Back to Basics: Composition and the Rule of Thirds

When it comes to taking a photograph, the single most important thing to keep in mind is that you are attempting to communicate with your viewers. You are taking a photo to tell a story; represented by not only how you choose to shoot your photo, but why you chose to in the first place. There are of course, many ways to communicate this to your viewers; either literally in a type of photo-journalistic style, or figuratively through the use of artistic elements and style in your photograph. In all cases though, the way we choose to compose our photo will have the greatest impact on our viewers. We will explore the various aspects and elements of composition, but for this posting we’re going to go right back to the basics again, and look at composition by the rule of thirds.

As we first start out in photography, there is a natural temptation to compose photographs where your subject is dead center in the frame. While this can and certainly does work in some cases (hey, rules are meant to be broken sometimes!), most of the time this type of composition can lead to images that look or feel flat. This is why so many beginner photographers get discouraged when learning photography; they may look at the work of others and feel theirs just doesn’t compare. However, like everything, photography and composition requires focus, knowledge, and most of all – practice!

One of the quickest ways a beginner can start to improve their composition is by learning the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds suggests that we mentally divide our frame (or scene) into 1/3 segments both vertically and horizontally, then compose our scene so that our main focal point lies either along one of these imaginary “third” lines, or on one of the hotspots where these lines would intersect. When we talk about focal point, we are talking about the point in your photo where you want to draw the most attention to. This is one of the reasons why the rule of thirds has such a high visual impact. Our eyes become drawn through the image, rather than right to the center. The photo becomes more engaging to the viewer, as the scene is revealed in stages as the eye passes through the main point of focus, through the remainder of the image Take a look at the first photo in this posting and you will see how the bee on the flower is positioned on the bottom-left imaginary “hotspot.”

The Rule of Thirds in Practice:

There are many ways to apply the rule of thirds practically in your quest to create dynamic photographs. In portrait work, (usually) the main point of focus is your subject’s eyes. To create a truly engaging portrait, try composing your photo such that your subject’s eyes lie on the top third “line”. Placing your subject off to one side also creates more interest, leading the eye through the image and resting on the main point of focus. Shown here are two examples of compositions according to the rule of thirds. In the first shot (left), the subject’s eyes are on the top third line, as well as the upper left “hotspot.” In the image below, the subject was placed along the left vertical third in an attempt to create a more dramatic portraiture where the eye is lead through the image to the subject.

In landscape photography, it is popular to apply the rule of thirds by composing the frame so that the horizon line lays on the bottom third “line” where you wish to show off a dramatic and big sky. Alternatively, if the foreground is more important, you can shoot with the horizon line along the upper third, hence showing off the detail of the foreground. In this example, the horizon line where the water meets the land was placed along the bottom third horizontal line to show off the big mountain range and sky. The eye is also lead down to the bottom corner where we can see a small sea-plane.

Of course, the rule of thirds is just one of many ways to compose a photograph. For those just getting started, try shooting based on the rule of thirds and you’ll see how a new door has opened up for you in your pursuit of creating those brilliant photographs of yours. Shoot with subjects centered, then shoot the same subject according to the rule of thirds, and you will quickly find which method works best based on the story you are conveying with your image. Practice lots, have fun, and happy photographing!

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4 Responses

  1. Good rule of thumb. I rely on this a lot to make my compositions more interesting but maybe a little too much at times too. However, its just like anything else. Once you get comfortable with the following rules, then you will get more comfortable breaking those rules and knowing when its best to follow or break out.

  2. Joseph mccullough

    Good explanation of the rule of thirds. However, similar to the tendency you described of putting pictures in the center, the rule of thirds can become a constraint and stiffle creativity.

    1. I absolutely agree. While the rule of thirds is meant as a “basic rule” which generally DOES improve composition, it is always a good thing to stray off the path every now and then. Some of my BEST photographs are ones where I have taken creative liberties and broken the conventional rules! Thanks for the comment.

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