirds rule horizontal lines?
Like the name suggests, they’re great for when the horizon is in the picture. Don’t be tempted to place the horizon in the centre of the image as it risks creating a dull composition.
When observing the rule of thirds, place your horizon along either the top or the bottom horizontal line. The bottom line is most common, but if you want to create drama, use the top line.
In this image 2 composition tools have been used: rule of thirds and leading lines. The rails and the pavement slabs act as leading lines to direct the viewer to the subject.
Further reading: How to use leading lines for awesome photography composition
So, we’ve talked about the thirds rule grid’s vertical lines and the horizontal lines.
Let’s go deeper into the rule of thirds
Do you see the four points where those lines intersect?
These points are where you should place your subject’s eye, when you are shooting in closer for a portrait, or their head if you’re a bit further away. The reason for this is that humans automatically look at eyes. It’s how we communicate, so it’s also how we read photographs.
Plus, as I mentioned earlier, we automatically look to the area of a photograph where the lines intersect. By placing the eye at the intersection, you make it easier for your viewer to read your photograph.
Again, remember to give your subject room to breathe and to move by ensuring that they’re looking into the frame and not at the frame edge.
What we know so far about rule of thirds composition
- So, now we know to place our subject on the vertical line when our subject is vertical. Naturally, when they are horizontal, you would concentrate on the bottom horizontal line.
- We know that when the horizon is in frame, it should be at either the top or the bottom horizontal line. Don’t forget to ensure your horizon is straight – a skew horizon instantly spoils a photo.
- We also know that the intersections where the lines meet is where we should place our subject’s eye when we’re close, or their head when we’re a little further away.
Let’s put it all together.
Using the rule of thirds in photography composition
When you take a photograph, ask yourself:
- What is interesting about this image?
- What do I want to include?
- How can I position my subject (or focal point) in the image to make it visually appealing?
Further reading: Secrets of great focal point composition
In the next tutorial on the rule of thirds, we’re going to have a closer look at the intersections of the lines.
When you know about this you can start to bring in other aspects of composition, such as balance, foreground interest and background interest.
We’ll also see when to use the different intersections to create harmony or tension.
Further reading: Essential tips for creating balance in composition
Who knew there was so much that could be conveyed with composition and the 4 little lines that make up the Rule of Thirds?
Further reading: 19 Photography Composition Tips you need to know to be awesome
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