Time for Technique Tuesday! These are posts I do every other week or so with different techniques and ideas, tricks and tips that I use in my photography and want to share. This time I’m going to go over a basic move that I learned in my high school photography class (or more likely my dad at an early age) that has saved my life countless times. It is now an automatic reaction of mine to use this “rule of thirds”. Once you know how to utilize it, you will make well-balanced, visually pleasing photos. Not only that but then you get to play around with it and bend it, which is just as fun!
What is the Rule of Thirds?
The Rule of Thirds is a visual mathematic-esque rule (so I’m told). It was actually created by Renaissance painters when they wanted to add a bit more depth to their paintings. The idea is that the eye wants to roam across the screen, not just focus on the center. It splits your photo up into 9 equal parts (hence the term thirds). When you look through your viewfinder, you see the rectangular shape that your image will be framed in. What the Rule of Thirds does is cut that rectangle into 9 equal pieces, like so:
The goal of your subject placement using this rule is to place it in one of the segments of thirds (the left or right vertical, the top or bottom horizontal, or the cross-section of lines).
Notice the placement of the flower in this case. It is on one side of the screen (the right column), with an unfurling petal taking up the middle column. The left column does have a distant flower in the background but it is not the focus. Your eyes are being pulled to the side and despite it not showing the entire flower, it is still somehow an acceptable looking photography, generally. Some cameras will actually allow you to have this setting on your viewfinder at all times, however I find it a bit too distracting.
These lines act as reference points for framing your photograph. Moving your subject to the vertical left or right thirds will generally help your photo work. This is also true for portraits!
Notice how her face is nearly right at a cross section of the lines. Her other arm follows the left vertical line almost perfectly. This means our subject is well within the Rule of Thirds.
This also works in terms of your horizon line for things like landscapes:
These are two examples of my photos when I used the lower line and the higher line. When your horizon line is in the middle of your photo it tends to be flat and boring looking. By utilizing the rule of thirds and moving your horizon line either low (image one) or high (image two) it spices up the dynamics of the environment in your photo. Notice in the bottom one how my foreground subject is in the bottom third right at the cross section, fitting nicely into the Rule.
So the way to use this is to go out and take lots of photos! Play around with moving your camera and your body around your subject or your view. Kneeling or squatting may suddenly create a more interesting dynamic in terms of horizon line than standing at normal eye level. Instead of putting your subject in the middle of the camera every time, try moving them around to the sides and the top or bottom.
Once you start producing images that follow this rule and are visually nice, it’s also fun to be able to play around and break the rule of thirds. “What?!” you must be asking. “Why say all that stuff about the Magic Rule of Thirds if you don’t use it all the time?” There is a big difference in not understanding that there is math in photography and just randomly taking photos, and knowing how to set up a geometrically pleasing photo and playing around with options to test it. The Rule of Thirds does not have to be used all of the time! I find, especially in portraiture, that I will consistently ignore the Rule of Thirds and do things like stick people’s heads in the very bottom, their feet at the very top, or place them down at the bottom corner and leave the majority of the photo for the landscape or empty space. That is the fun of photography and art in general: you learn the rules, and then you break them.
But whenever I am in doubt I consistently use the Rule of Thirds, without even thinking about it! All of the photos above were not planned this way. I did not stand and think and calculate. When you do it enough and understand what is visually pleasing to you and to the general public, you will begin to understand how it works. I bet most of you do this naturally already! But now you just know what it is. It’s a fairly natural way to take photos.
I hope this helps if you are interested in pursuing or working on your own photographic journey!
PS: Never underestimate the power of a center subject, either. However, be careful with how often you do it, or how often you place your subjects in the same spaces at all. Be sure to add some variety!