Digital Focus: Photo Composition Tips

Feature: Thinking in Thirds

Pictures are windows into a virtual world. And windows, when you think about it, are frames with contents that can change depending upon how you look. When you gaze out of out a window, your view of the outdoors is framed by your position in the room. If you don't like what you see, move to a different place in the room--you'll get a different view.

Photography is a lot like that. It is up to us as photographers to decide how to frame our pictures. The only difference is that our decisions are permanent, so it pays to put some thought into composition.

Photography's Most Important Rule

When we take ordinary snapshots, we rarely plan ahead. The snapshot process is fast and casual: See something interesting; put camera to eye; put subject in frame; press shutter release. In fact, that's what often distinguishes a picture as a snapshot: The subject usually ends up smack in the middle of the frame.

If you thumb through magazines and look at professional photos, or even watch the way scenes are framed on TV and in the movies, you'll find that the subject is rarely dead center in the frame. Instead, photographers rely on what is probably the single most important rule in composing pictures: the Rule of Thirds.

The Rule of Thirds divides the frame into a grid that resembles a tic-tac-toe board. The idea is that the four points in the frame where the lines intersect are areas of natural interest. Placing the subject at one of these points usually creates a pleasing image. And sure enough, you'll find that a staggering number of professional photos follow this rule.

Don't feel shackled to the Rule of Thirds, though. It's just a guide to taking more interesting pictures. Rules are meant to be broken--or, at the very least, bent. Certain subjects benefit from a slightly different treatment. For instance, you can align your subject not with one of the four points, but instead lay it along one of the lines. Or your subject might be so large that it takes up a lot of the frame; it doesn't really fit in one of the four spots. When that happens, I pick an interesting element and focus on that. If you're shooting a person or an animal, eyes make a great focal point.

Watch Your Focus

Of course, if you're shooting pictures with the subject off-center, your camera may not be able to focus properly. For example, it might deliver a sharp background, but the subject itself will be out of focus because it wasn't in the middle.

This is an ideal time to use your digital camera's exposure lock. Most cameras have a "two step" shutter release button. Apply slight pressure to the button, and the focus locks on whatever is centered in the frame. Press a little harder, and the camera takes the picture. The trick, then, is to center the subject and lock the exposure. Then recompose the shot with the subject in a "third" position while holding slight pressure on the shutter release. Finally, press down the rest of the way to take the picture.

For more cool things you can do with your camera's exposure lock, read "More Exposure Tricks."

Recompose on the PC

It's worth remembering that the Crop tool in your favorite image editor can help you turn almost any boring snapshot into a more compelling composition. In Jasc's Paint Shop Pro, click the Crop tool (third from the top in the toolbar on the left side of the screen). Then click and drag within the picture to reframe your photo. When you like your crop, double-click inside the crop frame to recompose the shot. Save the picture with a different name so you don't lose the original version.

Dave's Favorites:

Oh, Canada! Think of all the wondrous things that great nation has given the world: Anne Murray, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Bryan Adams, the more interesting half of Niagara Falls, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Well, you can add one more thing to the list of cool stuff that comes from Canada, because this week I'm recommending that you bookmark in your favorite browser.

This Canadian online magazine is a superb resource for information on digital photography equipment. Updated monthly, it includes reviews of cameras, camera accessories, software, and printers. There are features, how-tos, and even some very understandable technical overviews that put digital imaging technology in perspective. There's a glossary of digital photo terms, and news in the form of press releases that keep you up to date on new camera models. I find something interesting in every month, and I am sure you will too.

Q&A: Are Video Cards Important to Digital Photo Editing?

I am getting ready to build a new PC and need to decide what kind of graphics card to get. I have tried to find some information online about what kind of card is best for editing digital pictures, but I can't seem to find anything helpful. Is it more important to have lots of RAM or more memory on the card?

--Thom Doonan, Norfolk, Virginia

You won't find much information online about graphics cards and image editing, Thom, because it doesn't much matter. Any current graphics card will do, since the "muscle" in graphics cards is aimed at the ability to render 3D data. Although there are high-end products aimed specifically at 3D digital modeling and design applications, most powerhouse graphics cards are manufactured with avid gamers in mind.

For PC World's latest picks, see our "Top 5 Graphics Boards" chart.

Unless you're really into the latest and greatest PC games, I suggest you increase your system's memory instead of buying a high-end graphics card. I consider RAM to be the single most important component for image editing, even more so than having a fast processor. My computer has a gigabyte of memory, which keeps it performing well even when I have multiple, large images open simultaneously in Adobe Photoshop or Jasc's Paint Shop Pro.

Even if you're upgrading on a budget, I recommend stocking your computer with at least 512MB--these days, memory is so cheap that it's silly not to indulge. I found that at most online computer stores, for instance, you can upgrade a new PC from 256MB to 512MB for about $100. If you want a full gigabyte of RAM, you'll find that prices are about $150 more than that. Note that although adding system memory is relatively simple, you have to make sure you have the right type--and determine if you have the capacity and expansion sockets to handle it.

For good advice on adding memory to your computer, read "Step-By-Step: Add RAM for a Faster PC."

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "I Love a Parade," by Rob Friedman, Decatur, Georgia

Rob says that he got this uniquely distorted image by shooting a parade scene off of the reflection that he found in a tuba. He shot the picture at Inman Park in Atlanta, using a Canon Digital Rebel.

I want your feedback! Send your comments, questions, and suggestions about Digital Focus to If you have a question that you'd like to see answered in the weekly Q&A, send it to And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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