What is the Rule of Thirds?
Firstly, it may be useful to answer the question ‘What is the Rule of Thirds?’ for those that are not familiar with this term. It’s essentially the ‘rule of thumb’ of photography, though unlike a ‘rule of thumb’ it’s a theory that can be put in to use immediately, and you’ll find that your compositions become noticeably better through experience.
You may remember when you first purchased your iPhone (or most smartphones) and the grid that was displayed when you opened the camera. This is it. This is your phone telling you to use the rule of thirds. It’s the theory that, if you organize the subjects and features of your photos into thirds, it can make your picture more balanced and pleasing to the eye. By placing the most important features of your picture along the horizontal or vertical lines (or the cross sections), you’re going to give your photograph much more appeal to the viewer. Take a look at the picture below:
The waterfall is the most essential feature in this photograph and is perfectly positioned two sections to the right of the image, with the arch of the rainbow on the left. Notice how the arch of the rainbow is exactly along the horizontal line, while the top of the waterfall is in line with the other horizontal line. Naturally the viewer’s eyes don’t go the center of the image, but instead to one of the intersections. Now, let’s look at a portrait picture:
Although there are no important elements to the left of the subject, positioning her in the center of the photograph would create a slightly awkward image and compositionally displeasing to the viewer. An excellent subject creates an excellent image, especially when following the rule of thirds. Now let’s look at an image without the lines, instead use your imagination as you view it. The picture below is not only a phenomenal subject, but by following the rule of thirds, we’re able to capture it in a phenomenal picture.
With the center of the snail’s shell almost perfectly in line with the pistil of the flower, you’re immediately drawn to the right of the image but as your eyes drift to the left, the edge of the flower also becomes a key feature, even if it’s not intended. This is the beauty of using the rule of thirds; features that you wouldn’t consider to be important, are made important simply by keeping them in line with the three sections and following the rule of thirds.
So now you’ve got an understanding of the rule of thirds, you can go and shoot fuller, more dynamic pictures, eliminating those negative blank spaces surrounding your subject. Having said all of this, I must now state a cliché; rules are there to be broken. In many cases you shouldn’t use the Rule of Thirds, especially when you want to highlight the symmetry of your object or scene, for example, look at the famous, perfectly symmetrical photos of the Taj Mahal, and ask yourself, how often have you seen a photo of the Taj Mahal using the rule of thirds?
You may also want the subject to be the ‘center of attention’ so to speak, maybe you want that emptiness surrounding your subject to really emphasize the loneliness it is feeling. My best advice is don’t cement yourself in the rule of thirds, try photographing using different compositions, maybe for some photos you may think following the rule of thirds is perfect for this particular scene, when in actual fact you realize that by centering your subject you’ve achieved a much more compelling photo.
Many professional photographers may argue that the rule of thirds shouldn’t be used, because in several cases you won’t have a key subject or your subject will be too large to effectively follow the rule of thirds, which is true. Rule of thirds is a general theory to help beginners with the basic composition aspect of their photographs and to develop their understanding of what makes an effective composition. It’s important not to limit yourself to one rule or one theory but instead, just keep in mind all the theories you’ve learnt and you can use them accordingly.
Now in digital photography you’ll find that most cameras, both mirrorless camera and DSLR, you can enable and disable guidelines and various other settings as you wish. Also note that the rule of thirds can also apply to videography, I’ll leave you with this perfect example: