Photography 101: A Beginner’s Guide – Lesson 5

You now know how to work your camera and take photos. Congratulations! Many people don’t take the time to understand the settings. In this lesson, I will move away from manipulating the settings on the camera and discuss framing using what is know as the rule of thirds (i.e., where to situated people or objects in a photo to produce the most pleasant result). There are several ways to do this and of course, with all rules in art, they can be broken.

The rule of thirds grid is made by splitting the image into 3 parts horizontally and vertically.
The rule of thirds grid is made by splitting the image into 3 parts or 9 rectangles horizontally and vertically.

Interestingly enough, studies have revealed that upon viewing a picture, people will initially pay particular attention to the areas where the lines divide the picture into thirds. More specifically, they will focus on the points where the lines intersect. Thus, it would make sense to put the subject of the shot where those lines intersect. Generally speaking, important subjects in the photo should be in the left and right thirds of the frame and as close to the line as possible.

Why do we look at these areas of the photo? Why not put the notable body smack dab in the middle of the frame? The answer is movement. Humans like to see movement. That’s why dancers and movies are popular. A photo doesn’t move, however, and since we are movement junkies we fill the still void of a photo by moving our eyes around the photo. If the main subject is in the middle, our eyes will lock onto it and stop. This is boring, understimulating. Why? There is no story, nowhere to go from there.

Oddly enough, photographers did not come up with this rule. Renaissance painters did. You can see the rule of thirds used heavily with painting and drawing.

The rocky cliffs of Étretat by Monet
The rocky cliffs of Étretat by Monet

Notice in the above painting by Monet, the monolith poking out of the ocean rests on the edge of the line of the left third region. The edge of the cliffs ride the line of the right third region. The “arm” jetting off the side of the cliff occurs on a main focal point, the point at which the lines intersect. The horizon line is situated in the bottom third of the painting and neither the water or boat enthusiasts cross over into the middle row of boxes. Why is this painting interesting? We can move around it with our eyes by jumping from one area to another. We can notice the pointy monolith, jump to the cliffs, hit the top right focal point, trace the arm down to the water, find the boats, etc.

Just for contrast, I Photo-shopped this painting and focused on the monolith. I removed its adherence to the rule of thirds by placing the rock in the middle.

The boring monolith of Étretat by Levi
The boring monolith of Étretat by Levi

It would still be considered a decent painting, but you probably wouldn’t want to hang it in your living room. Our eyes get to the monolith…and that’s it. There is no story. Just to drive the point home, I’ll show you one more version of this painting that stays true to the painting’s name, but still doesn’t use the rule of thirds.

The rocky cliffs of Étretat by Monet.jpg

This cropped version of the painting looks OK, but if you compare it to the original, you will notice that in the cropped version, there is no real focal point. You still focus on the cliff, but it just doesn’t appear as pleasing as the real version. There is no more to discover.

I could use paintings all day, but I think the best way to talk about the rule of thirds is to display various photo examples.

This photo does not follow the rule of thirds. The goose is in the middle of the frame. It is apparent that it is the subject of the photo but it is kind of boring.
This photo does not follow the rule of thirds. The goose is in the middle of the frame. It is apparent that he is the subject of the photo, but it is kind of boring.
By putting the goose's neck on the third line and having the tree in the right third, it gives our eyes some things to dart around to. Though this photo is no masterpiece you may be able to see why it is better framed than the previous photo.
By putting the goose’s neck on the lower left third line intersection and having the tree in the right third, it allows our eyes to move around the photo.Though this photo is no masterpiece, you may be able to see why it is better framed than the previous photo.
This water fountain is ok being in the center but our eyes may want to drift over to the yellow plant to the right.
This water fountain is OK situated in the center, but our eyes may want to drift over to the yellow plant to the right.
By placing the water fountain on or in the third I was able to catch more of the scene while still keeping the fountain prominent.
By placing the water fountain along a third line, I was able to catch more of the scene while still keeping the fountain prominent.

If you keep important things in your photo in the thirds and not the middle, you will be surprised how interesting things start to look. Of course in art, with every “rule” there is a way to break it effectively.

One might argure that this image follows the rule of thirds because it crosses from the top left to the bottom right where the third lines cross. But even if it didn't this close up has a shallow depth of field giving it depth. The depth or layers in the image make it interesting enough to break the rule of thirds.
One might argue that this image follows the rule of thirds because it crosses from the top left to the bottom right where the third lines cross. But even if it didn’t, this close up has a shallow depth of field. The depth or layers in the image make it interesting enough to break the rule of thirds.
This photo has the subject right in the middle. It is a closeup however, and the face is fairly symmetrical. Humans like things that are symetrical. Butterflies, flowers, faces, architecture and some signs are all examples of things that look very pleasing without the need to place them in the thirds.
This photo has the subject right in the middle. It is a closeup, however, and the face is fairly symmetrical. Humans like things that are symmetrical. Butterflies, flowers, faces, architecture and some signs are all examples of things that look very pleasing without the need to place them in the thirds.

To recap, knowing the rule of thirds and incorporating it into your shots can have a big impact on how your shots appeal to others. Experimenting and knowing when to break that rule can get some striking photos, as well.

Homework

Many digital cameras now-a-days already have a setting that allows you to put the grid overlay on your viewfinder or view screen. Your assignment is to find out, using your camera’s manual, and turn it on. Then go shoot. Shoot things by framing the subject in the thirds and then not in the thirds. Take several shots of the same subject, placing it all over the frame. Once you have taken photos of several things, load them into your computer and decided which shots are the best. Did your favorite ones use the rule of thirds or no?

Next Lesson

In the next lesson, we are going to revisit shutter speed and go into long exposures and night shots to get shots like these.

Long_exposure_of_Virgin_Creek_Falls

long exposures for night shots.

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