The Rule of Thirds is perhaps the most well-known ‘rule’ of photographic composition.
The “Rule of Thirds” one of the first things that budding digital photographers learn about in classes on photography and rightly so as it is the basis for well balanced and interesting shots.
I will say right up front however that rules are meant to be broken and ignoring this one doesn’t mean your images are necessarily unbalanced or uninteresting. However a wise person once told me that if you intend to break a rule you should always learn it first to make sure your breaking of it is all the more effective!
What is the Rule of Thirds?
The basic principle behind the rule of thirds is to imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 parts. As follows.
As you’re taking an image you would have done this in your mind through your viewfinder or in the LCD display that you use to frame your shot.
With this grid in mind the ‘rule of thirds’ now identifies four important parts of the image that you should consider placing points of interest in as you frame your image.
Not only this – but it also gives you four ‘lines’ that are also useful positions for elements in your photo.
The theory is that if you place points of interest in the intersections or along the lines that your photo becomes more balanced and will enable a viewer of the image to interact with it more naturally.
Studies have shown that when viewing images that people’s eyes usually go to one of the intersection points most naturally rather than the center of the shot – using the rule of thirds works with this natural way of viewing an image rather than working against it.
In addition to the above picture of the bee where the bee’s eye becomes the point of focus here are some of examples:
Another Rule of Thirds Example
In this image I’ve purposely placed the head of my subject on one of the intersecting points – especially his eyes which are a natural point of focus for a portrait. His tie and flower also take up a secondary point of interest.
In this shot I’ve placed the subject along a whole line which means she is considerably off center and therefore creating an additional point of interest. Placing her right in the center of the frame could have resulted in an ‘awkward’ shot.
In a similar way a good technique for landscape shots is to position horizons along one of the horizontal lines also as I’ve done with the following shot (I’ll let you imagine the lines).
Using the Rule of Thirds comes naturally to some photographers but for many of us takes a little time and practice for it to become second nature.
In learning how to use the rule of thirds (and then to break it) the most important questions to be asking of yourself are:
- What are the points of interest in this shot?
- Where am I intentionally placing them?
Once again – remember that breaking the rule can result in some striking shots – so once you’ve learnt it experiment with purposely breaking it to see what you discover.
Lastly – keep the rule of thirds in mind as you edit your photos later on. Post production editing tools today have good tools for cropping and reframing images so that they fit within the rules. Experiment with some of your old shots to see what impact it might have on your photos.
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As I was working on the “Composition in Photography: Assignment Discussion” article and upcoming Lightroom Crop Tool article last night, I came across a feature in Lightroom that I had not previously used. I love it when that happens. Realizing that the software tool I enjoy using and find to be very versatile is actually even more functional than I thought, is pure joy. In this article, I will teach you how to quickly check your composition in Lightroom against known rules and guidelines, such as the Golden Ratio or the Rule of Thirds (and, yes, these are indeed two separate things), by overlaying the image with them.
How Does It Work?
Basically, Lightroom allows you to overlay any image with several different guidelines, called Crop Grid Overlays. To do that, select the image you want to check against one of the available guidelines and engage Crop Tool, which is found right below the Histogram. Alternatively, you can hit the “R” key on your keyboard. Once the tool has been engaged, notice that the selected image is already overlaid with the default Rule of Thirds Grid Overlay. Hit “O” on your keyboard to toggle between all 7 available Grid Overlays. Use “Shift + O” (Windows PC) to rotate the guidelines. You can further customize the behavior of the Overlays (or Guides) by selecting the Crop tool to enable the settings in the Tools->Tool Overlay and Crop Guide Overlay menus.
Crop Grid Overlays
Here is the full list of available Grid Overlays as well as short descriptions for each one:
- Rule of Thirds – likely the most popular, “safe” guideline for many, the Rule of Thirds suggest that you first divide the frame into nine equal parts and place important elements of composition either along the dividing lines and/or at points of intersection. This particular guideline is very useful for beginners who are just getting into photography and want their images to have better balance and be more interesting from a composition standpoint, but is also very widely used by experienced photographers. By using the Rule of Thirds, one avoids placing the horizon in the middle of the frame when shooting landscapes as well as flat central composition which, unless used deliberately and with thought, often fails to give the elements proper emphasis and looks “boring”.
- Diagonal Lines – derived from the Rule of Thirds, this overlay might be useful if your photograph has a dynamic, diagonal composition. Personally, I’ve never used it, but I’d like to hear from readers who found it useful for their work!
- Golden Triangle, Golden Spiral and Golden Section (Golden Ratio in Adobe language) – three derivatives of what we may call the Golden Mean or even simply Golden Ratio, these guidelines are based on Fibonacci sequence. Yes, that’s math. In art. Sounds a bit weird, but actually these classic visual arts guidelines have always had a lot to do with math and science in general (some of the most realistic, detailed paintings of old were painted by projecting the scene on canvas with the help of a lens, for example). Golden Mean in particular employs a ratio that is calculated to deliver what can be considered “perfect” proportions of approximately 1:1.619. These proportions are aesthetically very pleasing to our eyes and can be found not only in man-made objects (paintings, photographs, buildings, etc), but also in nature. As with the Rule of Thirds, which you can see as a sort of simplified Golden Ratio, it tells us to place relevant objects and elements of composition along the dividing lines and/or at points of intersection. We will discuss the Golden Ratio in more detail in a future article, as it’s quite complex once you start digging deeper, yet rather fascinating at the same time.
- Simple Grid – less useful for composition, but great for checking for any signs of distortion or an accidentally tilted horizon.
- Aspect Ratio – preview how a specific photograph would look like from a composition standpoint in different aspect ratios. Very useful if you plan to print your photographs and need to decide on specific paper size. The aspect ratios are fully adjustable.
Out of all these overlays, the Rule of Thirds and Golden Rule (all three separate guidelines) are arguably the most important and, as such, will be discussed in more detail in separate Mastering Composition series articles.
Word of Caution
There is no doubt Grid Overlays are very useful to have. However, don’t go cropping all your images to suit any of the specific overlays just for the sake of it thinking it will make your photograph better. In truth, composition is something you need to think about as you photograph, not whilst post-processing. So the Crop Grid Overlays are there for fine tuning, not for composing post capture. Finally, learning the rules is important, but no more so than knowing how to break them. Not every image has to follow a certain rule to be well balanced, engaging and interesting – as long as the choice is deliberate (or intuitive/instinctive)! So before you rely on any thousand year old guideline, experiment, practice and trust your guts. Maybe the photograph you are about to drastically crop to suit that Golden Spiral is at its best with that central composition you chose whilst holding a camera to your eye.
Have you used any of these guidelines in the past to fine-tune your composition in Lightroom? Let us know which ones are your favorites and why!