The Rule of Thirds. It’s Not Just A Rule; It’s the LAW!


Okay, you’re impatient. Who isn’t nowadays?  You want to take better pictures now.  You don’t want to read the instruction manual that came with your camera.  You don’t want to learn about f-Stops, and white balance, and ISO, and shutter speed, and depth-of-field, and hyperfocal distances.  In fact, if you’re like most people, you don’t even want to take the time to learn your camera’s built-in features that help it to work optimally when in automatic mode.  You just want to take great pictures now, and learn all the rest of that techy, brainy junk later (yeah, riiight . . . we all know how fast “later” gets here; let’s be honest, most of us will never get around to learning this stuff).

Well, this one tip will do more to enhance your photographs than a whole library of photography books gathering dust on your bookshelves will do for you in a decade of haphazard browsing and half-hearted referencing.

It’s called “The Rule of Thirds.” It is in my opinion the single most important rule for the creation of interesting, attention-getting, Wow—your-camera-really-takes-great-pictures responses.  And in this case it isn’t even the camera that deserves the credit.  It’s you.

Most people just grab their camera, zoom in on their intended subject, place that subject front-and-center, smack-dab in the middle of the frame, and snap the shot without so much as a second thought.  And why not?  After all, isn’t that the whole raison d’être for a fully automatic camera?  Well, no, it’s not.  Placed in full-automatic, the job of your camera is to analyze the scene and light situation, guess to the best of its ability what you’re trying to photograph and how you want it to look, then set for you the camera’s ISO, shutter speed, aperture, white balance, and focus (all in a very impressive fraction of a second), and then snap the shot.  No matter how sophisticated the camera, it remains your job to select the subject and compose the picture in an interesting way.  Putting the subject in the middle of the frame and snapping away is usually not going to accomplish this feat.  Not even close.  Let’s take the time to do it right, shall we?

As you look in the viewfinder or the LCD screen, imagine two vertical and two horizontal lines dividing the scene into a grid pattern of nine equally sized blocks.  Better yet, if you have a camera that will superimpose such a grid on the screen for you, by all means set the camera to do so.  Now, that center block you either imagine (or see, if you just set up your camera)?  Do not place your subject in that box.  If the subject is tall (such as a building) line it up on along one of those vertical lines.  If your subject is, say, a landscape, superimpose the horizon underneath either the upper or lower horizontal line and off-center the main subject to one of the vertical lines.  Better yet, put the subject of the photograph at the intersection of a vertical and horizontal line.

Great pictures—the secret is all in the composition. Imagine a beach scene that includes a faded, peeling, rustic wood dingy.  If you’re like most people, you zoom in on that dingy until it practically fills the frame.  You get home, upload the picture to your computer, display it on the screen and what do you have?  You have a boring shot of an old wood dingy with absolutely no context as to its environment.  Now let’s do the same scene artistically.  Where the beach meets the waterline?  Let’s place that somewhere close to the lower horizontal line.  The horizon, where tropical blue water meets clear cerulean sky?  Let’s place that near the upper horizontal line.  Now, what about that dingy?  That goes as close as possible to one of the four “sweet spots” where horizontal line meets vertical.  Voilà.  A veritable masterpiece, as long as the camera did its job.

Let us take a look at some examples of the rule of thirds in action:

Notice that in many cases I had to zoom back, away from the primary subject of the film, in order to get the optimum placement and overall composition.  You must be willing to sacrifice close-in detail to achieve a truly interesting shot.  What you’re doing is incorporating the negative space near the subject—be that space sky, water, rocks, or whatever—and using that negative space to “frame” your subject and to give it context to its environment.  This adds background, depth, and most importantly interest to the overall photograph.  And, even though your subject is no longer in the center, the negative space if properly used acts to draw the eye of the viewer away from the center and toward the subject.  Simply put, that means you’re making the viewer visually interact with the photograph.

How about that . . . . An interactive medium that is static by nature.  Who would have thought?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “The Rule of Thirds. It’s Not Just A Rule; It’s the LAW!

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  5. Awesome post. I remember learning about the rule of thirds in high school, but I had no idea it could have been so easy to take such amazing shots! Thanks for that tip.

    Do you have any recommendations for a good camera?

  6. I have a lot of recommendations, Joshua, but first I need to know what you’re looking to do with your camera, how involved you want to get, how compact a camera do you require, etc. I’ll get in touch with you later and ask a few questions, then we’ll see what I can come up with to meet your needs.