13 Ways To Take Better Photographs: The Rule Of Thirds

Her head is at the intersection of thirds lines. Diagonally across the frame, so is the bike seat.

Her head is at the intersection of thirds lines. Diagonally across the frame, so is the bike seat.

A couple weeks back, when we were talking about always taking pictures as if you are using a camera even if all you are using is your phone, I brought up the concept of composition, or arranging the elements of your image purposefully to create an effect. There is a difference between a photograph of a beautiful thing and a beautiful photograph; it is quite possible for you to take a really boring picture of your totally adorable kids, and I have seen some pretty wonderful photographs of discarded banana peels on city sidewalks.

The difference between these is composition.

The first go-to rule of composition is called the “Rule of Thirds”, and it is an easy-to-follow, if somewhat misunderstood idea. The whole idea of deliberately composing your images is to give the viewer something interesting to look at, and that usually means having their eyes move around the picture from place to place. Not only do the eyes need a reason, they also need a path to take.

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The girl in the foreground is at the intersection of thirds lines. The two kids at the top are also arranged along a third line. The image has two distinct places to look.

When using the rule of thirds, the image is divided into (wait for it…) thirds, both vertically and horizontally. Important elements of the image should fall along these lines. If you have ever wondered why some photographers have a habit of placing subjects off-center, this is the reason.

First, you look at this face, which is 1/3 down from the top of the frame, and just outside 1/3 from the right. Then, your eye goes to the ball. On its way back to the face, your eye notices the figures in the background. Composition has given you a tour of the elements in the image.

First, you look at his face, which is 1/3 down from the top of the frame, and just outside 1/3 from the right. Then, your eye goes to the ball. On its way back to the face, your eye notices the figures in the background. Composition has given you a tour of the elements in the image.

But it’s not quite that simple. An off-centered subject on a blank or blurry background is not terribly effective…it just looks affective. This is because there is nothing else in the image to look at. If, on the other hand, you compose your picture so that there is something else interesting in the frame, then placing your subject off-center, with a secondary element on the other side of the frame (and, preferably, diagonally across the frame), then you have given your viewers a reason to move their eyes around the frame, and this movement gives the impression that the picture is interesting to look at.

A busy image for sure, but the subject is clear. Then your eye can wander to the rest of the scene.

A busy image for sure, but the subject is clear. Then your eye can wander to the rest of the scene.

Even if you are shooting a straight portrait, though, with your subject right in the middle of the frame, the Rule Of Thirds can still help you. It is typical to place the subject’s eyes right about at the top third of the image. If there are two people in the picture, each one tends to fall about on one of those thirds lines.

His right eye is smack-dab on the thirds-line intersection. Her lips sit on the upper third line.

His right eye is smack-dab on the thirds-line intersection. Her lips sit on the upper third line.

Invariably, when someone brings up the Rule Of Thirds in photographic circles, someone who has a bad relationship with rules will croak that rules are meant to be broken, and then they’ll post an image of say a wedding couple, way down in the corner of an image, very small, against an enormous blank wall. Some people will comment that the image is real swoony. But I think about what the couple receiving that image must be saying: “What in the world did he photograph so much of the wall for? We wanted pictures of us, not pictures of a wall. That wall has no significance to us. It is literally just a wall.”

We could argue about what the true subject of this image is. One way or the other, the man tucked away in the corner seems insignificant in the context of the scene; he is outside the thirds. And he's small.

We could argue about what the true subject of this image is. One way or the other, the man tucked away in the corner seems insignificant in the context of the scene; he is outside the thirds. And he’s small.

So do you have to be exact and mathematical about it? Of course not. Can you bend the rules to, and perhaps past, the point of breaking? Of course yes. In fact, good effects can be achieved by stretching the boundaries of the rule. Subjects that are outside of the thirds lines create tension and imbalance in an image, and sometimes that is a good thing. Subjects placed inside the lines, or even right at the center of a frame, make an image, and the experience of looking at it, more static, and again, maybe that is what you want. Say…what do you want?

The little shoes are a third from the top, and just inside a third from the right. The big shoes are a third from the left.

The little shoes are a third from the top, and just inside a third from the right. The big shoes are a third from the left.

A couple weeks ago when I wrote about using your cell phone camera as if it were a real camera, I encouraged you to slow down and think more about what you are photographing. Arrange elements in the frame, I said. This Rule Of Thirds thing is what I meant. It doesn’t do just to have anything offsetting your main subject. It has to be something relevant or complementary. Otherwise, it might just be distracting.

This composition is about vertical lines. The door is on the left third, the broom just outside the right third.

This composition is about vertical lines. The door is on the left third, the broom just outside the right third.

When you think about your composition, you are arranging things in space, and that, in a photograph or any other image, translates to meaning. You are not simply taking a snapshot of something that is happening; you are creating a relationship between elements that says something about how you see the scene. At the very least, this makes for prettier photographs. At the best, it makes for profound photographs that describe and suggest a way to see the world and the people and things in it.

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