Strictly speaking, the rule of thirds isn’t limited to photography alone. It is directly connected to the ‘Golden Ratio,’ seen all around us in nature. It is a simple ratio, 1.618 to 1.
There are numerous examples of the golden ratio, also referred to as the ‘Golden Mean’ or the ‘Divine Proportion’ in nature. There are multiple examples of it in our bodies.
For example, the ratio of our forearm to our hand is 1.618, and so is the ratio between our height and the distance from our head to our naval.
There are endless examples of this 1.618 to 1 ratio appearing in nature. The rule of thirds in photography is based on this basic principle.
Why is it called the rule of thirds?
The rule of thirds is mentioned because the lines in a rule of thirds grid (explained shortly) divide the whole frame into equal thirds. So that’s why it is called the rule of thirds – because you divide your composition into three parts vertically and three parts horizontally.
The rule of third defines composition in photography as pleasing when the frame is divided vertically and horizontally into squares, much like a tic tac toe frame. The points of intersection between these frames are where the human brain usually pays attention.
These points of reference or guides are where a photographer should place the main subject of the composition.
You can also use the horizontal lines to determine where you place the horizon or other elements that span the length of the image, such as the mountain peaks below. The peak itself as at an intersecting point, but the top of the entire range is approximately 1/3 of the way down from the top of the frame.
How to use the rule of thirds?
As mentioned above, imagine the composition window in your viewfinder divided into 3×3 squares. Many cameras have this feature that can appear within the viewfinder.
Placing a subject such as a person whose portrait your might be shooting at ONE of the points of intersection of those criss-cross lines usually makes for a good composition.
But there’s more to it than just placing the composition at the points of intersection.
There should be a reason why you place the subject on one of those points.
The rule of ‘space’
Now that we understand what the rule of thirds implies, we can experiment by placing the subject on one of the four intersecting points within the frame. The question is, which one of those four intersecting points should you choose?
First, you need to think of secondary subjects within the composition area, even if they are out of focus but lend some storytelling to the image in its entirety. But more importantly, which direction is your subject looking?
If a model is looking towards her right, I will place her towards the left side of the frame to allow some space (also referred to as Negative Space) for the viewer’s eyes to wander about.
Psychologically speaking, a viewer’s eyes follow the model’s line of sight in a composition. So, if the model is looking towards the right, allow some space in your composition towards her right (left of the frame), maybe with a secondary subject of interest in that area, or even a space that provides for the viewer to follow the line of sight of the model until interest dwindles, and comes back to the model.
Of course if they are looking straight ahead, then you can choose the best side.
So How Exactly Do You Apply the Rule of Thirds?
It’s pretty simple. When you look through your camera’s viewfinder, align the subject off-center, keeping in mind the rule of thirds mentioned above. Doing so will lead to some well-composed images, which become a habit over time.
Remember the golden ratio, and apply it to compositions whenever you take (or make, as Ansel Adams said) a picture.
While using the rule of thirds in your composition, ensure that the primary subject is placed somewhere along with the points of intercutting lines had there been a tic-tac-toe grid in your viewfinder.
Some entry-level cameras allow this grid to appear within the viewfinder, so feel free to use that visual guide.
Look for the Rule of Thirds and Familiarise Yourself With it
Whenever you see a magazine, a newspaper ad, a website image, or anything else visually, be it an art gallery, look for the rule of thirds in the picture.
Yes, it is true that every image ever made does not involve the rule of thirds, but many do. The more you look for the rule of thirds in images, the more will you find it; that’s how it is.
The Conscious vs. The Subconscious
Some folks get composition quickly as an in-born talent. Others have to work to get it. Once you start using the rule of thirds purposefully in all your image, it becomes second nature to you.
After a bit of practice, you wouldn’t need to think about placing the elements in your composition at the cross points of intersection. You wouldn’t even need to turn on the grid on your camera – the placement of subjects will come naturally to you.
Why I Don’t Like The Rule Of Thirds
I don’t think rules and photography really go together and I don’t think the “rule of thirds” is really even a rule to begin with.
It’s more of a visual pattern that you can use when composing your images. There’s nothing wrong with using that pattern, but there are many other visual patterns that you can use in your images that break the “rule” of thirds.
For example, a perfectly symmetrical image with the primary subject in the center of the image is every bit a valid visual pattern as the rule of thirds.
The skill and art of composition comes with knowing which patterns to use and, more importantly, why you are using them.