The Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds is probably the most well-known of all basic photography composition tips or rules.
The premise behind the rule is that by dividing a photo into thirds both horizontally and vertically you create a grid pattern that provides guidelines that are useful for properly composing an image. This grid pattern creates nine sections and four intersecting points in the photo.
When composing a photo based on the rule of thirds you use these guidelines to position horizontal and vertical items in the photo. Placing the main subject at or close to one of the intersecting points of the horizontal and vertical lines will usually help give it more emphasis and a more pleasing composition or layout than if the subject is centered.
Another advantage of this photography composition rule is it allows one to easily use leading space so the subject is “looking in” or “moving towards” the center of the photo rather than appearing to be moving “out of” or “off” the picture.
The same grid lines also are effective in composing landscape photos because when the horizon is placed at one of the horizontal lines it can help give emphasis to either the sky or the land as appropriate for that particular photo.
For landscape photos where the sky is the focus of the image placing the horizon one third of the way up the photo will maximize the sky area and give it more emphasis. On the other hand placing the horizon two thirds of the way up the photo maximizes the land area and thus giving it more emphasis.
The History and Importance of the Rule of Thirds
This is such an important rule of composition that many photo editing programs and even some digital cameras super-impose the “rule of thirds” lines on a photo when you are using them to crop a picture.
The rule of thirds is generally thought to be derived from the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio, a mathematical formula that has been widely used by architects and artists dating back to Ancient Egypt and Greece. Following it will often result in a more dramatic or better composed photo; however there are some subjects and photos where a centered subject works better.
Rules of Composition Can Be Broken
Like other “rules of composition” this rule of composition is really a guideline rather than a hard and fast rule that should not be broken. There are some subjects and settings where the best composition places the subject at the center of the photo or close to one of the edges.
Like all rules of composition the rule of thirds should not hinder the photographer or artist or reduce them to simply following a set of rules or guidelines. Its value as well as other photo composition rules and tips is in helping the photographer develop an “eye” for the most dramatic or effective photography composition for any given situation.
Photo composition rules are most valuable as a way of helping new photographers develop their own sense of composition and their “photographic eye”.
Of course we should never lose sight of the fact that sometimes “breaking” a rule or rules of composition is what makes a photo even more dramatic and eye catching.
A good way to develop your “creative eye” and become better at photography composition is to study spectacular photos by other photographers. Identifying what rules of composition were applied or broken can go a long way towards to helping us continue down the path of becoming a better photographer.