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Photography composition: rule of thirds

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 is the easiest composition rule to learn.

Why do you need to know the rule of thirds?

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.

You need to know the rule of thirds, because it leads on to other photography composition rules. This way you will gradually build up a knowledge base of composition rules so that when you’re photographing you will automatically be thinking about your composition with every frame you take. Photographing on purpose to create beautiful images is what it is all about.

rule of thirds photography composition Note that the eye closest to camera, which is the eye to focus on, is on the intersection of the rule of thirds grid.

So how do you implement the rule of thirds?

To make it easy for you, check out your camera and see if you have a 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, then it will be so easy for you.

If you don’t have a grid setting in your viewfinder, don’t worry. It really is not that difficult. You just have to get used to thinking in thirds. When you see an image, divide it up like this:

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 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 them room for movement within the frame.

Speaking of movement…

So, 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. Why? 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 photographing according to the Rule of Thirds composition rule 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.Click To Tweet

If 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!).

So, we’ve talked about those vertical lines.

What about the 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. This risks creating a dull composition.

When observing the rule of thirds, you 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.

where the horizon should be in the rule of thirds

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.

So, we’ve talked about the 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 are automatically drawn to looking at another human’s eye. It is how we communicate, so it is also how we read photographs.

Added to that, we automatically look to the area of a photograph where the lines intersect. By placing the eye at the intersection, you are making it easier for your viewer to read your photograph.

rule of thirds grid intersection

Again, remember to give your subject room to breathe and to move by ensuring that they are looking into the frame and not at the frame edge.

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. We also know that the intersections where the lines meet is the where we should be placing our subject’s eye when we’re close, or their head when we’re a little further away.

Applying the rule of thirds

When you take a photograph, ask yourself:

  1. What is interesting about this image?
  2. What do I want to include?
  3. How can I position my subject in the image to make it visually appealing?
using rule of thirds and leading lines in 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.

rule of thirds and balance

BE THE BOSS OF YOUR CAMERA

Everyone can take great photos. Just start with the basics and build from there. We’ll show you.

Who knew there was so much that could be conveyed with composition and the 4 little lines that make up the Rule of Thirds?

Want to know more about photography composition? Read 19 Photography Composition Tips you need to know to be awesome

If you’re struggling to get to grips with the Rule of Thirds, you can be sure that many others are struggling too. Please share your questions and/or struggles below and we’ll give you some help.

If this article has helped you to understand the Rule of Thirds, share that too – we love good news!

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