The Rule of Thirds

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The ancient Greeks did a lot of thinking. So much thinking, in fact, that much of it still affects nearly every aspect modern life.

The Greeks thought a lot about what was good. They thought about what looked good. Greek mathematicians came up with an idea that they called the Golden Ratio. There’s a lot of fancy maths involved, but we don’t need to be concerned with that.

It boils down to the idea (hugely simplified) that square stuff and round stuff and stuff in the middle of other stuff doesn’t generally look as good as rectangles (especially the Golden Rectangle), odd shapes, and things that are off centre.

The Golden Ratio turns out to be close enough to one-third for our purposes. (Well, actually  about 2/3, but, never mind . . .)

So, how do we put this time-honoured secret of ancient artists of all stripes to work for us in our point-and-shoot camera? As it turns out, it doesn’t make a hill of beans difference what kind of camera you have, because it’s all in your head.

One gets so used to thinking about the Rule of Thirds that it becomes automatic. When I took this photo of a cute little hermit crab this morning, I wasn’t thinking, “Remember the Rule of Thirds.”I just snapped what looked good to me: (Thanks for the identification of the species Coenobita cavipes (juvenile)  from our correspondent ‘Curlz’.)

A little Hermit Crab demonstrating the Rule of ThirdsHowever, as you can see, it does comply:
A little Hermit Crab demonstrating the Rule of Thirds (with lines drawn in) - Jan MessersmithSo, what is  it?

Well, as you can see from the second shot with the lines drawn in (please don’t check the accuracy of my lines, I was guessing), the idea is that the photo will be more interesting if you place an important point of interest (usually the most important) near a point where two lines cross or along one or more of the lines.

Why is  this? Don’t ask me. It just works.

When does it work? Well, almost always:
Some guys demonstrating the Rule of Thirds by pouring cementI could have centred the workmen and the cement truck. It would have been okay.

But, look at how the negative space of the poured cement forces your eyes towards the workmen and the truck. The cement has its own story, but because there’s so much of it there and it’s so uninteresting, it pushes your attention to the real subject of the image.

Here’s another example of when it works nicely:
A young man looking out a window in Florence, Italy demonstrates the Rule of ThirdsThe wall was pretty much the same everywhere. The young man looking out of the window (In Florence, Italy, if you’re wondering) is the focus of our interest. I could have cropped it differently so that the man in the window and the window above were both on intersections. I tried it. I didn’t like it.

In this shot of a blacksmith at a cultural show in Prague, I’m using two of the vertical lines:
A Prague Blacksmith demonstrates the Rule of ThirdsThere are two points of interest here: the blacksmith and the people watching him. To accent the watchers, I blurred everything but the faces that are turned toward the blacksmith. It’s easy to overdo this sort of funny business and I nearly did so here.

Here’s a shot that uses two intersections:

I'm sitting in front of the Elimo Hotel in Eriche, Sicily demonstrating the Rule of Thirds
It was very hot in Sicily that day. I had to have a rest.

Sometimes the Rule of Thirds works even if taken to extremes. The kind of cropping that you see here is extreme:

Friends demonstrating the Rule of Thirds in the Vienna Woods
The shot works. The couple said that it is one of their favourite photos of the two of them together.

I really had no choice. The couple was standing next to some other people. I had to crop very closely on the man to get rid of a beer can in someone else’s hand. It was a misty morning up in the Vienna Woods. I wanted to get the mood of the scene. The couple seemed to be almost intrusive. I took the shot anyway, thinking that I could crop them out later. When I saw it on the screen, I said, “No way.” They look as if they belong there.

It takes a little time to begin to think of composition when taking snapshots, but sometimes it pays.

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11 Responses to “The Rule of Thirds”

  1. Along Came a Spider | Madang - Ples Bilong Mi Says:

    […] Worried The Rule of Thirds […]

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    […] image above makes good use of the Rule of Thirds. As it turns out, it’s my favourite of the […]

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    […] needed just a tiny bit more space between the canoe paddle and the left edge. It’s taking the Rule of Thirds too […]

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    […] first shot really grabs me. I’d call the composition excellent. It makes good use of the Rule of Thirds. The smaller, gnarly tree and its shadow pierce the space and take it over like Atilla the […]

  5. The Panorama Techniques or Bore Me To Tears | Madang - Ples Bilong Mi Says:

    […] this image it is a no-brainer. If we were dealing with other images we might want to think of the Rule of Thirds. Here, however, we just need to grab as much detail as we […]

  6. Steve Goodheart Says:

    This is a great explanation for the Rule of Thirds. The examples really help.

    Like you, I just intuitively (most of the time) tend to follow it, but having it explained helps put it more distinctly in my thought and is a big help to this beginning photographer. Thanks!

  7. MadDog Says:

    Composition gets to be a pretty deep well to fall into if you squeeze the lemon as hard as you can (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?) Here’s a couple of basic composition rules sites: here and here.

  8. Steve Goodheart Says:

    Thanks my man! I’ll check them out.

  9. Miscellanea | Madang - Ples Bilong Mi Says:

    […] when dealing with nature), I ended up with a couple of very important rules being satisfied. One is The Rule of Thirds and the other is Angled Lines. Also, the regularity of the radiating lines in the coral contrasts […]

  10. Felix J.Wang Says:

    I really enjoy the pictures … thanks for sharing.
    I want to give a little correction on the cute tiny land hermit crab Latin name. It should be “Coenobita violascens”. The characteristic of that hermit crab does not match with Coenobita cavipes.

  11. MadDog Says:

    Thanks, Felix. You may well be right. The ID I have came from reader “Curlz”. I wouldn’t know one from another. I did look up both species in Google Images. I don’t even see the difference.