Photo-J #101: The “Rule of Thirds”

Written by Burl on August 4th, 2009

Landscape in Thirds

Landscape in Thirds

Photographers and artists know this so deeply that it’s unconscious: The world is divided into thirds, creating a field of nine segments. Although the so-called “Rule of Thirds” has been a compositional tool for several hundred years, the popularity of photography has put the ability to make pictures into everyone’s hands — but no one is taught how to compose their images.
George in Thirds

George in Thirds

The trick is pretty simple. Imagine that the picture is divided into a grid dividing the horizontal and vertical elements into three equal segments. Where the lines cross, compositional hot spots are created. Instead of centering the main subject of the picture smack dab in the middle, placing it near one of these four prime locations creates a composition that is harmonious and balanced.
Look at the landscape above, which I took in Foster City earlier this year, unconsciously dividing the primary horizontal planes into equal thirds, and placing the people roughly in the vertical hot spots. I had no idea I was doing this, but it “seemed right” through the lens finder. After a while, the framing comes naturally, but it always helps to deliberately compose the image into a pleasing balance. Next time you see a landscape photograph, note where the sweep of the horizon is — invariably it’s on the line of the upper third or the lower third.


The rule works even better in portraits. The primary area of interest in any portrait is the eyes — if the eyes are in focus, by the way, the image always looks “right” — and most people aim their cameras like sniper rifles, placing the eyes dead center of their pictures. Look at your family snapshots. The familiar image of George above is not only composed by thirds, the overall shape follows the “Golden Ratio” of proportion. George’s eyes are not only right on the line, with one eye at a junction, the entire composition follows the guide — look at the suggested horizontals of the hair and shoulders, even the way Washington fits neatly in the middle third. This is not by accident. There are plenty of examples discussing the “Rule of Thirds” all over the Internet.
Rules are supposedly “made” to be broken, but this particular rule can be helpful. Now, your next assignment is to look at the way people crop their avatar pictures online. Invariably, they place the their eyes right in the middle instead of the line of the upper third, making everyone look like Kilroy.


5 Comments so far ↓

  1. mutt says:

    So why isn’t it called the “Rule of Ninths”?

  2. Burl says:

    Actually, some people do call it that. You can get even more technical and drag in the “Fibonacci Spiral”

  3. gigi-hawaii says:

    So, what do ya think of my avatar? I cropped it myself.

  4. Burl says:

    Very Jackie Kennedy, Gigi.

  5. gigi-hawaii says:

    Nah, my dark glasses aren’t half as big as hers were! But, they are in the upper 3rd of the photo.

Leave a Comment

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.