An Introduction to The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is a fundamental concept of photography that deals with the composition of your image based upon an imaginary or superimposed grid. We talk about it often here on the site, but you may not even know what it really is or how to use it. Here’s your field guide.

What Exactly Is The Rule of Thirds?

As stated earlier, the Rule of Thirds is a grid that helps users to compose their images. What you may not know is that this rule was partially created because of how the human eye works when it looks at an image. In general, the human eye moves from left to right across an image. Oftentimes, if you place your subject in the middle, the eye may just stop right there and not look at the rest of the scenery.

The idea behind it all is to place your subjects on the lines and intersections.

You don’t want this, trust me. I hate it when people scroll through images quickly because they don’t pay attention to all the work I’ve put into creating it—but part of that is my fault. Maybe I could have created it in a more compelling way by using the Rule of Thirds and understanding the way the human eye works.

What I do like is when people sit there and stare at my images for long periods of time and internalize all that’s going on. A way to cheat the system is to add text to your images because humans are naturally curious and want to read what’s there. However, this becomes tacky after a while and many people in fact hate reading. Your composition, lighting, and subject matter should really make the photo the best it can be.

Due to the rise of YouTube, Facebook and other sites people have become more and more visual and demand their content to be more compelling than before. To keep up with this demand, you need to be a better artist and photographer. You need a vision because the technology isn’t going to help you create better photos. It’s just a tool. The photo will still ultimately come from you.

More on how the web and the rule of thirds work later on.

In Practice

Here’s what the rule of thirds looks like in practice.

Take a look at the above photo I shot a little while back. I opened it up in Lightroom 3 and used the crop overlay function: which immediately applies the rule of thirds to a photo. Notice how the girl on the right is framed along the right vertical line and different sections of her are in between the two horizontal lines.

Here’s what another image looks like after a crop that I wanted to do. Notice how Dan’s eye is on the top right intersection and the rest of his body goes perfectly in line with the right vertical line. Similarly, the part of Kim’s hair on the left is met at the left top intersection and the rest of her (and her body language) falls along the left vertical line.

Now, here is what the photo looked like before any cropping took place. This is a bit less intimate but still not a bad photo consider that it’s such a wonderfully human moment: I mean who doesn’t like ice cream?

Just for comparison’s sake, here’s one of the final renderings I gave the happy couple in black and white:

How To Apply This To Shooting

Here’s a big tip: stop using the middle focusing point all the time because it will make you lazy. I’ve seen people shoot photos using the middle focus point and then become too lazy to edit their images to make them better. What I’ve seen other photographers do is use the middle focusing point and then recompose their image. The reason why they’ll do this is because camera companies often make the middle focusing point their strongest and smartest one—so it is often always the most reliable. I discovered this first hand with the Canon 5D Mk II during a Mermaid Parade.

In contrast, the Canon 7D and Nikon D300s have a much more advanced autofocus system. Because their autofocus points are all over the viewfinder/sensor area, the photographer has more versatility as a result of having more focusing points to select from. Indeed, if I don’t want to use the focusing point in the top right of the screen, I can use the one directly right next to it.

What I do often is start a gig with a focusing point that I specifically want to work with. I’ll use this focusing point for a little while and compose all of my images around using this one point. Then I’ll switch it up to another point on the other side of the frame so that all of my images don’t look the same in terms of composition. After this, I’ll switch to yet another point (sometimes the middle.) When I switch to the middle point though, I know that I’ll be doing some heavy cropping in Lightroom 3. Indeed, I can afford to crop heavily because I use a Canon 5D Mk II and a 7D with 21 and 18MP respectively.

How Do I Use This Concept?

One way to use it is to keep it in mind in post-production. Though many photographers will sit there and say that they want to spend more time behind the camera and less time in front of the computer, I think about it a different way. The image I shoot isn’t the final image yet until I manipulate it. I want to go in there and get my hands dirty (or my RAM in this case) and mess with the Red, Blues, Greens, composition, contrast, exposure, shadow levels, etc. Just because I’m finished shooting the image, doesn’t mean that I should stop loving it: I’m going to put as much work as I can into it to make it the best that I can. With enough work, even an image that was shot half-assed can be saved.

Yes, I said half-assed because there are many people out there that will do that and then ship you the photos hoping that you’ll be able to turn them into something magical and mystical. That can be rough sometimes.

Rule of Thirds and the Web

Remember how up above I talked about the human eye moving from left to right to internalize an image? While this is the traditional and accepted theory behind it, I dare to be a little bit different when it comes to the web.

Here’s what I mean: back in the days when we were primarily glued to books, the human eye moved from left to right (though I do understand that other cultures read in other ways.) Now, humans still do this. However, we’re not turning pages from left to right as often anymore. On the web, we’re scrolling from the top to the bottom. When you come to The Phoblographer, you’re scrolling down to see the images. So the first part of the image that you see is the top and the last part is the bottom. Hence, you can reasonably hypothesize that we are internalizing images not from left to right (though this may still hold some truth) but we are instead internalizing them from top to bottom. Nonetheless, the rules of composition still apply, but it should be noted that the human eye is working a bit differently.

Still images aren’t like video: with a video, you just sit there and watch it and in most cases make it full screen to block out anything else. With a still image, you’re probably having it go in and out of the viewing area of your monitor. If you really want to get technical you can say that your eyes are going from:

Top left -> Top right

Mid left -> Mid right

Bottom left -> Bottom right

Though this is still my own personal theory, keep it mind when you’re browsing the site or the web for that matter. Of course, this is only in certain cases when reading articles like the ones on this site for example where you have to scroll up and down to view the images. In Lightbox slideshows, it’s a different story.

Questions? Comments? Do you think we’re crazy? Let us know in the comments below if any of this was helpful.

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.