Thanks to our partner Rocky Nook for this chapter on composition.
The rule of thirds is easily the most well-known concept pertaining to composition. In fact, even if you’ve never knowingly bumped into it before, chances are it’s long been quietly nudging you toward better photos—from right inside your camera.
It isn’t a random quirk of your camera’s manufacturer; it’s your camera’s way of helping you improve your compositions by dividing the frame into thirds, both vertically and horizontally.
Many cameras overlay this grid onto your viewing window (or LCD screen) by default, while other cameras generally provide the grid as an option you can turn on if you choose (yes, even on your phone).
Rather than placing your subject in the “dead center” of the frame, the rule of thirds suggests that you’ll get more pleasing and interesting results by positioning your subject into one of the four areas where the lines intersect.
This idea can be applied to all genres of photography, no matter your chosen subject. You can use it when capturing portraits, landscapes and still life scenes, in any format or orientation.
It’s also worth pointing out that you can still make use of the rule of thirds even if your subject is only positioned near one of the four intersecting points, or simply along the edge of one of the dividing lines. You don’t have to position your subject with strict precision to benefit from what the grid has to offer. Just use it as a guide. Your own personal taste, as well as your specific subject matter, will ultimately influence your choices.
To better understand the impact that the rule of thirds can have on the appeal of your composition, let’s take a look at a few before-and-after comparisons. To demonstrate how easy it is to practice in the comfort and convenience of your own home, I’ve captured three different Sunday morning scenes around my house. I photographed them as many people do by default—with the subject in the center of the frame—and then I rephotographed them with the rule of thirds applied.
Above, we see our other cat, Emka, lounging on the bed. This composition makes an awkward crop to her body (randomly chopping off the last third of it or so) and unnecessarily includes my husband’s pajama pants in the corner.
In the improved composition above, Emka’s face has been positioned in the bottom right, creating a nice curve from her head to the base of her tail. I chose to place her in the bottom third of the frame because I love the orange wall as a cheery background, and this composition allows me to fill the frame with more of that background. If I had positioned her in the top third, we’d see less of the wall—and more of the (unmade) bed below her.
Our son, Zé, was gracious enough to help with above, pausing mid-meal to acknowledge the camera. Although he himself is adorable (obviously), the centered composition leaves much to be desired.
By moving him to the right third of the frame in the photo above, I was able to include his extended arm, adding balance to what is now a more dynamic composition. With some good timing, I also managed to catch him showing off his newest teeth.
I turned my attention to a simple sprig of eucalyptus that adorns one of our dressers in the photo above. Again, with the default centered composition, we see a random piece of patio door on the left and a scrap of the mirror to the right. It’s all very haphazard, which might be good for picking lottery numbers, but it’s not helpful when it comes to composition.
This one is much improved, as it shows the eucalyptus positioned on the bottom-ish left, getting rid of the distracting patio door and allows more of the mirror to show, which adds balance in the upper right.