Take better photos: Rule of thirds

You've probably heard old photography rule of thumb, but do you understand it? I always thought the "rule of thirds" meant to compose your subject into one of three evenly-split sections, either horizontally or vertically. As I quickly learned in my photojournalism class: I was wrong.

Rule of thirds: A photography/design guideline that composes the most interesting elements of a photograph in visual "hotspots" at intersections of each third (horizontally and vertically).

Too many words? For the visual learners:

Why it works

  • By putting points of interest at hotspots, your photo becomes more balanced
  • Eyetrack studies show that when people look at photos, their eyes go to the hotspots, not to the middle of the photo
  • The composition works with, not against, the natural way we see things

Questions to consider when taking a photo:

  1. Where are the points of interest?
  2. Where am I intentionally composing photo elements?
  3. Will I be editing/cropping this photo later?

Practice makes perfect

The technique sounds easier than it really is. Whether you're a wedding photographer or a photojournalist, elements like good lighting and focus and "the moment" are probably your priorities. Trying to picture a grid is probably the last thing on your mind.

I hate to throw the cliche out there, but practice makes perfect. Walk around downtown and try the technique. Go to a park or a sporting event and try to make it part of your natural routine.

If it's still too much to think about, then you should at least keep the rule in mind when digitally post-processing your photos later.

Example in action

Consider these two photos from Nader's visit to Cal Poly. Which one is more visually engaging?

In this first example, Nader's face is between the main hotspots. Although the mic and his hand hit the spots almost exactly, they're not the most visually engaging aspect of the photo. Because he's a speaker at a podium (which is already boring to being with), his face should be the biggest appeal.

In the second example, his face and his brightest, most visible logo hit two of the uppermost hotspots. It's slightly more visually intriguging that the side, profile shot.  It feels more balanced and natural.

What are "important" visual components?

  • Faces
  • Shapes (especially circles)
  • Bright colors
  • Eyes
  • Anything else that catches your attention

Breaking the rule

That being said, sometimes breaking the rule of thirds and settling with complete symmertry or complete imbalance is ok:



But you know what they say: "You've gotta know the rules before you break them."