Monday, December 2, 2013

Photography Monday - Rule of Thirds

Let me just say, I love photography, and always have, but once I learned the rule of thirds and started focusing on making my photos instead of just taking snapshots, I grew to love photography even more.  If I could teach you just one thing to help you take better photos it would be the rule of thirds.  It's one of many compositional rules you can do.

Let's start first with the question, What is composition?

Answer: Composition is the way you frame a photo, the subject you choose to be in the photo, the way you focus a photo, depth of field, position of the subject, lighting, and even color scheme.  There's a lot that goes in to composition, but today we'll just be focusing on the 'rule of thirds'.

What is the rule of thirds?

Answer: The rule of thirds is where you place important parts of your photo or the most important part of the subject in your photo on imaginary third lines.  It really helps if we look at some examples.

Imagine your screen is divided up into thirds top to bottom, and left to right.  It would look something like this:

Take notice of the circles a the four intersections.  With the rule of thirds you'd want to put the subject of your photo (let's say you're taking a picture of your child, the subject is your child), on the third lines rather than just centering the subject which is most people's inclination.  The problem with centering your subject is that this is often a very uninteresting and uninspiring composition.  You want a person's eyes to travel a little in a photo, and putting the subject on a rule of thirds line or two makes the viewer's eyes travel to that part of the photo.  It makes the photo more appealing.

It's also a good idea to take a look at your subject before taking the picture, and figure out what the most important part or best feature of your subject is.  Usually with a person it's their eyes.  With the rule of thirds you would typically put the most interesting part of the subject on one of the intersections of the third lines (the circles in the diagram above).

I'm not going to lie, it takes a little practice before you start seeing the world in rule of thirds, but the practice is well worth it.  Some cameras come with a setting to put the rule of thirds lines up on your screen, but this should only be used initially to help you practice.

Here are some examples of photos I've taken with rule of thirds:

In this photo, instead of centering the bird, I put him on the right vertical rule of third line, and though his eye doesn't fall on one of the intersections, it is also on a third line.  Also, the mountains in the background fall on the rule of third line instead of just being centered.  This is an overall more appealing composition than just centering the bird and horizon.

Here's another bird example.  His eye isn't on a line or intersection this time, but I wanted to give this example to show that you don't always have to get it exactly on a third line to have it count as rule of thirds.  Sometimes close is good enough.

Here's a fun couple I took photos of.  His eye is dead center on one of the intersections and his other eye is still close to the top thirds line.  His face is also mostly centered on the left third line.  While she isn't placed prominently on the thirds lines, this composition puts weight on the left side of the frame rather than dead center, and makes it more appealing than just centering this couple in the frame.

Here's a photo of a flower girl I took at a wedding this summer.  While her body is almost centered, her eyes are almost on the top third line, her sash is pretty close to the bottom third line, and one of her hands, the one reaching into the flowers, is on the intersection of the bottom and right third lines.

Rule of thirds is not just for people and animals.  You can also use it on inanimate objects.  At first glance it looks like this camera is centered, if you just pay attention to the center box in the thirds lines, but look at the whole photo for a moment and notice that there's more weight to the right of the photo than the left because no part of the camera falls on the left side of the left third line, and also because of the angle of the camera.  The lines of the camera are very near to the left, right, and top third lines also, and the top two corners of the camera are very near the intersections of the top third line.

One final example (this post is getting a bit long).  The candy cane, though not straight, is on the left rule of third line, again making this photo more interesting than if it were simply centered in the frame.

Now, there is a time and a place for centering your subject, but this is usually when there's some sort of symmetry on either side such as with architecture.  Most of the time if you stick to rule of thirds (get your subject away from the center in some fashion), your photos will be more appealing and look more thought out rather than just a snapshot.

Also remember, the rule of thirds applies to landscapes as well.  You may be very tempted to center that horizon, but don't do it!  Experiment with putting the horizon in a landscape shot on the top or bottom third line, or just above or below those third lines.  You'll be surprised at what happens!

A great book I recommend to anyone interested in photography is called How To Create Stunning Digital Photography by Tony Northrup.

It's inexpensive but is packed full of information and also has video tutorials and comes with entrance to their community where you can get your photos critiqued.  Check it out if you get a chance.

Have questions about rule of thirds?  What me to do a tutorial on something else?  Leave them in a comment below.

Please note: The photos in this post belong to me.  You may not use or edit them for any purpose.  You may not put them in your own tutorial for rule of thirds.  Feel free to share this tutorial via link with others if you want to teach them about rule of thirds.  Thank you.


  1. Those pictures are so pretty! I wish I had a nice camera, but I will def start using rule of thirds. I'll have to go back and re-read the post again a few times before I think I fully have it though. Nice :)

  2. I'd heard of this before but I hadn't paid much attention to it. Now that I see examples and see it all layed out in detail I think I'll give it a try though. Thnx

  3. Hi, I'm from Bend Etsy group. Enjoyed your post! With the examples it makes absolutely good sense to use the rule of thirds. I had never heard of that before. Happy New Year!

  4. Thank you for showing me this. I think I have a pretty good idea now, I will give it a try and see how the pictures turn out :)

  5. I feel like my camera is too slow to take good photos but this is a great tip.