Monday, March 18, 2013

Photography: The Rule of Thirds

Let's face it.  Go through most people's picture boxes and you will find hundreds of really, really boring pictures. Why?  Is it because all these people we took pictures of are dull.

Sorry.  It's the photographer.  Too often we take pictures as though we were scientist recording photos of experiments. We make sure the faces or the beautiful buildings or landscapes are on film.  What we neglect to capture is the essence of the face or building or landscape that made us want to take a picture.

There are lots of things photographers do to capture more than just an image.  I'm not going into all that.  I have just one secret to share with you.  What I'm going to show you now is the secret to creating good-looking pictures.  It's an old design trick know as the "Rule of Thirds". 

Here's how the rule of thirds works.  Check out this beautiful Glenn Sackett picture - Lake at Sunset:

Let's divide the horizontal aspect of the picture into thirds.

  Notice that the two main interest points of the picture, the sun and the peak are close to the lines that divide this photograph into thirds.  Now let's add lines that divide the picture into vertical thirds.

Notice how the peak is just about at the intesection of the vertical third and the horizontal as is the sunset.  Remember, the rule of thirds is not an iron rule, but rather a guideline.  What you want to avoid is the typical amateur photographers mistake of placing the center of interest in the center of the photograph.  There may be interesting stuff there, but always have something in the picture that draws the eye left or right, up or down from the center. 

Look at this photograph with people in it:

This is a photo my daughter Meghan took of my niece Jenny and me.  The composition is pleasing and interesting because it obeys the rule of thirds.  Let's draw our tic-tac-toe rule-of-thirds guide and see how.

Notice how my big fat head lines up where the top and left guidelines cross.  Jenny's face lines up along the top third guideline.  The results will give you a pleasing composition almost every time you shoot. 

If you imagine a tic-tac-toe diagram across every picture you shoot and line up the interesting bits along the guidelines, you'll produce far more interesting pictures.  The beauty of digital photography is that even if you're shooting quickly and things don't line up like you'd like the to, you can crop the photo to make it more interesting.  Let's start with this poorly composed photo:

 This is my daughter Meg at Disney world with "Chip".  The center of interest is dead center.  There is dead space all around and it makes the picture seem stiff.  Watch how we crop this to move Chip and Meg to line up a third of the way from the right.  This shifts the interest right.  We did it this way because Chip is looking slightly to the right so we want him looking into the pictuer since he has the biggest eyes.  Here we mark the area to be cropped.  Remember you can do this later in Photoshop or whatever photo editing software came with your camera.

 If you draw the two vertical lines separating the space into thirds, the subject of the new photo will be in the right third of the picture.  Chip's big head will be along the imaginary line at the upper third of the photo.  Crop the photo and it looks like this.

The picture simply looks better.  Meg's face is shaded (I shot this years ago with an old Pentax on slide film and without any fill flash to work with).  This is still not a great picture, but it is more interesting when you look at it.

So basically, avoid putting the dominant features of your photograph at the center.  Try to line them up along those imaginary hashmarks that separate the picture into thirds.  Try this with some old pictures that feel wrong, but you don't know why.  Try cropping them to make them more interesting.

Now you know the number one secret of "good photographers.  Try this out and see if you don't earn a "Wow, these are really good!" from the people you take pictures of.


*All pictures are my own except "Lake at Sunset" which is used by permission of Glenn Sackett Photography.  Check him out.  His nature photography is awesome!