Back to basics: Mastering the Rule of Thirds in photography

Jan 6, 2021

Nicholas Goodden

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Back to basics: Mastering the Rule of Thirds in photography

Jan 6, 2021

Nicholas Goodden

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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The rule of thirds in photography.

I know… I’m going back to basics but since I just published an article on the importance of Leading Lines in Photography, I thought it to be a good idea to go back to the beginning and explain crucial bits of photography which I hadn’t covered until now.

A note on rules: I have always held the belief that rules, however useful at times, are meant to be broken.

Don’t go slap your boss, it wasn’t meant that way.

I’ll put it in bold for you:

LEARN PHOTOGRAPHY RULES, LEARN TO APPLY THEM, LEARN THEIR ADVANTAGES AND LIMITATIONS. FINALLY, LEARN TO BEND THEM, BREAK THEM AND EXPLORE BEYOND THEM.

RULES ARE PRISON CELL WALLS FOR THE CREATIVE MIND SO BEWARE OF THEM, DON’T LET THEM TAKE-OVER YOUR LIFE.

IT’S BETTER TO CONSIDER THEM AS “GUIDELINES” ONLY.

With this out of the way, let us begin.

If you are reading this, it is likely you own a camera. In that case, and even on a camera phone, you will possibly have seen the option / setting to display the rule of thirds grid on your screen or in your viewfinder.

Something along those lines:

This is a useful tool, if only at first, to train your eye to look at a scene in a fragmented way, in a more balanced way perhaps as it shows you where the thirds are within your shot. To be fair it doesn’t really require this tool for anyone to be able to visualise their frame divided in three or nine sections.

The rule of thirds can be applied in many ways.

For example focusing on the horizontal division. When shooting landscape photography you may decide to line-up your clouds with the top horizontal line while the horizon lines-up with the bottom one.

In such way:

And here, I have used the rule of thirds to frame the taxi in the middle of the shot:

Alternatively you may find yourself shooting street photography, let’s say a fairly minimal scene with a single subject in the scene (as is usually my preference).

You could align the person with the vertical line on the right hand-side, such as in the example below.

However, notice how I divided the shot in two horizontally, the bottom of the colourful arty lines is bang-on in the middle of the shot?

In the following night-time photo I have purposely positioned myself so the streetlight pole hits the first vertical line on the left to balance with the person walking in the rain on the right:

In the next black and white shot, I made the decision to have the left wall, the window and the wall on the right each using a third of the frame while the hips of the subject are dead in the centre of the photo:

Whichever way you choose to do it, and there are many, there is a natural tendency for our brain and our eyes to look for balance in a shot. The rule of thirds more often than not provides that balance.

When this is achieved, it helps the viewer have a more pleasurable experience when looking at your work.

Also try another method by positioning your subject at the intersection or crosshair of lines from that imaginary rule of thirds grid.

Such as in these two street photos shot in London:

People often think they do not follow the rule of thirds, when in fact they do… albeit unknowingly.

If you superimposed a grid on top of their shot you’d often find it matching, it’s something which comes naturally to humans and is reflected and amplified in nature.

This leads us to the Golden Spiral or Golden Ratio which are directly related to the rule of thirds. I won’t get into it today but I will be sure to write about it in the future as it has always fascinated me.

I am an avid plant lover / amateur botanist and (as you know) photography lover. When I observe plants, patterns become obvious and one soon realises that our entire world follows the same sort of pattern and as humans we look for them and project them into things we create, photography is an example.

Enjoy falling down that rabbit hole!

I hope this article was useful to some of you wanting to learn more about the rule of thirds in photography.

But remember: What matters most is to have fun, fun is the only way to unlock your true creativity and strengthen your creativity.

So if you find yourself stressing about rules and not enjoying photography because of it, then fudge the rules and just have fun.

Until next time…

Nico

About the Author

Nicholas “Nico” Goodden is a professional London photographer specializing in urban photography, street photography, and attention-grabbing micro video content such as cinemagraphs and timelapse. You can see more of his work on his website and say hi on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. This article was posted here and shared with permission.

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