What is the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds is arguably the most well-known photographic composition technique. It is one of the first skills that beginner photographers learn in classes as it is the basis for interesting, well-balanced shots. However, some rules are meant to be broken, and ignoring this rule doesn’t mean your images are uninteresting or unbalanced. Still, it’s important to learn the rule first to determine whether breaking it will help or hurt your images.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

At its core, the basic idea is to visualizing breaking an image into thirds, vertically and horizontally, so you have nine parts. In other words, if you take a square image, visualize two vertical lines and two horizontal lines through the photo so you have a total of nine equal parts. With this grid in mind, you can now identify four crucial parts of the image in which you can place points of interest as you frame your photo.

The theory is that if you place points of interest along the lines or in the intersections of the grid, your photo will appear balanced and will enable your viewers to more naturally interact with the image. Several studies have found that when people view pictures, their eyes naturally move to an intersecting point instead of the center of the shot, and using this rule works with this way of viewing rather than against it.

Examples Using the Rule

For instance, in landscape shots, it’s common to position the horizon along the center of the frame, but this often results in a “split in two” feel. Instead, arrange the horizon along one of the grid’s horizontal lines. Experiment with including another interesting object, such as a tree or an animal, and position it according to the rule. This provides an “anchor” for the shot – a natural focal point for the scene.

Position moving subjects as normal, but also keep in mind the direction that they’re traveling. In general, leave more space in front of the subjects than behind to give a visual indication of where they’re going.

If you’re taking photographs of people, it’s often a good idea to position subjects off to one side of the frame, providing “breathing space” in which you can show the subject’s environment. It also stops the photo from resembling a mugshot. Since we naturally look at eyes first, place them at one of the intersecting points on the grid to give the shot a clear focal point.

Best Ways to Use the Rule

Using this rule might naturally come to some photographers, but for others, it will take time and practice to become second nature. In learning how to use the rule, ask yourself the following important questions:

– What are the points of interest?
– Where am I intentionally placing them?
– Does the image appear awkward?

Again, remember that breaking the rule may lead to some unique shots, so once you’ve learned the rule, experiment with breaking it on purpose to see what you discover. Also keep the rule in mind as you edit photos later. Post-production editing tools can be helpful for reframing and cropping images so that they abide by the rules. Use some older shots to experiment with the rule of thirds and see what impact, for better or worse, it may have on your images.

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