The Rule of Thirds
This sounds like the title of an espionage novel but it is one of the most popular rules for composition.
It’s been around since 1797 so there must be something in it, although personally, for better or worse, I don’t usually remember to follow it. (My personal rule is the one covered on this page: Photo Composition Tips.) But you can.
Here it is as simply as possible:
The rule says that an image such as a photo or a painting can be seen compositionally as being divided into nine equal squares by four horizontal and vertical lines, and important elements like faces, forms, or shapes should be ideally placed in these squares or at the points where the lines intersect. Simple huh?
Here is an example:
Now, you decide, did I follow the rule or break it? I definitely got the tree right in the central box.
Here’s another one – now this is more like it, especially if you like cute dogs.
Here the photo follows the rule by having the dog’s head at the intersection of two lines.
Here’s another one. Now this is completely anti-rule. Almost no element is in the right place, but then this picture works (if it works) because of the angular shapes and the angle.
Last one. This is probably a text book example of the rule (except I wasn’t following the rule when I took the shot. So whip me.)
Here we have not only the mountain cozily situated between two intersections but we also have the rule as it applies to a scenic shot: one third foreground or land, one third sea, or middle distance/main feature, and one third sky. Hallelujah!
So do you feel ready to rush out and follow the Rule of Thirds?
But here’s the thing: Rules for composition are very useful as a discipline while you’re feeling your way. They coax you into thinking or seeing in a way that focuses your concentration and makes you aware of what you’re doing. But it comes down to whether or not the picture ‘speaks’ to the viewer. If you have an image that follows every rule but says nothing, it’s a technical achievement but not a form of communication.
If you stand there in front of a great scene, finger hesitating on the shutter button while you try to figure out whether or not you’ve got the rule in play, you’re defeating the purpose of having a rule in the first place.
Shoot what you see. Then analyze it later in the computer. Evaluate your pictures by whatever rules or guidelines you feel are relevant, and practice ‘seeing’ that way. Then go take more photos!
If you really want to learn how to take great photos and get good at this stuff we highly recommend Beginner Digital Photography as a resource.
It covers everything you need to know from beginner to pro in an interactive format you can study or refer to at your own pace and at your level of experience.