Photography - Knowledge

Photography Basics: Use Rule of Thirds to Improve the Composition and Balance of

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Whether you’re a seasoned photographer or just starting out, the term you’ve already come across or will come across (and a term that is going to be around for the entirety of your photography span)….is the Rule of Thirds. What leads you to take a photograph, to click on that button that freezes the frame, simply that you ‘like the look’ of it. That stands absolutely true – whether it's photography, videography, art, graphic design – your Rule of Thirds has applications in multiple areas. Coming back to something looking good, your photograph will only look good because of the composition. Composition roughly put is the assimilation of the visual elements of a photograph, such as the focal points, the placement of subjects or objects, the overall layout etc. There aren’t many ‘rules’ in composition because they aren’t really rules, but merely guidelines. So, sometimes your photographs just turn out good by fluke, because subconsciously all the elements of composition have lined up. A good composition has balance, it appeals to the eye, and here is where the Rule of Thirds comes into play.

The reason the Rule of Thirds is so often referenced is because of its simplicity and what it promotes. The Rule of Thirds is the bedrock of the best received compositional practices, the foundation of composition discussions, and therefore, is one of the reasons it is taught among the initial concepts of photography. The popularity of this rule can be seen in the digital cameras of today, whose live-view monitor or viewfinder sport the Rule of Thirds grid pattern allowing photographers an ease in lining up the image in compliance with the rule. So, what exactly is this concept? Let's get straight into the concept behind the rule of thirds.

The Rule of Thirds Definition

The Rule of Thirds is a set of guidelines which are meant to assist a photographer in placing an object or a subject in the image, in a manner that comes across as pleasing to its viewer. The rule states that an image comes across as most pleasing when regions or subjects are placed or composed along imaginary intersecting lines which split the image into equally proportioned thirds - both horizontally and vertically. This is what is known as The Rule of Thirds grid, which is a grid pattern of two vertical lines, dividing the image into thirds vertically and two horizontal lines splitting the image into thirds horizontally leaving you with an image split into nine equally proportioned sections.

What is so amazingly mind-boggling is the fact that a concept so mathematical in nature can be utilized for something as creative as photography.

But the rule works, and it works pretty well too.

The Rule of Thirds involves creating the correct aesthetic trade-offs, forming a sense of balance, removing the look of static, but maintaining a sense of complexity just right enough to not make the image appear too busy. The rule makes excellent use of the fact that the human eye’s natural tendency is to be drawn towards particular spots of an image. From the photographer’s perspective, the Rule of Thirds is a way to ensure that the viewer is focusing on the part of the image that the photographer wants them to. 

The Rule of Thirds in Art - The concept of the Rule of Thirds has been around roughly since the 1800’s when the painting was the popular means of art. It’s believed that the rule was developed by the artists in the Renaissance period, who used this method of composition to allow the eye to roam with the subject and bring a story to the paintings. 

rule of thirds in art
History of Rule of Thirds (source)

Understanding the Rule of Thirds Composition 

You can picture the Rule of Thirds grid as an imaginary tic-tac-toe board drawn across the image to split it into nine equal squares. This compositional rule also goes by the names of the Rule of Thirds Grid, Golden Mean or the Golden Ratio

Now, the four points of intersection of the vertical and horizontal lines are the strongest focal points of the image. The second strongest focal points of the image are the lines themselves. 

The concept is to place your subject either in the left or right, top or bottom third of the screen. The middle section is always a ‘no placement’ area. The idea behind this is to divide your image into a 1:2 ratio, one-third and two-thirds and not in half.

rule of thirds
Understand the frames 

Why Does the Rule of Thirds Work? 

When your subject is placed in the centre of the image, it is considered static because after drawing your eye to it, your gaze doesn’t have anywhere else to go after that, since the object is equidistant from all sides. When your object or subject is positioned off to one of the sides, it forces your gaze to follow it, to find it. This causes the viewer to spend more time on the image, making it more captivating and interactive instead of being a dead end. 

Learn the Use of the Rule of Thirds

In order to put the Rule of Thirds to use, you’re going to have to first imagine the grid on all of the images that you compose. A quick tactic: if you’re using an autofocus camera, the autofocus points are a good guide to help you imagine the grid. Don’t worry, after a bit of practice, you will manage effectively imagining the grid placement while composing your images. You can even check rule of thirds video for deeper clarity on the concept.

So, to learn how to put the Rule of Thirds in photography techniques, you will have to break it down into two questions regarding the subject of your image

  • Which of the vertical lines should your subject be aligned with – take note of things like the direction they are facing etc.  
  • Which of the horizontal line alignments (for instance in the case of eyes) will give you the most appealing of looks?

Most of the time, the upper horizontal line works best always consider the bottom one as well before taking the call. Some people are quite a natural when it comes to utilizing the Rule of Thirds, but for those who don’t see it as yet, make a conscious effort to think out the rule before you compose and with time, it will turn into instinctive implementation. 

Do You Have to Use the Rule of Thirds?

Reiterating, the Rule of Thirds isn’t a rule in itself but is simply guidelines that will help you compose your photographs, art, images, what have you in an appealing way to the viewer. As is with any rules and guidelines, they should and can be broken, provided the reason for doing so is important to the circumstance and that the choice bears the understanding of the effect it will have on the viewer of the image.

So, there isn’t a compulsion to using the Rule of Thirds, but it’s good to put it in place as much as possible considering it is a proven formula which works. There’s an old saying that ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ which means unless the Rule of Thirds isn’t suitable for what you are trying to create, it isn’t ‘breaking’ your image, why rule it out?

Points that Will Elevate Your Photo

The placement of the subject on which point and line bear significance because while any point or line will add emphasis to the subject, some will be stronger than the others. In the case of a lone object, the left-hand line is usually the strongest position, an exception standing in the case of cultures where information is read from right to left then the right-hand line will be the strongest. 

In the case when the subject isn’t alone then a hierarchy of image strength comes into play, with the subject placed in the foreground being stronger than the subject placed in the backgrounds. The Rule of Thirds placement can help emphasize or de-emphasize the strength – for multiple subjects, the bottom right point is the strongest and the upper left point is the weakest. You can see the prominence of this theory in movies to express emotional dominance of one character over the other. If you place the foreground subject on the left and the background subject on the right, the viewer could get easily confused about the dominance of the subject. The Rule of Thirds in videos is used as a storytelling tool by creating a balance in the frame. 

Another common rule is to place your subject on the opposite line of the direction they are facing or looking at. For instance, The Rule of Thirds in a portrait image is if your subject is facing right then their body should be placed on the left of the frame and vice versa. This will help give the photograph a bit more room towards the direction the subject is looking and avoids the impression that the subject is staring into space. This rule could be however ignored for certain circumstances. 

rule of thirds to elevate photo
Points that will bring wow element 

The Zone Method of the Rule of Thirds

Another pre-visualization technique that you can use while composing your photographs is by dividing the image or the scene into zones instead of utilizing the intersecting points of the grid. You will still be using the grid, but will now be focusing on the sections formed by the vertical and horizontal lines. This works by filling each zone with a different portion of the overall composition. For instance of a mountain landscape image, place the foreground trees in the bottom zone, the lake will take up the middle zone and the mountain peak will get placed in the top zone. 

Make a note that different zones hold a different level of emphasis on the subject of the image. Any objects placed in the bottom of the frame will gravitate with more influence. People who read from left to right will focus more on the left side of the frame and people who read from right to left will focus more on the right side of the frame. You could draw away from such dominant features by placing a dominant object or subject in such a way where it becomes the focal point. For instance a moon in the top zone of the landscape image. 

Creative Examples of The Rule of Thirds

When there are people in your image, try and align the subject with one of the vertical lines in the frame, not necessarily exact alignment but the closer, the better. Also, try aligning the eyes along with horizontal lines. When you are using the rule of thirds for portraits, if the subject is looking away from the camera keep the majority of the frame open in the direction that the subject is looking. If the subject is looking to the left, align him/her with the right vertical line and if he/she is looking right then align him/her with the left vertical line. 

rule of thirds for subject
Capturing perfect clicks

When taking landscape photographs, you should align the horizon with one of the horizontal ones, mostly the bottom one to prevent the horizon from being placed bang in the middle of the frame cutting the image into the half.  

landscape rule of thirds
Landscape Photography

In the case of a moving subject, while positioning them normally, make note of the direction they are heading towards, and leave more space in the front of the subject as compared to the back to show the direction they’re going, your eye will follow in that direction too. 

rule of thirds for subjects
Moving subject

Limitations and Exceptions to the Rule

While choosing or not choosing the Rule of Thirds is an option that lies with the photographer, there are few images or portions of the image to which the Rule of Thirds doesn’t apply. Like for instance, a standard headshot will always require the subject to be centred in the frame so here you would disregard the vertical lines and the left or right leaning alignments and just focus on aligning the subject's eyes with an appropriate horizontal line, mostly the upper one. 

While a rare case, mostly this could also occur for extremely abstract compositions. In this case, follow the spirit of the rule which states you give the photograph a sense of balance without portraying the subject as unchanging and static. 

Breaking the Rule of Thirds

At some point of time, you as a photographer are going to feel bound and restricted by the rules, but which rule is made never to be broken. It obviously could cramp your style, hence it is ideal to ignore the rule of thirds for certain circumstances. 

For instance, to emphasize a subject’s symmetry, to knock things out of balance, to make the subject appear more confronting etc. are all situations where it will be better of ignoring the rule than using it. It is important to determine what is special about the subject and what about the subject are you trying to emphasize, what mood do you want to convey….if the Rule of Thirds answers any of these questions, use it, or else don’t let it hamper your compositions. 

Not Just a Rule of Capture 

So while the Rule of Thirds in photography is generally to be applied at the time of composition, with the advancement in times, many editing programs are equipped with advanced cropping tools that could perform the same function. What this means is that if you haven’t captured the image using the Rule of Thirds, you could always mend that the image could be made to comply with the rule with a little cropping and editing if you feel the need of it. However, make your peace with losing a bit of the resolution. 

The Final Shot

If you bear the streak of breaking the rules, there’s nothing that’s going to stop you from breaking this one as well. But even with the Rule of Thirds, is a great way to up your creativity levels and experiment with its use either strictly or by bending the bars a bit….after all, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder and as a photographer, your goal is to share that beauty with the viewer as well. 

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