Composition – Rule of Thirds

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By Steve Russell

It’s important to be very knowledgeable about the technical aspects of your camera. Otherwise you won’t know the best way to maximize your camera’s capabilities to capture the best images you can. This is true regardless of the make or model of your camera. Unfortunately, being an expert in all of the camera’s features and capabilities won’t guarantee that you’ll take great photos.

The key to good photographs is composition. Because composition is so important, we are featuring a series of articles on composition beginning today with the Rule of Thirds (RoT). Actually, I could write a series of articles on the Rule of Thirds but I’ll resist that temptation.

If you search on the internet you can find thousands of articles about the Rule of Thirds. In fact, when I searched for Rule of Thirds Photography my search engine returned 1.27 million hits. Because there’s so much information out there on the subject and because I’ve written about the subject before, I’m not going to get into what it means, the history of it or a discussion about why it’s so important.

Keep in mind that photography is an art form. It’s not engineering so there really aren’t any strict rules, or at least it won’t break anything if you don’t always follow the rules. However, keep in mind that photographs, paintings, graphic arts and other works of art that follow the “rules” of compensation are generally more pleasing to the eye of the viewer. For the most part, when the RoT is followed the viewer usually doesn’t notice. On the other hand, an image where RoT isn’t followed will frequently jump off the page and not in a good way.

The following chart illustrates the Rule of Thirds in a graphical format.

It is generally accepted that the primary subject of a photo should be centered on one of the intersection indicated by the red dots. This is especially true when photographing landscapes, cityscapes, etc. However, there are times when centering the subject on one of the red dots just doesn’t work. Portrait photography is one of those times. Still, the rule of thirds is used in portrait photography and the general rule is that the top horizontal line should run through the subject’s eyes. This is true, in most cases, for portraits of people and of animals.

To illustrate this and what happens with different positionings of the subject, I selected this photograph of a tri-color heron. You will notice that photographing portraits of birds, as well as other animals, presents some composition problems that usually aren’t present when photographing people.

In most cases you want to employ the rule of thirds when you compose the photo in the view finder of your camera. However, keep in mind that the image the camera is going to capture is the same ratio as an 8″x12″ or 4″x6″ photo. While I do use these sizes when printing photos, 8″x10″ is a much more common size in portrait photography. Since in most cases I’m going to crop the photo to an 8″x10″ I usually leave room around the subject to allow me to try different ways of cropping the photo. In this case, the subject is placed on the left side of the image. In fact, the shoulder, or the point where the wing attaches to the body, of the bird is placed at the upper-left intersection of the RoT lines. I’m not really happy with this composition because the bird’s beak barely reaches beyond the center of the frame, leaving empty space in half of the image.

On this image I cropped to the 8″x10″ size ratio and centered the bird’s eye in the frame. Note that in nature photography (animals) and people photography, the eyes are the point of focus and the part of the subject that you use to compose the image (placement in the frame). Hopefully this image illustrates why you don’t want to center the subject in the frame. While I really like the way the water turned out in this image – the bokeh making the background look as if it’s painted instead of photographed – having the background account for roughly 75% of the image doesn’t make for a good photo.

In this image I centered the eye on the upper horizontal line. A little better but still not a good composition.

This image has the eye placed at the upper left intersection of the RoT lines. Clearly this doesn’t work.

For this one the bird’s eye is placed at the upper right intersection. Closer but still a lot of empty space at the top of the image and particularly over the bird’s back.

For this image I sort of broke the rule. The eye is clearly above the RoT line. In fact, the upper horizontal RoT line intersects the bird at its shoulder. A better composition but to me there’s still too much dead space in the photo. However, notice that by moving the bird higher in the image the reflection of the bird shows better and it doesn’t look like the legs are cut off.

Here I changed to a portrait orientation instead of landscape and cropped the image so that the upper horizontal line intersected the bird’s body and the right vertical line intersected its eye. A much better composition, I think.

There are times when you’ll get a better photo by zooming in on the subject and creating more of what is called a head & shoulders shot when photographing portraits of people. In this image the eye is at the upper left intersection of the lines. Composing the image this way also has the beak placed along the upper horizontal line.

On this last image I used the same placement of the eye and beak, but cropped it to landscape format instead of portrait. This is my favorite of all of the various compositions.

Post processing software, regardless of brand, is a wonderful tool for photographers. Merely cropping the image a number of different ways can change a relatively plain and uninteresting photo to something that most people will like. Play around with some of your photos the way I did with the heron. It’s a good exercise and can be quite rewarding, especially if you end up with the thought, “Now, that’s what I was trying to capture when I pressed the shutter release.”

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  • Syntax_error

    I totally disagree about the first in portrait. There’s far from enough space around the bird. Making the picture look dull and poorly edited.

  • Nomadic Samuel

    I’m thrilled that my latest body (Sony Alpha A65) has the rule of thirds grid as an option for viewing while composing.