I pretty much try to abide by the rule of thirds when I take pictures. I think it creates more aesthetically pleasing photographs.
The rule of thirds might be the most well-known rule of photographic composition since it is one of the first things one learns in photography class.
Of course, rules are meant to be broken, but if you’re going to break a rule, make sure you know it very well so that breaking it is even more effective.
The basic principle behind the rule of thirds is to imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 parts:
The exact center rarely is a good place to put your focal point unless your intent is to show symmetry. Too high, too low, too far left, or too far right is kind of like dissonance in music; it just doesn’t feel right/sound right/look right. The grid, then, identifies four areas of the image—where the lines intersect—where you should consider placing points of interest in your picture.
Along with the four intersections, the rule of thirds also gives you four lines along which to place elements in your picture.
The theory behind the rule of thirds is that placing points of interest at the intersections or along the lines provides a more balanced picture with which the viewer can interact more naturally. Apparently, research shows that when looking at a picture, your eyes go naturally to one of the intersections much more naturally than to the center of the image.
I don’t know if the rule of thirds comes naturally to me or whether fifty years of photography has simply made it a habit. Maybe I’ll intentionally break the rule to see what happens.
If your picture looks or feels awkward, don’t hesitate to take it into a digital photo editing program like Photoshop and crop it to give it a better feel or look.
Following is a panorama of the Music Building at San Diego State University that illustrates the rule of thirds. This panorama was created by taking 8 separate pictures into Photoshop and then using the Photomerge function to stitch them together. Afterwards I cropped the panorama to get this:
My landscape-oriented pictures often use the top, middle, and bottom thirds, as I have done that picture. I really like this picture, first and foremost because it’s the Music Building and connects with my 60 years of music (violin, piano, and voice). Additionally, though, I really like the dominant but different colors in the thirds—blue in the upper third, white in the middle, and green in the lower. Notice, however, that the transitions are not too sharp or abrupt. The white clouds in the blue sky lead one’s eyes to the white building. The green trees against the white building then lead one’s eyes to the green grass in the lower third. In every sense, this picture works for me.
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