The Rule of Thirds

“Taking pictures is savoring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.”
― Marc Riboud

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Figure 1. Sea, my friend © Enrique Peláez

The rule of thirds is probably one of the most popular and in my opinion sometimes overused composition techniques in photography.   The rule of thirds is one of those “placing” rules, meaning that it dictates four “points of interest” in which you can place the main subject in order to get a more pleasant composition — these four points are the intersections resulting from dividing up the frame using 2 horizontal lines and 2 vertical lines equally spaced in the frame.

Now, in order to use the rule of thirds in your composition, you don’t necessarily have to put the subject exactly in the intersection, it’s enough — and probably more natural — to place the subject someplace in the vicinity of any of those points. 

Consider for example the image in figure 1, the boat is not exactly in the one of the 4 points of interest however it’s close enough to the upper right one that makes the composition work.

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Figure 2. Decaying Beauty © Enrique Peláez

Another important aspect to consider when using the rule of thirds is the aspect ratio of the image. The most common aspect ratio in digital cameras is 4:3 either horizontal or vertical figure 1 is an example of 4:3 aspect ratio in a vertical format and figure 2 is an example of the same ratio in a horizontal format the where rule of thirds equally works.

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Figure 3. Untitled © Enrique Peláez

Having said that, let’s talk about square format, a 1:1 aspect ratio. In this case you should be careful using the rule of thirds as the primary subject placing rule, in my experience sometimes it works, however most of the times a little off-center composition works better, figure 3 is an example that illustrates this use case.

Finally, I’d recommend not to be obsessive with the rule of thirds, or any other placing rule when you shoot, just be natural, it’s better to capture spontaneous images than ones perfectly aligned to the rule of thirds, cropping is always a possibility that you should consider during post-processing in order to get a more pleasant placing of the subject. Photoshop and also Lightroom have built-in crop guide overlays including a rule of thirds option among other rules that I will explain in other posts, keep in touch.

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