Photography and the rule of thirds

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By: Jen Wiss

The rule of thirds is a very old rule, first written down by John Thomas Smith in 1797. It is an important tool in photography and usually one of the first things you’ll learn on a photography course. Following it can help you take better photographs that have more interest, energy, tension and impact.

When looking at your subject – be it an object, person, or landscape, imagine that it has been divided into nine equal parts, using two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Also imagine that where the lines intersect, there are ‘hotspots’, like this:

The focal point of your photograph should be positioned approximately over one of the four hotspots. Horizons, bulldings and people alike should also be placed along the lines, instead of putting them in the middle of the frame as many amateur photographers do.

If you put your subject and other points of interest over the hotspots or along the lines, your photo will be more balanced and interesting. How does this work? Using the rule of thumb enables someone looking at the image to interact with it more naturally. It has been shown that when viewing images, people’s eyes naturally gravitate towards one of the hot spots most naturally instead of the centre of the picture and therefore using the rule of thirds works with this natural way of viewing an image instead of working against it. It should come as no surprise then, that the the rule of thirds is not just applicable for photography – it is also used as a composition guide for many other types of visual imagery, including films and painting.

Of course, if you choose not to use the rule, it doesn’t mean your photographs will be awful or boring. But it makes sense to first understand and be able to use the rule effectively before you decide on whether a particular shot would benefit from using the rule or not.

The rule of thirds in action

Here we are going to look at some shots that make use of the rule of thirds. In the following picture there are two focal points: the main one is the person standing on the rock and they are placed above two of the hotspots; and the second is the setting sun which is placed above another of the hotspots. The cloud and the horizon also follow two of the dividing lines. This makes for an interesting composition (the rule is not an exact science – here for example, the person is not exactly on the two right hotspots and the horizon isn’t exactly on the bottom third line – it is just approximate).

In this second example below, the boat is placed over the bottom left hotspot and the horizon and shore lines follow their respective horizontal lines. The second boat is not a focal point so it does not matter that it doesn’t align with a hotspot – it sits nicely on one of the horizontal lines as part of the horizon.

The rule of thirds and photographing people

You might think that the rule of thirds dictates that your subject should be off to one side of the photograph. This isn’t necessarily so. In the example below, the child’s eyes are very distinctive – they are a little hurt, angry or determined perhaps – and by putting them over the ‘hot spots’, this is drawing the focus of the picture to them.

However, in this striking shot, the child – and her bright pink dirty shoes – are made the focus by placing them above the two left hotspots, with the lines of the wall following the horizontal third lines.

Some cameras allow you to superimpose gridlines on the viewfinder or view screen to help you use the rule for better composition. Don’t worry if not however, as you will soon get used to imagining where these lines should be!

I hope this article has helped you to understand the rule of thirds and that you will enjoy using this traditional photography tool to help you take more powerful shots going forward.

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