Rule of thirds – the key to better photography

Get the most out of photography composition with the rule of thirds

Many people simply point their cameras and shoot. And every now and then they capture pretty nice photos. Most times the efforts fail, and the resulting images lack any real focus or impact.

Capturing truly memorable images requires more planning. That means paying attention to lighting and ensuring the camera is adjusted to properly expose the subject.

That’s not where it ends, though. Effective composition is as important to creating images that have impact as exposure. Whereas exposure is manipulating the way light plays on the subject, it’s composition that leads a viewer through the image.

The good news is that it’s not that difficult to properly compose your images, once you understand the rule of thirds. In simple terms, the rule of thirds breaks the viewfinder into three equal vertical and three equal horizontal sections by simply drawing four lines — two horizontal and two vertical.

Photography instruction rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is a photography composition tool to help produce images with more impact.

If you look at the image to the left, you’ll see the how this basic photographic rule works. The two sets of lines create four intersections that mark the natural points of interest for the viewer.

Again, looking at the image to the right (which shows Bassmaster Elite Series pro Terry Scroggins during a fishing trip to Guntersville Lake) you’ll see that the bass — which is really the primary focal point of the image — is positioned right on one of the four points of interest.

While Terry’s face isn’t at a point of interest, it is positioned along one of the horizontal lines. That keeps the composition within the thirds and provides another focal point for the viewer.

Now, let’s crop it a bit differently and see what a difference it makes.

Understanding the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is useful whether the image is horizontal or vertical.

In the photo to the right, I drew two horizontal lines and two vertical lines to separate the photo into equal sections, just as in the first image.

The difference? The bass remains at the lower left focal point, but now Terry’s face is now positioned at the point of interest in the upper right-hand corner of the image.

Which photo is stronger? Well, they both are pretty strong, with clear focal points. The first image offers a wider view of the scene to include the bit of fishing rod and the sweeping line of the boat’s gunnel to add a bit of movement to the image. Not bad at all.

The second one removes all but the most-essential elements. It is clean and provides an airtight composition, with the eye naturally looking at the bass and then Terry’s face. That said, the bass remains the primary focus because it is in sharp focus in the foreground (I like to really have the fish close to the camera lens so it’s in the viewer’s face).

That’s really all there is to it. The rule of thirds can be used to add clarity to an image, communicating to the viewer where you’d like them to look. And it works whether you’re taking a portrait (like the image of Madie LeBlanc at the top of this page), fishing images or landscapes. They key is putting the elements on which you want your viewers to focus in one of the four focal points.

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About Andy Crawford

Andy Crawford has been a photographer and writer for more than 20 years, with thousands of images and articles published in magazines and newspapers around the country. He now focuses on Louisiana photography, landscapes, HDR photography, urban prints and other fine art photography. He also is a portrait photographer.