Monday, March 2, 2009

The Rule of Thirds

There are principles of photography which when learned can dramatically improve your photographs, and help make them more consistently excellent. The Rule of Thirds, probably the most well known rule in photography, once understood can significantly improve how you compose your photographs.

Rule of Thirds - Kicker RockThe Rule of Thirds refers to the concept that the most eye-pleasing photographic compositions split the field of view into roughly equal thirds, whether you're holding your camera horizontally or vertically. It doesn't matter whether you're using a a typical consumer level point and shoot camera, or the most expensive professional digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera. On some cameras the viewfinders have gridlines which will help you see the "thirds," but most of the time photographers must use their best judgment.

The Rule of Thirds is a compositional rule of thumb used throughout the visual arts. It's used in painting, photography and design. Specifically, the rule states images should be divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. The rule further states that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines and/or their intersections. The rule's exponents believe that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest than just centering the subject.

I believe the Rule of Thirds works much of the time, especially with landscapes, and cityscapes which we all run into when we travel, but it isn't the only principle of composition, and as we all know, sometimes rules are meant to be broken.

Various studies in the world of art have revealed that when people view images, their eyes naturally go to one of the Rule of Thirds intersection points rather than the center of the image, therefore when you use the Rule of Thirds you are directly using a person's normal way of viewing an image, instead of working against it.

The example photograph above is of Kicker Rock in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, in the Pacific Ocean. That small white area along the water to the right of Kicker Rock is Celebrity Cruises' Xpedition. Note that I kept the ocean's horizon in the lower third of the horizontal plane of the photograph. I broke the rule to a point by putting the main part of the Rock in the center vertically, but it is along the left guide. The Xpedition is in the lower right quadrant.

Personally, I think the Kicker Rock photo opportunity cried out for using the Rule of Thirds, as landscape pictures often do. Keeping the water, for example, and its Kicker Rock reflection, in the lower third, allows the linear features of the image to flow from area to area.

Using any guidelines inflexibly is not a good idea. There are many situations in which guidelines or rules of thumb are better ignored. We should understand that the Rule of Thirds main thrust is to discourage photographers from placing the subject at the center of the image, or allow an image's horizon to bisect the photograph. Both of these would usually make for a mediocre or poor photo. When photographing people, it is normal to align the body with a vertical guide, and have their eyes align with a horizontal guide.

I hope you will experiment with the Rule of Thirds the next time you travel, and that you can use it to make your photos even better than they already are.


Steve said...

Great article. I went back to it from the landscape article. It was definitely worth reading again.

Maria said...

Ned, I don't know how I missed this article of yours. It's the only explanation of the Rule of Thirds I actually understand.


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