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  1. #1
    Senior Member
    Horoscope Fish's Avatar

    Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds

    For the second installment here I figured I'd cover what is probably the most talked about and single most suggested compositional guideline (rule) I know of: The Rule of Thirds. This compositional guideline is much more flexible and is applicable in many more ways than I often see covered in one place however, so I am going to attempt to cover all the most common applications for this particular guideline. If I leave something out please feel free to blast me for it. Bear in mind these tutorials are meant to be conversation starters, not textbooks. Now before I go into detail about applying the Rule of Thirds, I think a good question to ask is why does composition matter, how does it help create a more visually appealing photo and what is it about this particular guideline that will elevate my photo from boring snapshot, to the marvel of compositional perfection that I so deeply crave to achieve and subsequently charge for? Damned if I know.

    Okay, that was a joke.

    Sort of...

    *cough*

    Like all things aesthetic, all things visually appealing, composition matters to our mind and our hard-wired human psychology. Our brains are excellent at finding patterns and creating order out of chaos and our brains do this for us this intuitively. If our brain is focused on a photo and it finds sensible order that sensible order minimizes fatigue and stress and we will intuitively feel more drawn to the image; our brains will be pleased and relaxed. I don't want to get too bogged down in the psychology of composition, though, so I'm going to move on to the actual application of The Rule of Thirds.

    The Rule of Thirds refers to the idea of dividing your frame into... You guessed it, thirds. We do this by superimposing a sort of imaginary Tic-Tac-Toe board across the frame which creates nine separate areas like you see here:

    Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds-rots-plain-grid.jpg
    The "Tic Tac Toe" board of composition.

    This grid gives us eight distinct points of reference: two horizontal lines, two vertical lines and four points of intersection which I call, "bulls eyes" personally. Other people have other less creative names for them so feel free to make up your own. The most basic concept behind this grid is superimposing one of these "bulls eyes" on your subject, just like you'd put the cross hairs of a rifle scope on your target (which is why I call them "bulls eyes"). Here's a illustrative illustration to illustrate my point:

    Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds-rots-grid-circles.jpg
    Compositional targeting-reticles.

    This "targeting approach" is, I think it safe to say, the most common and most conventional use of this particular compositional tool. This thirds concept is ubiquitous, being used not only in photography but also in painting, drawing, architecture and graphic design as well. So much so that many cameras and digital image software applications can overlay such a grid on images for you as an aid in composition either before (e.g. framing the shot) or after (e.g. cropping in 'post). Numerous cameras come with the option to superimpose the Two Thirds grid on the viewfinder as well. In fact, one of my old Canon P&S cameras would do that and it's a feature I miss on my current DSLR.


    • Why... Why... Why?

    I've heard the question asked many times why this guideline works. Why is it sooooo used? Why two-thirds? Well, to my limited understanding it seems to me this tool works due to the simple and well known mathematical relationship it's based on. If we take a rectangular image, slice it into thirds and then combine two of those thirds into a single unit so that we have *two* units instead of three, the ratio of the smaller piece of the frame is one-half the size of the larger piece. Or, conversely, we could say the larger slice of the frame is twice the size of the smaller slice. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy, right? We've just combined two equal pieces of a rectangle so that single piece is now twice as large as the remaining piece. Funny thing, though, about this 1:2 ratio (one third to two-thirds); it very closely approximates another specific ratio, which measures 1:1.618.

    Known as "Phi" in mathematics it is related to what is known as the Fibonacci Sequence and should not be confused with "Pi" which is totally different and not related to what we're discussing here. The funny thing about all of *this*, meaning Phi and so forth, is how these numbers and the proportions (one could say "compositions") that follow from them, pop up all over the place. And by "all over the place" I really do mean ALL OVER. As in, it's like some kind of weird, Universal Constant sort of thing. The reason why it so ubiquitous is also mathematically explainable but what concerns us as photographers is how this ratio shows itself. Most famously I think it safe to say, in the formation of the nautilus shell but it also manifests itself in botany, the human body and the bodies of all other animals and even in the freaking formation of galaxies in outer space. That's pretty damn big if you ask me! It all starts to get pretty heavy when you really start looking into it and for the really curious here's a short YouTube video that scratches the surface of the Fibonacci sequence. While it is a little silly, it was one of the few videos I could find that seemed both entertaining and didn't go off the deep end with the mystical magical type stuff.

    Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds-fib-vs-thirds.jpg
    Rule of Thirds grid (pink) superimposed on a Fibonacci spiral (black).
    Yes, that popping sound you just heard *was* your mind being blown...


    So, to my way of thinking by using the Rule of Thirds we touch on something far deeper, and this extraordinary connection can add power to our photography which is why I think all this stuff is important. This tool, or guideline, allows us to bring a sense of order out of chaos; it creates a harmony and an inherent balance which is both calming and pleasing to look at.


    • How Can I Make This Knowledge Work For Me?

    The easiest approach in using the Rule of Thirds is to place your subject (your photo DOES have a subject, right?) on one of the four bulls eye's. When you place a key element on one of these intersections it serves to bring it to the attention of the person looking at it because our brains are conditioned to look to these quadrants for visual reference. They just are. Furthermore there exists a kind of pecking order to these different points. Why? Most people believe it's because we are taught to read from top to bottom and from right to left (at least in English speaking countries). I don't know if that's the reason but that's the current speculation and repeating it will make it look like you know something so I suggest parroting it as often as you can if for no other reason.

    So, for whatever reason that's how it is... Our brains look to those points for visual reference and knowing we have a natural tendency to do that, we can exploit it for our own compositional ends by placing key elements in our frame so they fall on, or close to, an intersecting point (bulls eye). This one concept will elevate the compositional power of your shot drastically. While beginning photographers tend to want to center the subject in the frame, the resultant perfect symmetry is also static and boring. Symmetry is a tool that can be used, but it must be first understood in order to be applied with dramatic effect. Asymmetric subjects, typically, do not lend themselves well to symmetrical framing. Yes, there ARE exceptions, I'm aware of this; there are always going to be those annoying exceptions. However, when in doubt, putting your subject ON TARGET, as I like to say, meaning on a bulls eye, will almost never be a bad idea. While there might be better ideas, using the Rule of Thirds is almost universally Never a Bad Idea.


    • ZOMG! What Else Can I Do With This Awesome Tool?!

    This nifty guideline can also be used to separate an image vertically, horizontally or both. Talk about value! Say for instance putting your subject on a bulls eye just isn't feasible? Well, you can place your subject, or other key elements, along the lines themselves, either vertically or horizontally. In landscape photography the general guideline is to have one third sky, two thirds ground or the reverse: two thirds sky and one third ground. Pick one, pick the other and see which looks best. Where is your subject? Can you place your subject on a bulls eye AND have your horizon line on a horizontal one-third line? BOO-YEAH!! Now *that's* composition, baby!

    Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds-rot-10.jpg
    Cropping for 1/3 sky, 2/3 foreground; subject on a vertical; a classic two-fer.

    When it comes to portraits (which I typically hate doing) try keeping your subject's eye's on, or near a "line", or "target" their face by putting a bulls eye on one of their eyes. Again, not always possible, not always the best answer but that's why these are guidelines and again, you don't need to take a micrometer to this; the bulls eye does not need to perfectly intersect the center of the pupil to the n'th degree to be effective. Nor do key elements need to be perfectly aligned on a vertical or horizontal line; work within a guideline but don't be enslaved by it. We could go into other, more arcane, uses of this grid for things like "S" curves, (Power) Diagonals and Negative Space, but those are for other tutorials. I'm all out of words on this subject, at least for now.

    Here's hoping you found something useful in the above tutorial.


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    › See More: Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds
    Last edited by Horoscope Fish; 10-28-2013 at 02:06 PM.
     
    ~ Paul
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  2. #2
    Senior Member
    r0adki1l's Avatar

    Re: Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds

    I loved the light way you brought the information across. Very easy reading. Great tutorial. Now I have to learn more about this Fibonacci sequence some more.

  3. #3
    Senior Member
    Lawrence's Avatar

    Re: Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds

    Fish as newbie I would just like to say "THANK YOU" - I have read both tutorials and can't wait for the rest. Bring it on.

  4. #4
    Senior Member
    RON's Avatar

    Re: Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds

    I am duly impressed. Do you see any relationship in this to the classical golden rule as it applies to rectangles, which is the shape of most photographs?

  5. #5
    Senior Member
    Horoscope Fish's Avatar

    Re: Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds

    Quote Originally Posted by RON View Post
    ... Do you see any relationship in this to the classical golden rule as it applies to rectangles, which is the shape of most photographs?
    Sorry for the delay in responding... "Life Stuff" has been cutting into my photography time of late.

    Anyway, I must not be understanding your question correctly. While not stated in just so many words, everything discussed in the tutorial relates to rectangles because our viewfinders and photographs are, typically, rectangular in shape. So again, my apologies but, clearly I'm not understanding what it is you're asking. Could you clarify?

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    ~ Paul
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    Primary Kit :: D850, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 G2, Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8, Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art,
    Godox Flashes & Triggers, Manfrotto X055PROB, 3-Legged Thing Airhed II... All Stuffed into a Manfrotto Pro Backpack 50
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  6. #6
    Senior Member
    RON's Avatar

    Re: Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds

    I quess what i'm asking is does the the photographic rectangle seem to fallow the Golden Ratio which is approx. 1 to 1.6 ? If so, I think it remarkable that a rule used by the ancient Greeks would show up in modern Photography. Each of the 9 segments would then follow the same ratio and it just seems logical that there intersecting points would be so compelling.

  7. #7
    Senior Member
    Horoscope Fish's Avatar

    Re: Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds

    Quote Originally Posted by RON View Post
    I quess what i'm asking is does the the photographic rectangle seem to fallow the Golden Ratio which is approx. 1 to 1.6 ? If so, I think it remarkable that a rule used by the ancient Greeks would show up in modern Photography. Each of the 9 segments would then follow the same ratio and it just seems logical that there intersecting points would be so compelling.
    The ratios are *very* close. This Wikipedia article explains the math far better than I can.

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    ~ Paul
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    Primary Kit :: D850, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 G2, Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8, Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art,
    Godox Flashes & Triggers, Manfrotto X055PROB, 3-Legged Thing Airhed II... All Stuffed into a Manfrotto Pro Backpack 50
    ....
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  8. #8
    Senior Member
    Nathan Lanni's Avatar

    Re: Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds

    Nice post - well written and prepared - much appreciated!

    Thanks

  9. #9
    Senior Member
    RON's Avatar

    Re: Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds

    Yes, I think tutorials like this force us to reevaluate how we compose in the viewfinder and can only lead to better photographs, so keep them coming. i for one, greatly appreciate them.
    Thanks/Like The Photowokkie Thanks/liked this post
     

  10. #10
    Senior Member
    Horoscope Fish's Avatar

    Re: Composition #2: The Rule of Thirds

    I want to thank everyone for the kind words. The tutorials are a fair amount of work but I enjoy doing them.

    As a preview (and subject to change) stay tuned for...

    • Composition #3: Leading Lines

    • Composition #4: C-Curves and S-Curves


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    ~ Paul
    ....
    ....
    Primary Kit :: D850, Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 G2, Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8, Sigma 135mm f/1.8 Art, Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art,
    Godox Flashes & Triggers, Manfrotto X055PROB, 3-Legged Thing Airhed II... All Stuffed into a Manfrotto Pro Backpack 50
    ....
    ....
    ● ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬ ๑۩۩๑ ▬▬▬▬▬▬▬ ●





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