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Two Seconds to Better Photos: Try the Rule of Thirds

We’re constantly taking photos, from Instagrammed images of that really good sandwich at lunch to posed, just-so portraits of family…

Photo courtesy Michelle W.

We’re constantly taking photos, from Instagrammed images of that really good sandwich at lunch to posed, just-so portraits of family gatherings.

It’s easy: look through the viewfinder, center the subject, and press the shutter button, right? Next time, try skipping step two — take those few seconds to put your subject off-center, and see how much more engaging your pictures become. Say hello to the Rule of Thirds.

We’ve touched on the Rule of Thirds before in posts on composition and cropping. Basically, the Rule of Thirds asks you to imagine a tic-tac-toe grid over the thing you’re photographing, and suggests that you put your subject at one of the four spots where the lines intersect:

Image via Shutterstock.

Image via Shutterstock.

Placing your subject a bit off-center can have a few benefits for your photos:

  • It adds context. The viewer gets more detail, and a better sense of how the subject relates to the surroundings.
  • It hints at motion (and emotion). Putting the subject off-center adds drama and interest. It can create the appearance that your subject is either coming or going; in the case of a person or animal, it may suggest that they’re looking forward or back. By creating a fuller scene, you invite viewers into the story.
  • It gives the viewer’s eye more to do. Rather than just looking at a center point and being done with it, an off-center photo invites us to explore — to follow the sight line of the deer, for example, as in the photo above.

Here’s one of my dog-nephews, Henry:

Photo courtesy Michelle W.

Photo courtesy Michelle W.

This would have been adorable with Henry in the center, because Henry is cute as a fuzzy brown-and-white button. Putting him off-center in the lower left of the image made him seem lonelier, reinforcing his puppy-dog eyes. (Sorry, Henry! You’re a good boy.)

Even basic shots of inanimate objects get a boost, like this sign at the entrance of the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, California:

Photo courtesy Michelle W.

Photo courtesy Michelle W.

It could have just been a picture of a sign. Instead, it makes the view feel like they’re entering the Mystery Spot themselves.

A slightly different application also does a world of good for landscape photography:

Photo courtesy Michelle W.

Photo courtesy Michelle W.

In this case, I used the Rule of Thirds to think about placement of the lone boat and the horizon. We tend to put the horizon line in the center of photos. Splitting the scene into thirds — two-thirds sky, one-third water — helped produce the ethereal but moody image I was after.

(This image also serves as photo proof that I don’t always put my subjects in the bottom left of photos… just most of the time.)

It also works vertically:

Photo courtesy Michelle W.

Photo courtesy Michelle W.

I could have put the village in the center of the picture, but didn’t for two reasons: one, I took this photo through the window of a moving bus, so composition was partly decided for me. But second, and more importantly, I wanted to emphasize the tenuous fragility of stilt homes perched along a vast, ever-shifting waterway, and keeping them to one-third of the frame helped me do that.

The Rule of Thirds is just a guideline, not a rule, and there will be times when it doesn’t work for you — when you want to minimize the background, or fill the frame with your subject. Give it a try in your everyday shooting, though, and see if it doesn’t add a bit more life to your images.

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  1. I really like that idea. I think too many of us have the idea in our heads that things need to be centered and look symmetrical. This gives a whole new perspective on the photograph, and opens it up to a more modern look without looking askew.

  2. Many years ago I did art at college, and we looked at this – although I learned it as “the golden ration”, or “golden section”. It was known about thousands of years ago, and was often stated as “the smaller part is to the larger part, as the larger part is to the whole”.

    1. Luckily, a tic-tac-toe grid is a lot easier to visualize over a scene than a Fibonacci ratio :)

      For those who want to go a step further than the basic Rule of Thirds, there are lots of great tutorials out there on using the Golden Ratio to frame your subject.

  3. Wow, that was the shortest and most informative post on photography I’ve ever read. Thank you so much for these straightforward tips and bang-on examples! How cool!

  4. Great post! Once you compose this way a few times, you’ll never go back. Once I learned how much more pleasing it makes a photo look, I didn’t look back. It’s such a simple trick with tremendous results.

    1. There are tons of great tutorials and other free resources on the internet — that’s what I use. Well, that, and I take lots and lots of pictures. Eventually, you end up with fewer terrible shots and more good ones (although I still trash the majority of the pictures I take).

      There’s a great wp.com site with tons of helpful tips/resources/posts and inspiring images: http://photofocus.com.

      1. Wow! That’s a great site. Thank you! I graduated in art and was an illustrator, but somehow skipped photography. I just love these new mediums of writing and photography. I’m a late bloomer, but am making up for lost time. :)

  5. Wow! Im so used to just snapping a picture and making sure its always centered. This opened up my imagination to picture taking more. I learned a lot thanks.

  6. your explanation of the rule of thirds was great and simple! in school it really baffled me because the instructors made it seem like something so complex

  7. Great photos. Of course, *I know* all these tips but it is great to be reminded of them one at a time. Photography is an ever evolving skill, you learn something with each piccie (or at least noob me does!) which is something I really love about it. I shall be awaiting future tips with interest. I’m looking forward to next month as I will be getting some 5500k 150w bulbs to use at night to do some better shots of dinner! Yay! :D

  8. I learned this in the photography class I took when I was in sixth grade and I haven’t taken many photos with the object in the middle since then because it just didn’t look as good. Haha.