The rule of thirds in photography

Have you ever noticed that placing an object dead centre of a photograph can sometimes have a jarring effect? In fact, placing if off-centre may create a better balance. Interesting areas that draw the eye can often be found dotted around the photo rather than in the middle. In this respect, using a mathematical formula known as the rule of thirds (or the golden section) is useful to know.

How to Compose a Photograph

Throughout the ages, artists, sculptors and photographers use the rule of thirds to compose their pictures, sometimes without realizing. This is because we inherently know if something doesn’t look right. The rule of thirds is where if you place two lines horizontally and two vertically over an image and place them equidistance apart within a ‘frame,’ any object or feature placed upon the resultant lines becomes significant. We can detect this natural balance without training. It feels right and it looks right.

Proportions of a Photograph

In fact, the proportions of photographs are close to this ratio, as is the LCD screen on the back of the camera. Standard prints for photographs are usually 4x6in or 5x7in. Having proportions that can roughly be divided into the golden section (explained in a moment), the rule of thirds can easily be applied when composing the shoot.

Framing a Scene in Photography

For this reason, placing the horizon a third of the way down or a third of the way up on a photo will appear more ‘comfortable’ than placing the horizon dead-centre (unless for artistic effect.) Similarly, placing a tree or a lamppost a third of the way from the edge of the photo provides a frame within a frame, drawing the eye into the scene, which might show a ruin or a castle.


Simple Guide to the Golden Section

The rule of thirds can be further be defined by the golden ratio, which is not quite a third. This roughly adheres to a ratio of 1:1.618 (or phi). Each golden section can be similarly subdivided to create a new golden section. A composition may comprise more than one frame, each possessing a line or feature that falls within this ratio.

Breaking the Rules in Photography

However, if we composed every photo according to the rule of thirds, they would eventually appear monotonous and formulaic. It is nice to break the rules now and again. Placing an object dead-centre (by design) can create dynamism and impact. An object may be placed on the edge of a photograph to illustrate the transience of time, or to express movement out of the frame.

How to Make a Photo Interesting

Furthermore, deliberately creating a jarring effect in the photographs can convey tension or high emotion. A dark shadow deliberately placed outside of the golden section can be used to create menace. Placing an aspect dead centre can also heighten a sense of symmetry and grandeur, such as a close up of a flower head or the Taj Mahal.

The Rule of Thirds in Photography

The rule of thirds can help overcome compositional issues within a photograph. This means placing an interesting object off the centre of the photo. By subdividing the image into thirds, visual channels can be created if objects are placed where these imaginary intersect. But adhering to rules can cause photographs to appear monotonous and formulaic. Breaking the rules by design can be liberating and create interesting results. This might include heightening symmetry or creating tension within a photo.