Thirds can be a wonderful thing: Going back for thirds of your favorite dessert, the third film in movie franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones*, and being third during a race that goes through a pit of starving lions where it only takes two runners to fill them to their hearts’ content.
Holy Hannah…what’chu talkin’ ‘bout, Teachinfourth?
I’m talking about thirds, specifically the rule of thirds (not the types of thirds in the aforementioned paragraph) and how it applies to the magic of photography.
Now, perhaps you’ve heard the phrase ‘the rule of thirds’ tossed around as you’ve attended varied social situations. Maybe you nodded your head and smiled, pretending to know what the rule of thirds was, but in reality you had only a vague—or no—idea of what it was really all about. Because of this inherent lack of knowledge, you didn’t focus on the rest of the conversation, but instead let your thoughts drift back to your fourth grade classroom where you first learned about fractional amounts of a whole. Well, today is your lucky day, because that math lesson from yesteryear is about to come in handy for the first time in a long time.
Now, do you remember when your teacher talked about thirds and said that you should always divide the whole into equal portions? Well, in the case of photography, we’re going to split the framing of the photo either vertically or horizontally into three equal pieces:
So, if you can remember these two simple, fractional ways to spit a whole, you’re already halfway to finally understanding the rule of thirds! After all, the rule of thirds is simply a way of framing your subject (or place) so that it isn’t directly in the center of the image, but broken up somewhere along the three imaginary lines going vertical and/or horizontal.
Sounds easy enough, doesn’t it?
Now, don’t get me wrong…there are times when your subject in the center of the frame is exactly what you’re looking for artistically; however, many times this is not quite so atheistically pleasing.
I’ll tell you what; I’m going to show you two different images. One of them was taken utilizing the rule of thirds, and the other was not.
So, what did you observe about the two above images? Chances are you noticed several differences between them; probably that one of them appealed just a little bit more to your eyes.
Just to let you know in advance, both of these shots were taken by my dad when he and I took a trip to the San Rafael Swell. We were standing at the overlook of Little Grand Canyon when my dad asked if I wanted him to take a photo of the view with me in it. I checked to see that the settings were correct for the light conditions and then handed over my camera.
My dad began snapping away.
A few moments later I looked through the images he took and realized that he—at that moment—hadn’t previously been schooled on how to properly utilize the rule of thirds. Quickly, I explained what I wanted him to do with framing of both myself and the mountains in the background. Dad took a few more photos with a slight change in the framing and way he held the camera. Immediately he could see the differentiation that that little change had brought about. For him to make it happen it required a conscious turning of his body slightly and zooming in just the tiniest bit; however, what a huge impact those tiny movements made on the final result.
You probably noticed right off, that the second image is much easier to look at. Not that the subject was better looking (though this can drastically help a photo) it was in the way the shot was framed that made it so easy on the eyes.
Let’s take a look at the two images again, but this time we’ll superimpose the fraction grids from earlier. You can see both of the third fractions and how the images are now broken into 9 different fields. For photography purposes, we want to focus on the four crosshairs that are points your eyes are naturally drawn to. By having your subject in one of these areas—and lining up your background with the imaginary lines when using the rule of thirds—it will simply make a better photo.
But what if I can’t line it up perfectly, Teachinfourth? What if all the lines don’t match up? What should I do then?
Well, you simply do your best at filling the thirds if push comes to shove. Try to find that places that naturally set off your subject—you could have their eyes lined up in this area to draw your attention to them OR another interesting aspect they have about them (such as a second head or a giant mole with hair sprouting out of it).
In some cases, finding this proper framing will involve moving your subject over just a bit, zooming in or out, stepping back, or moving over to the side. My point is, by utilizing the imaginary lines of the Rule of Thirds (and the crosshair points) you will nearly always get a far more interesting—as well eye pleasing—image. Also, in a scenic shot, you are still able to see far more of the view than simply in the background broken up in the middle by your subject—looking as if the background is having a battle and the person in front is caught in the middle. By sliding the person off to one side or the other, this allows your eye to travel much more freely from one side of the image to the other in a graceful, flowing motion, like a herd of unicorns galloping through a fairy wonderland with their tales and manes whipping back and forth in the sparkling air.
Don’t let the subject in the middle destroy that image of flowing motion.
Now, let’s take a look at an example or I gleaned from the web to illustrate terrible placement:
Okay, there are so many wrong things in this image that I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s simply concentrate on the fact that the family is in the dead center—stopping our herd of unicorns. Of course, I could also point out that they’re much too far back, are not on a similar level, and the direct sunlight in the face of the guy on the far left is washing him out.
Compare that image with the following:
Now, the rule of thirds doesn’t always need to be followed. After all, when you have a large group, perhaps you can’t find that place that perfectly sets them off, but you can always find a way to arrange and frame them that will look better than had you simply looked through your camera and pushed the shutter button.
The really great thing about the rule of thirds is that it is an easy enough fraction to figure out when you’re lining things up. Many cameras today even include the option of showing the thirds gridlines to make it easier for you to place your subject or line up the landscape; that way your future image has the option of not only being so-so, but simply amazing.
However, remember what I said earlier…sometimes your subject needs to be in the exact center…there’s something about them that seems to scream, “I need to be centered.” With the rule thirds, as with just about anything, there are always exceptions. Play with your framing, take pictures of one item or person with different amounts of zoom, framed more to the left or right, or exactly in the center. My point is, take the shot that looks the best and go with it.
In the words of the theme song from Differen’t Strokes,
“Now the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum,
What might be right for you, may not be right for some…”
Until next time, shoot until you get it.
*Not all thirds in movies are a wonderful thing…case in point: Shrek III, Matrix Revolutions, Pirates of the Caribbean III: At World’s End, Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves, Jurassic Park III, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The Neverending Story III: Escape from Fantasia, Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, Superman III, (ANY of The Land Before Time after the first one, and any of the Star Wars ‘prequel’ Trilogy).
P.S. If any of these tutorials have been helpful to you, would you consider sharing them on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, or your favorite social media? Much gratitude...in advance.
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: About Your Camera
Part 3: Aperture
Part 4: Shutter Speed
Part 5: White Balance
Part 6: ISO
Part 7: The Breath
Part 8: The Rule of Thirds