In my previous articles I’ve discussed several subjects relating to composition, the art of creating a pleasing arrangement of the subjects in a picture. In my workshops I always emphasize the importance of learning to “see” the picture before you even raise the camera to your eye. This art of pre-visualization is the key to making more interesting pictures.
There are no one-size-fits-all rules to great composition. Every subject calls for a creative eye and mastery of the camera’s controls to achieve the desired result. However, one of the most useful tools, when appropriate, is to apply the “rule of thirds” in composing your photos.
Simply put, this rule is based on the fact that when the picture area is divided into nine equal parts and points of interest placed in the eight outer one-third areas or at crossing points, more vibrant and interesting effects can be achieved.
In a most basic application, the rule can be used to determine the placement of the horizon in your composition. It’s natural for the beginner to point the camera straight at a scene, which divides the foreground and sky into equal parts. This generally fails to create interesting images. We should determine which is of most interest, foreground or sky, and use the rule of thirds to emphasize that part of the scene. As an example, if there are dramatic clouds with rays of sun shining through, give the sky the top two-thirds of your composition. If you’re dealing with a plain blue (or white) sky, concentrate on the foreground. (Remember, this is not a hard and fast rule, so it’s also OK to eliminate the sky completely, as we’ll see in one of the examples below.)
In Fig. 1, a photo of Balanced Rock in Arches National Park in late afternoon, the horizon line is placed at the bottom one-third point. (It’s worth noting that the points do not have to be exact; it’s good enough to approximate placement at the one-third lines.) The sky is important here because of the presence of the Moon. The red rocks formations and distant La Sal Mountains are also major features.
In another and more powerful application of the rule, place key parts of your subject at the intersection points of the one-third lines in your picture. Studies have shown that our eyes more naturally are drawn to these points. In the picture above, Balanced Rock and the Moon are located near the lower right and upper left intersection points.
Another example of the rule of thirds is shown in Fig. 2, where the silhouetted Joshua Tree is placed in the left one-third of the picture, allowing the sunset sky to fill the area to the right. In this case the horizon is almost completely eliminated from the composition,
Fig. 3 is a very simple composition that illustrates placement of the main subject in the right hand third of the picture. The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen, Denmark is shown in a high camera angle that eliminates the horizon completely and appropriately surrounds the subject with water.
Fig. 4, a picture of Mount Rainier, is a more complex example of the rule of thirds. The mountain itself dominates the top third of the picture, while a splash of brilliant red from a blooming Indian Paintbrush plant appears in the lower right section.
Not every composition needs to demonstrate the rule of thirds, but by learning to analyze potential compositions with it in mind you can learn to “see” and capture more interesting pictures.
Fig. 1 – This photo of Balanced Rock illustrates the rule of thirds, with the horizon line at the lower one-third position. The Moon appears in the upper left as a balance to the red rock features.
Fig. 2 – In this photo made in Joshua Tree National Monument in California, the rule of thirds is followed by the placement of the subject in the left one-third of the picture.
Fig. 3 – Sometimes it pays to focus your composition on a single subject. In this case the statue of the Little Mermaid is placed in the right-hand third of the picture and the camera pointed down to eliminate the horizon.
Fig. 4 – Mount Rainier is the subject of this photo, placed in the top one-third of the picture area. The foreground leads the eye toward the mountain, with a splash of color in the lower right provided by blooming Indian Paintbrush.