John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

The Rule of Thirds

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One of the most basic and effective strategies for composition is the well-known Rule of Thirds. In a tic-tac-toe fashion, you mentally divide the shot into nine rectangular areas by visualizing two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines. The result will give you three horizontal and vertical layers of the same size, with four points where the lines intersect. You then place the elements of the shot according to this grid. There are several possibilities:

1. Place elements, especially important subjects, at one or two of the intersection points, what some call the “power points.”

2. Place elements along the vertical or horizontal lines. For example, put the horizon on the bottom line to emphasize the sky, or on the top line to emphasize the landscape.

3.  Place elements within the horizontal and/or vertical layers.

4.  Combine these strategies in interesting ways.

But how exactly do we “place” elements? It happens in one’s ability to see a scene through the viewfinder according to this grid. That visual skill might come naturally for some people. Others might have to work at it. Bryan Peterson recommends getting a piece of glass or clear plastic with dimensions similar to the camera viewfinder, using a marker to draw the grid onto it, and then looking at the world though it while trying to compose shots.

If you take shots that roughly approximate the Rule of Thirds, you might later fine-tune the proportions by cropping.

Why is the Rule of Thirds so important in visual design? The human mind doesn’t particularly like disorder and chaos. It naturally seeks out patterns and quickly detects their presence, often on an involuntary, subconscious level. The three part geometry of the Rule of Thirds is particularly catchy to the eye. It feels interesting, dynamic. It conveys tension and energy, especially at the power points. As I mentioned in the essay on diagonal lines the number 3 is psychologically compelling, sometimes even mystical. Think of mother/father/child, the love triangle, the Pyramids, the Holy Trinity. Think of the Three Stooges and the Three Little Pigs.

Here’s a more subtle aspect of the Rule of Thirds grid. Hopefully, the dimensions of the nine rectangular areas are aesthetically pleasing, as in the “golden ratio” of 8:5. The frame of the typical camera is very close to this ratio, which results in nine areas that also approach those dimensions. Applying the rule of thirds to images of unusual dimensions may result in divisions with proportions that are not as aesthetically pleasing.

Taking the Rule of Thirds as a rigid “rule” is a mistake. It’s best to consider it a guideline. Strict placement of elements according to the grid may be too predictable or obviously geometric. A more subtle and loose interpretation stimulates that satisfying reaction in which our mind perceives order, but we cannot immediately verbalize why. Place elements near the lines or power points, but not right on them. Organize fields of color and texture close to the horizontal and vertical layers, but not squarely within them. Place a prominent subject at a power point and other elements more loosely around the grid.

In the shot above, these cousins appear to be enmeshed in a rather disorderly intertwining of arms, heads, and hands. And yet, the mind’s eye perceives a subtle underlying organization based on the Rule of Thirds. Near each of the power points is a hand, elbow, or face, and both horizontally and vertically the image roughly divides into three layers: head, arms and hands, and another head.

In an image with a single subject and lots of background or negative space, we might apply the Rule of Thirds by creating twice as much background or negative space as subject. Usually, we would place the subject in the right third. Based on how people read, in many cultures the eye moves more naturally from left to right, so the viewer will feel more secure entering the background or space on the left and moving naturally to the subject on the right. The position of the subject will look more grounded. However, in some shots, we might instead place the subject on the left to create a sense of uneasiness and tension. The eye lands on the subject, trails off into the empty space on the right, and then tries to jump back to the subject, resulting in a “shifting” feeling. The photograph "Suspicion” to the right illustrates this uneasy shiftyness.

We aren’t limited to Rule of Thirds proportions. We might also apply a Rule of Halves where the grid contains only two lines, two vertical and horizontal halves, four rectangles, and only one intersection point at dead center. Usually we try to avoid placing subjects right at the middle of a shot because it looks static and boring. We also usually try to avoid dividing an image in half, which tends to create the appearance of two separate images and no unity. But in some shots a Rule of Halves geometry might be quite interesting.

It’s also possible to design an image based on a Rule of Fourths or a Rule of Fifths in which we divide the image into horizontal and vertical layers of four or five, as long as the viewer’s mind can detect this underlying pattern. If the placement of elements becomes too geometrically complex, the viewer might not sense any order.

Of course, we might completely ignore any guidelines based on geometric patterns. Breaking the rules can lead to very interesting compositions because they defy the traditions.

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche