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Summer Photo Tips: #5 – Making Photos With the Rule of Thirds

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When something catches our attention like a bird soaring overhead or a car passing by, we normally shift our eyes so that the subject is centered in our field of view. Perhaps because we do this naturally, when photographing there is also a tendency to place the main subject in the center of the photo. Photographers refer to this as “bulls eye” composition. While centering a subject is fine in some situations, it is less effective in others and can make for visually boring or uninteresting photos if overused.

Understanding The Rule of Thirds

     To add visual interest, variety and sometimes drama to a photo, consider placing the main subject off center. A popular technique used by photographers to achieve that is called the “Rule of Thirds.” While looking at the example imagine a grid like the ones used in a “tic-tac-toe” game that is created using two horizontal and two vertical lines. Placing the main subject in a photo off-center and at the intersection of any two of those imaginary lines can help make the image more compelling and add visual interest, energy and sometimes even drama.

rule of thirds photography

Photos made using the Rule of Thirds also reveal more of the background in the scene which can help to convey a sense of the place where the image was made. The four photos above show examples of off-center composition based on the Rule of Thirds. If you study each one closely you’ll notice how the main subject is located near the intersection of those imaginary grid lines.

IMPORTANT: Although it is called a “rule,” the Rule of Thirds is simply another technique you can select from in certain situations to add interest and help guide the viewer’s eye toward the main subject. And, like other techniques, if overused can lead to boring photos.

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  1. July 21st, 2014 at 08:19 | #1

    When I was working at the university, a theme for a university-wide discussion was mathematics and the art department gave a talk on different mathematical theories of art composition. I found it very interesting for increasing my appreciation of art works and now use many of them while composing shots and editing. Your post got me thinking about how I use quadrants, too. Life is so amazing when viewed from this end of it. :D

    • Rick
      July 21st, 2014 at 10:14 | #2

      Sounds like you learned lots of good techniques in those talks Pat. The theory behind many photo techniques originated hundreds of years ago. Even this “Rule of Thirds” was first written about in the late 1700’s but used in a great many of the old masters paintings. I’m delighted you’re finding ways to put them to good use with the camera!

  2. July 21st, 2014 at 15:25 | #3

    I like your theory for why we tend to center our subjects in photography. It makes perfect sense.

    • Rick
      July 21st, 2014 at 17:13 | #4

      Since most of turn our head so we can center a subject in our own field of vision it’s just natural that we’d want to do it when photographing. And, while there’s nothing wrong with centering your subjects in photos (bulls eye composition) many photos can look more interesting and compelling to viewers, and tell a richer story, when the main subject is not dead center. Great to hear from you Gunta.

  3. July 21st, 2014 at 19:34 | #5

    It’s a rule I tend to follow Rick. My father begin his working life as a landscape artist for a theater company and carried most of his composition ‘rules’ into his photography. It makes sense. –Curt

    • Rick
      July 22nd, 2014 at 16:44 | #6

      Your dad sounds like a man I would have enjoyed meeting. But then too, I sense I’m getting the privilege of meeting him, in part, through you Curtis. Although I’m not particular to the word “rule” this particular approach works amazingly well time and time again. I learned it (more like “sensed it”) in my early teens by studying the photographs of some of the early b&w photographers (Ansel Adams, Cartier-Bresson, etc) and then read about it decades later and came to understand it even better. It consistently works well to create a lovely balance between the main subject and the background which I see often in your images. With warm wishes, Rick

  4. July 22nd, 2014 at 07:33 | #7

    I always have a hard time with this rule… Thanks for the info…

    • Rick
      July 22nd, 2014 at 16:47 | #8

      Oh goodness LorB, that struggle is something many of us have in the beginning. Here’s a tip that might help. Since its so familiar to you, take a photo as you normally would and then take one or two more photos with the subject positioned off center using that rule of thirds. After doing this for a few times and studying the results you’ll often discover for yourself when that rule helps to improve your photo and when the “bulls eye” approach works better. :-)

  5. July 22nd, 2014 at 09:27 | #9

    Rick, I LOVE this, and yet I struggle with it too! I am symmetrical in almost everything I do, I’m always balancing things from side to side. I do have to say, I agree that the pictures above tell so much more of the story having more of the background in them. I always enjoy your photo tips, you give the important “reasoning” behind them, which I find educational as well. Thanks for the great tips!!

    • Rick
      July 22nd, 2014 at 17:10 | #10

      Well Jules, I absolutely GET what you’re saying. Life should definitely be “in balance” and so how does this “Rule of Thirds” all make sense. Well, instead of thinking about what you see and want to photograph as if it is geometrical (I subject I know well now since I had to take it many times in high school!) think about what you want to photograph and share with others compared to what you are actually seeing in your overall peripheral (near/far) field of vision. When you “see” something that catches your eye and you want to photograph, although your mind usually focuses on the central subject (a horse, tree, flower…) it absolutely takes in everything else in your field of vision. In a way, its the background that helps set the stage for the main subject. So, if you photograph it using the rule of thirds, you often help viewers see a bit more of the background AND the main subject. It’s not a technique you should use all the time but one that can often help you tell an even bigger story in a single photo. Thanks YOU so much for your kind words on my approach to blogging. I deeply appreciate your compliments and comments. {}

  6. July 22nd, 2014 at 09:52 | #11

    Since beginning this journey with a camera relatively recently, it’s been interesting to apply time-tested guidelines such as The Rule of Thirds to real-world situations. I have found myself developing a “new” way of seeing. I don’t actually imagine a grid overlay as I view a subject, but if I’m photographing a bird on a branch, I now “automatically” compose the shot with more space in the direction the bird is facing. Whattaya know! The bird almost always ends up smack along one of those doggone “thirds” lines!

    Those old guys sure were smart. Thank goodness some younger ones like Rick Braveheart take the time to read their stuff and let the rest of us know about it!

    • Rick
      July 23rd, 2014 at 05:11 | #12

      Oh Wally, what you describe for composing many of your photos is fabulous! For those of us who spend great amounts of time in nature as we do, she teaches us new ways of “seeing” and “sensing” more deeply, with our eyes, our heart and with the camera. When we spend time with a subject, like an osprey or hawk for example, and overcome that initial excitement of wanting to ‘make a photo of them’ (which often has them positioned dead center) we begin to see more details of the subject and the setting that, if included in the photo, will help tell an even richer story. When that happens it often guides us away from bulls eye composition. I’m tickled as can be that you discovered this technique for yourself and have it available in your photographers toolbox.

  7. July 22nd, 2014 at 11:45 | #13

    Always interesting and always useful. Thanks, Rick.

    • Rick
      July 23rd, 2014 at 05:12 | #14

      Thank YOU Jim. I appreciate your comment and, as always, your visit.

  8. July 22nd, 2014 at 22:55 | #15

    I laughed a little while reading this tip. In one of my very first photography classes, I had an instructor who was completely into “the rule of thirds”. I think he thought every photograph should be composed this way – or perhaps it was his favorite technique. At the end of our class we were to bring three of our best photographs and explain why we took them and what appealed to us most. One older lady, who enjoyed photographing her friends a lot, apparently violated the rule of thirds by not producing one photograph using this technique. The instructor asked why she had not used the rule of thirds in just one photo? The lady put her hands on both hips and looked at him sternly, “Sir, if I thought I could squeeze my friends in one third of the picture I would have. But just look at them! How would you have me put those, uh, robust bodies in just one third of the photograph! They just won’t fit!!”

    Another great tip, Rick… or perhaps a reminder in my case! It’s always good to have a refresher from time to time!

    • Rick
      July 23rd, 2014 at 04:44 | #16

      I’m pleased you had some exposure to the rule of thirds early along Lori. I also wish I’d had the chance to meet that gal you had in your class because I know I’d enjoy her AND her insights about not following someone else’s rules. In my book, the Rule of Thirds is only one of a great many ways to compose photos and definitely not something I would ever suggest that people use all the time. Since so many people use bulls eye composition in all their photos though (because it’s the only thing they have ever used) trying the ‘thirds’ rule from time to time is an excellent way to experiment with a different way of seeing and of photographing. Glad I could offer such a “refreshing” tip :-)

  9. July 24th, 2014 at 02:43 | #17

    Thank you for following my blog and liking one of my photo, it really means a lot for me. Your post is very interesting, fantastic !

    • Rick
      July 24th, 2014 at 05:34 | #18

      It was very enjoyable of rme to view your work DellaAnna and I am happy for your visit to this blog.

  10. July 24th, 2014 at 05:02 | #19

    Great blog – and thank you for following me.


    • Rick
      July 24th, 2014 at 05:28 | #20

      Thanks for stopping by Malin. I enjoy your work and hope you will stop back from time to time.

  11. July 24th, 2014 at 09:58 | #21

    I still instinctively catch myself placing my subject in the center of my viewing field, then take a breath, slow down, and think of the rule of thirds. I am learning, albeit it slowly. ;)

  12. July 31st, 2014 at 11:01 | #22

    a great tip, and so easy to remember! I have never heard of it. :)

    • Rick
      August 1st, 2014 at 06:02 | #23

      Thanks Karen. While many of these tips/techniques are easy to remember, they are sometimes hard to remember for all of us (the pros included) when we get caught up in the excitement of photographing. The more you practice them though, the more its remembered. ~ Rick

  13. Eric
    August 4th, 2014 at 19:21 | #24

    While not a photographer myself, I do appreciate being the ‘receiver’ and observer of good photography. Your tips are enlightening and informative, Rick.

    • Rick
      August 7th, 2014 at 04:50 | #25

      Welcome Eric and thanks for taking time to post this great comment. Most people who read this blog are, I suspect, very much like you in that they are not “full time photographers” but use photography, whether its done with a camera phone, inexpensive point-and-shoot camera or fancy DSLR to capture and share moments of beauty in their life. My hope always is to share tips, techniques and photo examples that can help everyone make better photos and I’m delighted you’re finding them enlightening. I hope you can stop back from time to time. ~ Rick

  14. August 17th, 2014 at 11:14 | #26

    I would add, specifically for the example picture, to let your subject move into the picture instead of out of the picture. It’s another rule that can be broken at times, but that bird would be much better if it was at the left instead of the right, so that it is flying into the picture instead of out.

    • Rick
      August 19th, 2014 at 05:22 | #27

      How great to hear from you Russel. Definitely! There’s a long held graphic design concept that suggests images in which a person or animal within the photo looks best if they are facing toward the inside of the photo look more interesting, welcoming and often they convey a sense of movement. That concept is especially important with books, magazines, newspapers and brochures where we always try to have the subject facing toward the center fold. In fact, this particular photo with the bird facing to the right was cropped from a larger shot and the final image was used on the left hand page of a popular nature magazine. What a great comment Russel. Thanks.

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