Take Better Pictures, Part 3: The Rule of Thirds

September 1, 2011

The next time you pick up an outdoor magazine, take a close look at the pictures. You’ll quickly notice that the main subject is almost never placed dead center in the picture. Now find a few shots that feature a horizon line between land and sky. Notice how the horizon line almost always divides the shot between one-third sky and two-thirds land, or vice versa? Guess what. You just discovered the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds is a simple guideline for positioning the different elements in your photograph to create a more compelling image. To help visualize how it works, imagine overlaying a tic-tac-toe grid on top of your photo. The four lines create four points of intersection evenly distributed in the upper and lower right- and left-hand corners. The four lines also neatly divide the image into thirds.

When you’re composing an image, the goal is to place your main subject at or near one of the points of intersection. If you have other elements in the shot (foreground objects, prominent features in the background, etc.), try and place them at or near the other intersections. If you are working with long, linear elements (like a horizon line, trail, or tree trunk), place them close to one of the “tic-tac-toe” lines. You’ll likely notice an immediate improvement in your images.

One of the primary goals of the rule of thirds is to keep the subject and other primary features away from the center of the image. Why? Because our eyes are naturally drawn to the center of a picture. If there’s something prominent there, we tend to focus exclusively on it and ignore all the other potentially great stuff lurking in the periphery. This creates a very one-dimensional image.

On the other hand, when the subject and other elements are placed throughout the photo, our eyes are drawn through the entire image, creating a richer, more three-dimensional visual experience. The rule of thirds provides an easy technique for doing this. To accomplish it, you’ll need to think a bit more about positioning yourself when taking your shot. Move around. Squat down. Look for the right angle that positions your elements appropriately.

Keep in mind that the rule of thirds is only a guideline, and like any guideline, there are exceptions. If you want to have your viewers focus exclusively on the main subject—because it’s so fascinating and compelling in its own right—then by all means place it in the center of the image. Advertisers do it all the time. Flip through your magazine again and you’ll quickly notice that highlighted products are often placed dead center for this very reason.

For more on taking better pictures, check out my recent posts:
Part 1: Understanding White Balance
Part 2: Exposure Compensation

Equipped” is an AMC Outdoors blog, written by Matt Heid.

Images courtesy of http://www.photoinf.com/.

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Matt Heid

Equipped blogger Matt Heid is AMC's gear guru: He loves gear and he loves using it in the field. While researching several guidebooks, including AMC's Best Backpacking in New England, he has hiked thousands of miles across New England, California, and Alaska, among other wilderness destinations. He also cycles, climbs, and surfs.