A Little Background on the Rule of Thirds

There are a lot of things that professional photographers do to make photos look creative, unique, and most of all, appealing. When taking photographs of a subject, the subject is intended to be the focus of the photograph. There are certain occasions where the background is the focus, and the subject is simply a facet of the background, however today we will be speaking about different times when the subject is the main focus. One of the tried and true techniques that professional photographers use is something called “The Rule of Thirds”.

When looking at photo with a subject in them, we want to be drawn to immediately to the subject. Initially the human brain wants to divide the photo up into thirds. We are taught the rule of thirds in an OCD kind of way our entire lives. There is always a “RIGHT”, “LEFT”, and “CENTER” with just about everything in life. We use these thirds for just about everything every single day. For example when you ask someone to grab something from the kitchen, you might say, it’s over on the right. Or perhaps, its on the counter right in the middle. Our brains automatically associate this level of division in photos as well. Applying the rule of thirds to your photos will truly help give them that extra level of “wow” factor that you may have been looking for.  


How the Rule of Thirds Works

Imagine taking a photo, and adding 4 lines to the photo. Add 2 lines horizontally and 2 lines vertically slicing the photo into 9 even squares. Think of it like adding a tic-tac-toe grid right on the photo. Take a look at the photo directly below to get an example of what I am referring to.

Notice that each line is labeled 1 through 4. Each intersection is labeled A thru D. These lines and intersections play an important role in how the rule of thirds is applied to photos. Anytime you are taking a photograph where the subject is going to be the main focus of the photograph you want to make sure that the subject lines up somewhere on one of these lines. If the subject is solo, then you can line the subject up with either line 1 or 2 pretty easily. You want to make sure that the focal point on the subject is as close as you can to a one of the intersections. Take a look at the photo below showing a young boy sitting in the grass.

Looking at the photo of the boy above, notice how his body is positioned to follow the line 2. Then notice how his smile, being the main focal point, is at intersection B. Even his legs are lined up with line 4 across the bottom section. This photo employs the rule of thirds in many different ways. When most humans look at a photo like this, they immediately (within milliseconds) scan each intersection of the photo, followed by each line, then our mind puts the entire photo together for us. So our focal point is at an intersection, the rest of the entire subject should be placed on a line. Because the human mind likes this organizational structure, the photo naturally appears to be more appealing.

One exception to using the lines and intersections is when the subject is placed in the dead center of the photo. In photos where the subject is in the dead center of the photograph, you want to make sure the middle of the head is split in half by line 3. The top half of the subjects head would be above line 3 and the bottom half of the subjects head would be below line 3. This allows the photo to have some spatial emptiness between the subject and the edge of the photograph.

Another example of the rule of thirds can be seen in the photograph below…

The focal point of the photo above is literally the 2 people in the photo itself. The background is nice, but we want to focus on the people. In this example, we couldn’t put the lines directly on the couple themselves. Instead, we put the line as close to the middle between the couple as we could. Notice that we still use the lines even when it isn’t perfect. The intersection or main focal point for this photo is actually the connection between the 2 people. So for this photo, we decided to put intersection A and C and equal distance from the tops of their heads and their feet. So the focus is on the entirety of the 2 people in the photo. 

Photography Tips Summary

Getting this technique down can be tricky at first. So many professional photographers have the motto, get it right in the camera. Then you have less work to do later. A lot people take a photo thinking they are getting it right and then finding out later it wasn’t quite what they wanted. If you’re not a professional photographer, then here is a tip for how to get around that. Shoot wide, then crop later. In other words, take a look through the camera lens at the person you’re wanting to take a photo of. Then right before you push the button to take the photo, don’t touch the zoom at all. Simply take 5 steps backward and then take your photo. This allows you to have more room for error. It also allows you to make further corrections later and achieve the goals you were trying for!

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