Tip of the Day – Rule of Thirds

While we were at Scout Camp a couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me if I plan what is the viewfinder when I take a picture. In other words, do I compose the picture before I press the shutter release. The short answer to that question is: sometimes.

There are occasions when just pointing and shooting is the best way to get the shot. Sometimes the action will slip away or the moment will pass and getting a technically good shot isn’t possible.

This shot, for example, would have gotten away entirely if I’d tried to clean up the background or eliminate the other players in the foreground.

Most of the time, however, a little knowledge, a little planning, and some experience will lead to photographs that are, more often than not, well composed.

Here’s some of the knowledge. First: though we strive for balance in our checking accounts and in our responses to our children’s temper tantrums, balance in photographs is usually pretty boring. Having things a little off center is often more interesting to look at than something placed “plunk” in the middle of the frame. Compare these two images, for example:


In the case of the dragonfly, the composition is pleasing enough but it does nothing to convey any sense of story or movement or space.

In the case of the kids, doesn’t your eye go to Cate first (she’s the little dollie in the front), and then to the boys in the background (Cole and Cam). Because Cate is offset, the viewer can get a sense of space–a sense of depth. 

So, how do you “compose” a photograph while you are looking through the viewfinder (or later, when you are cropping in PhotoShop or Picasa)?

The “rule” operating here is the rule of thirds. Imagine your viewfinder (or your finished print) divided into thirds on both the vertical and horizontal. Like this:

If you place major elements in the frame along one of those lines you create what the Renaissance painters considered to be an image with story. They believed that the eye does not rest in the center of the image, but is more interested in things just off center. In fact, the best placement of the center of interest was where two thirds lines intersected (the green dots). 

Take a look at one more example:

The yellow flower, the interesting seed pod (or whatever it is) and the blue flowers are all located along thirds lines and/or on the intersection of such lines. How does it look to your eye. Where does your eye go from moment to moment in looking at this photograph?

Of course, as with all “rules” the rule of thirds is meant to be broken from time to time. Can you take or find a photograph that breaks this rule but turns out to be visually interesting and to tell a story anyway?

Anyway, the answer to my friend’s question is simply this: I try to compose to tell a story, and to do so often means looking for thirds lines and placing the center of interest in that general area.

Next up, how to use aperture to create story.

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