The Rule of Thirds

Following my journal entry of Photo Tips For The Holidays, I thought it would be a good idea to expand the discussion of the Rule of Thirds.

Look, with today's digital cameras, whether it's a simple point 'n shoot or a top-of-the-line digital SLR, it doesn't take a lot to produce a quality photo. Let's face it, you can slap that baby in automatic, point it in the right direction and chances are you're going to get an adequately exposed image that is going to be in focus.

But, how do you take photographs to the next level? How do you make a more powerful image that captures the viewer's attention? One of my favorite sayings is "what stands between me and greatness lies between my ears... not in my camera bag." In other words, it's you that makes the difference. It doesn't matter how big your camera is or how much it costs, it's the person behind the camera that "makes" the picture. The camera just takes it.

So... The Rule of Thirds.

The Rule of Thirds is just a simple way of helping you to decide on how to place compositional elements of the photo. But, let's dispel of one thing immediately... it's NOT a rule. It's a guideline. When applied effectively, it can give your picture better balance by moving the focal point off center and drawing the viewer into the picture.

As humans, we naturally seek a sense of order to things. Maybe that's why we naturally tend to put the main subject of our photos in the middle. And, I suspect, the advent of autofocus has not done the habit any favors either. Since the autofocus "sensors" are usually concentrated around the middle of the camera's viewfinder or preview screen, we see a common denominator in the average photographer's shots. I like to call it, "center-syndrom."

So... how do we move things off center? And, more importantly, how far off center?

In the Rule of Thirds, you need to draw an imaginary grid in your viewfinder. The grid is 3x3 just like the grid you use to play tic-tac-toe. We want to focus our attention to the middle square (and our focal points) and the four places were the lines of the grid intersect. In my examples, I've placed a small red dot at the intersections... we'll call those "power points."

What we want to do is shift our subject(s) so that they fall in the general area of those power points. Vertical objects should move to the left or right and horizontal objects (like horizons) are best aligned with the upper or lower.

Often the result is an image that is deeper. By having the viewer look at our picture and taking their attention from left to right and/or from the lower left to the upper right of the picture, they get a greater perspective of the scene. In a portrait, you might use the grid to place your subject to the left.. while placing thier eyes at the power point in the upper left. Or say if you're shooting a landscape, move the subject to one side then place the horizon on the upper or lower point of intersection.

But remember, these are guidelines. Don't try to be a perfectionist. Just coax your focal points into place in general terms. Don't allow the power points to override other decisions like annoying objects in the background.... objects that might be distracting or poking out of the tops of peoples heads.

Let's review.

  • Try to align your subject near and around one of the "power points" where the grid lines intersect.
  • Use the vertical grid lines for things like buildings, trees, or things in the background.
  • If you're shooting landscape, use the horizontal grid lines to place your horizon.
  • When shooting portraits, use the grid power points and horizontal lines for placing the eyes... or in a group setting, placing their heads.
  • Don't seek perfection. It's a guide. The power points don't have to align with your focal points exactly.

The key is when you look through the viewfinder, make a point of moving your eye around looking into every corner of the frame. Don't get lazy and only pay attention to your subject, check the background and foreground for distractions. Then, begin to compose while referencing your power points and maximizing the benefits of the Rule of Thirds. And always consider your options. Go tighter.. go looser... what we want is to avoid "average" snapshots.

It will seem awkward at first... give it time and don't give up. Soon the Rule of Thirds will be second nature and you'll see a huge improvement in your photos. And, by all means, DO NOT write this rule off as only pertaining to professionals. The Rule of Thirds applies to all forms of creativity and will change the way you see and think about your pictures. Stick with it.

I'll close by reiterating a tip for those of you that rely on your camera's autofocus and might still be struggling with notion of center-syndrom and how to defeat your camera's bad habit.

Most cameras today have a focus locking feature. This is typically done by holding the shutter button halfway down. When depressed half way, the autofocus is activated and will hold, provided you don't release the button. So, using a portrait for an example, you would point the camera at your subject's face, hold the shutter button down half-way, then once the camera indicates it's in focus, move the camera so your subject is placed more in keeping with our Rule of Thirds and complete your shot. Make sure that you are moving the camera on the same plane though.... just left or right. Don't move forward of backward, as that will change the accuracy of the focus. Finally, some cameras have an auto focus feature that tracks moving subjects... you'll want to make sure if you have that feature, that it is off.

So there you have it. As always, use your head. THINK before you shoot.

Thanks for listening.