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Do you want to understand your camera and take great photos today?

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You will have heard of the rule of thirds in photography, but do you know what it is and how it can help you?

Taking great images don’t come down to your lenses, and they certainly don’t come from your camera.

Although these necessary items help immensely, they are not working alone. You need a great eye, technical skill and practise behind you.

Composition is one of the most important and basic tools for your photography. It helps to make your images interesting and stand out from the crowd.

Basically, a composition is how you arrange the subject and objects within your frame. You do this from your camera’s perspective.

The compositional tool we are covering today is the rule of thirds.

You will find most modern DSLRs and mirrorless systems have an option to set this on the LCD screen. This will help you photograph with this idea in mind.

A grid showing the rule of thirds for better composition

What Is the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds is one of the basic compositional tools at your disposal, and one of the easiest to master.

Basically, you are breaking your photograph into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. This will leave you with 9 equal rectangles, as you can see below.

You can do this using your mind, or you can change the setting in on your digital camera. The lines will show your scene, but they won’t be part of your image when you photograph a scene.

For more information on the rule of thirds, read our article here.

A grid showing the rule of thirds and intersections for better composition

This grid will provide you with four intersections. These areas are where you should consider putting the points of interest when you take the picture.

Points of Interest

An image with one or a few specific points of interest can really benefit from a rule of thirds composition.

For example, an image such as this photo below shows the subject on the lower-left intersection.

An image of a woman to show the rule of thirds composition

You can see this better with the grid as a reference placed over the image.

An image of a woman and the grid as a reference to show the rule of thirds composition

The same goes for landscapes. This is where we can see the most prominent point-of-interest on the intersection.

An image of a landscape to show the rule of thirds composition

The grid shows this idea better. The boat falls on the lower-left intersection and the mountain on the upper-right.

An image of a landscape and grid as a reference to show the rule of thirds composition

The theory is that points of interest placed in these intersections help your photo become more balanced. It creates more tension, energy and interest than simply centering the subject or object.

Conducted studies show that the viewer’s eyes will naturally fall to these points in an image subconsciously. Your image instantly becomes more dramatic.

Elements

The same idea goes for images where the landscape is the subject, and there isn’t one specific point of reference.

Here you have 4 lines that help you to arrange these elements in your frame, from the scene you are capturing.

For example, take this image of a landscape/road scene.

A road scene that shows the landscape to sky ratio is 1/2, and therefore, not very powerful

This image isn’t very dynamic as you can see the horizon is directly in the middle of the frame. You can see this better by using the rule of thirds grid.

A rule of thirds grid shows how a landscape at 1/2 instead of 1/3 is not as dramatic

For images of landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes, it is better to work from the idea of 1/3 and 2/3. Luckily, this grid gives you that from the horizontal and vertical lines.

This image below is more interesting because the landscape takes up 1/3 of the image, where the sky takes the remaining 2/3.

This idea is a great way to show two elements where one has more importance over the other. This image would not be as dynamic if the sky was only 1/3.

A rule of thirds grid shows how a landscape image can benefit this composition

Breaking the Rule

The rule of thirds is the most basic yet fundamental composition tool to use. Because of this, this is the first compositional tool beginner photographers try to obtain, and it can be overused and abused.

You can read more about these abused rules of compostion here.

Of course, rules can be broken, but it is better to learn the rule first. This way, when you do break it, your choices are more effective and on purpose.

Take this image, for example. It neither follows the points of interest falling on any of the intersections, or the 1/3 and 2/3 breakdown.

This image did win Coco Amerdeil 2nd place in the 2017 Lens Culture portrait Award.

The second place winner of the Lens Culture portrait award 2017 shows no apparent rule of thirds

Coco Amardeil

Here, the composition is overshadowed by the powerfulness of the scene and the concept behind the image and the created series.

The concept of an image and the content will always take precedence over composition. Composition is there to help you boost your images, and make them more interesting if the content is lacking.

Post-Processing

One area that the rule of thirds can help you is during the post-processing stage of your workflow.

By using software such as Lightroom or Photoshop, you may find that you would like to crop your images. This may be due to distracting subjects or backgrounds.

You may even find that a tighter crop places more importance on your photographed scene.

The rule of thirds grid can help you achieve a better crop, and thus, a stronger image.

In Lightroom, pressing the ‘R‘ on your keyboard will toggle the helpful rule of thirds grid on your image. Or, clicking on the crop tool will also activate this overlay.

Using the rule of thirds overlay in Lightroom will help you crop your images better

You can use this to crop your image so that subjects fall on these intersections better.

For Photoshop, there is no simple command, but you can make your own by using guides, found in View>New Guide.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

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Craig Hull

Craig is a photographer originally from the West Midlands (go Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath) currently based in Budapest. There isn't much photography he hasn't tried, but his favourite photographic areas are street and documentary photography. Show him a darkroom and he'll be happy in there for days. As long as there are music and snacks. Find him at craighullphotography.co.uk and Instagram/craighullphoto