As a beginning photographer, you will read about many ‘rules.’ Some of these, such as a level horizon or not having a tree growing out of someone’s head, are rarely broken. Others, like the rule of thirds, are more compositional guidelines but based on tried-and-true practices. This article will explain more about the rule of thirds.
As you look through your viewfinder at a scene, always scan all around the image and not just look at the subject. You want the viewer drawn into the scene and led to the main subject. Certain compositional elements, such as leading lines and the rule of thirds, will help facilitate that.
Imagine as you view the scene that your viewfinder is divided into a grid like a tic-tac-toe board. In fact, if you check your camera’s manual, you can likely make this grid appear in your viewfinder. The idea behind the rule of thirds is to use the horizontal and vertical lines, and the intersections between the two, to guide your composition.
Almost all beginners, when they compose their image, will put the main subject dead center in the frame. If they are shooting the ocean or mountains, the horizon will be straight across the middle. If it’s a vertical subject, such as a tree or a person, again, they will place it in the center. This not only makes a boring composition, it doesn’t lend any tension or balance to the scene. And most importantly, it doesn’t lead the viewer’s eye into the scene and to the subject.
So, how do you fix this? First, take a look at horizons. This could be the horizon between the sea and the sky, or a mountain range in the distance. You want to move that horizon line close to the top or bottom line in your grid. Which one? Well, that’s for you to decide. Does the foreground or background hold more interest? Is the sea more dramatic or the sky? Decide which element is most interesting and have that take up two-thirds of the image, while the less interesting aspect, such as a gray sky, take up the smaller third.
Do the same thing with vertical subjects. Move the camera slightly left or right to place the subject off-center and close to one of the vertical lines. It doesn’t have to be precisely at the mark. Think about the composition and make sure you leave enough space on either side. Use the same method as the horizon to determine which area holds more interest. One other thing to remember is if the subject is a person looking, or walking, to the side. You want most of the space to be in front of them, so it doesn’t look like they are looking at the edge of the frame.
What about the grid intersections? These points are where you would place a smaller subject in the scene, such as a sailboat on the water, or a person who is further away. Try placing the subject on each of the four intersections and see which gives the best composition. If there is more than one subject, try getting both of them as close as possible to two of the intersections. Having subjects counterbalanced at opposing intersections gives the image balance and tension. It will draw the viewer’s eye from one to the other.
Experiment with your composition as you frame up your shot. Try using the imaginary grid to place your subject or subjects off-center. Use the rule of thirds to give your images more drama and visual appeal.