Have you ever seen two photos of the same scene or object and thought one looked a lot better than the other one? Have you ever wondered why? Most of the time it is due to the composition of the photo rather than the subject matter. Once you know how to manipulate your composition, you will be able to consistently turn out superior photos.
Almost every book on photography you’ll ever read includes a blurb describing the infamous “Rule of Thirds.” Basically, the human eye is naturally drawn to a point about two-thirds away from the edge of the photo, either horizontally or diagonally.
Compose your photos so that the main subjects are located around one of the intersection points rather than in the center of the image. But why can’t we use the rule of fourths or fifths or some other number?? Thirds wasn’t just an arbitrary pick. The Greeks studied the most pleasing works of nature and discovered that most of them adhered to a specific proportion that could be described in a specific mathematical formula. (I’ll spare you the details!)
The thing we care about most is – does it make a difference? Well, get out your camera and let’s find out!
My first assignment in the Photography classes I taught always was:
1. Take a photo with the horizon placed in the middle of the frame.
2. Take a photo of the same scene with the horizon on one of the horizontal “thirds” lines (top or bottom) and then again using the other horizontal line.
3. Take a photo of an object (flower, cat, bottle, ball, whatever) in the center of the frame.
4. Take a photo of the same object on the right vertical “thirds” lines and then again on the left one.
Okay, go do it! Seriously!! I did my assignments along with my students. I was shocked at how actually taking the photos “wrong” and then “correctly” on the assignments teaching composition really helped me grasp the concept more than just reading or talking about it. So, for comparison, here are my examples.
Since it can be difficult to compare them with the 3rds grid on them, here they are again.
What do you think? I personally like the horizon on the bottom 3rds line the best. However, sometimes that can depend on if you are trying to include more sky or more foreground. Notice how having the horizon right in the middle has a tendency to make the photo look more like an amateur snapshot that is in millions of family photo albums. That’s definitely not the look I’m going for!
Okay, let’s try the experiment using the vertical 3rds lines.
And without the lines…
See the difference?? Again, the middle placement makes it look more like a amateur snapshot. Shifting the birdhouse to the right or left definitely creates a more ‘artistic’ look. Also notice how which side you use also affects the image. I prefer the “negative space” created on the left side of the photo when placing the birdhouse on the right 3rds line. There may be times when including the branches better suits the overall composition though. Try to get in the habit of trying both sides. Occasionally, I can be surprised with an extra random shot becoming my favorite one of the day!
Are there times when you should break the rules? Of course!! The composition of an image can convey certain characteristics based on the placement of the main subject and the resulting amount of the space around it.
The subject in the very center resulting in an image divided into two equal halves suggests stability and strength, especially when photographing architecture or a taking a portrait.
The main object placed on one of the thirds can suggest dynamic equilibrium, balance or elegance.
The focal point being placed very close to the edge or cut into by the frame may suggest instability, movement, or an imminent sudden change.
Some other things to know: First, not everyone agrees that the 3 sections should be exactly equal. Again, more math. But using the basic 3rds rule is a good place to start. If you want to know more, look up “Golden Ratio.” Second, some cameras have “grids” in the viewfinder. A lot of times they are NOT in the proper place for composition. I recommend doing the above exercise using the grid lines and then ignoring them, or turning them off if possible, and comparing your results.
Coming soon: Including the 5 kinds of lines in your composition to create even more exciting images.