Tao of Light
The Photographers Corner
Rule of Thirds
Author: Peter Hines
Quick link to the full lesson with many illustrations and photos here:
Background: Photography is a technical ART FORM (Caps for emphasis)!
Photography is a very technical art form that can easily overwhelm the uninitiated and the initiated alike. Yet fundamentally it is an “art form” which means you don’t need to be a photo geek obsessed with technical details to get a great photograph! If one pays attention to important artistic elements or the “rules of composition”, as they are often called, they can get a great photograph with just their point & shoot or a smartphone. And that’s even without knowing the first thing about a shutter or an aperture or what in the heck is that thing called ISO!
Rules that apply to 2D art also apply to Photographs
This is because photography fundamentally is a 2D art form and the rules that apply to art such as drawing and painting apply here as well. Now don’t get my wrong, knowing all that other technical photography stuff is immensely valuable and will most certainly improve your photography much in the same way a painter can improve the quality of their art by better understanding color theory and how to mix paints. Yet, unlike a painter who must learn how to mix their paints first, in today’s world of digital cameras, with their powerful micro-processing wizards working behind the scenes for you (taking care of all that technical photography stuff), you can relax and have much more freedom and fun to just focus your attention on the art part. This is where the “rules of composition” come in. Don’t worry in future newsletters I will cover many technical details in my photography corner section, but for now we’re just going to focus on the very important art part.
Rules of Composition – a general word
In photography, when taking a picture, there are many “rules of composition” to consider such as leading lines, symmetry (or asymmetry), patterns, depth of field, background vs foreground, subject, balance of elements, viewpoint, cropping, placement of light, border patrol, focus point, “the golden mean” and the “Rule of Thirds”. And the most important rule of all is you can throw the rules out the window because YOU are the artist and YOU can experiment and break any of these rules at anytime! So we might say rather then “rules” they are really just helpful guidelines or rules of thumb. Yet before you can break the rules (or guidelines) it is good to know them!
In future newsletters I intend to cover many of the composition rules listed above but with this first tip I will focus specifically on that last one in the list, the classic “Rule of Thirds”.
Now on to the “Rule of Thirds”
In photography as in any 2D art the Rule of Thirds is a fundamental compositional technique. Its called a “rule” but really it is just an aesthetic guideline to consider when thinking about your composition. Keeping it in mind while you are shooting and later, while you are editing, is very helpful in creating a aesthetically pleasing composition rather you want to use it OR NOT! That’s right! Knowing how this rule works (as well as the many others compositional rules) can help you make a deliberate decision TO USE OR NOT TO USE IT which will imbue artistic intention into your compositions. This is a prerequisite step to helping you graduate from taking mere snapshots to taking actual photographs!
The Rule: The Rule of Thirds is applied by dividing the image up into 9 segments with two equal distance horizontal lines and two equal distanced vertical lines. This results in 3 equal segments across the vertical field and three equal segments across the horizontal field. The idea is to place key elements or subjects of your photograph at the intersection of the lines (sometimes called “power points”) or along one of the horizontal or vertical lines. Also you can think of each segment as a compositional element and can place key subjects in these as well. Some basic points to consider with a Rule of Thirds composition: (1) the horizontal guide lines work well with common landscape elements such as a horizon line between the sky and the earthly scene in the foreground – for example, if you want to emphasize beautiful clouds in the sky place the horizon line on the lower 1/3rd guideline or if you want to emphasize a stunning landscape place it on the upper 1/3rd; (2) The vertical guidelines can work well with key landscape point of focus subjects such as a sunset or a moon rise or with a tree. Subjects can be both positive (i.e. landscape) or negative (i.e. sky). Subjects can also be a vanishing point defined by leading lines. The possibilities are really endless.
To read the full lesson with many illustrations and examples click here: