Take engaging photos using the rule of thirds

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Photographers often talk about framing a photo when they compose a shot in the viewfinder, and for good reason. You can think of the act of taking a photo like taking an empty photo frame and hanging it in the air to capture a slice of reality. The decisions you make about what to include in the frame add up to the difference between a memorable photo and a throwaway snapshot.

Want to improve your photos? With a little practice, you can easily take advantage of some of the established rules of composition that photographers have relied on for well over a century.

Rule of Thirds

Even if you don’t know it by name, I am willing to bet that you are at least a little familiar with photography’s most basic and well-known rule: The Rule of Thirds. After all, most photos (and paintings) rely on it. Virtually every movie and TV show uses it repeatedly over the course of the story. Expressed in just one sentence, the Rule of Thirds is simply this: Put the subject of your photo pretty much anywhere except dead center in the image.

But here’s a more precise definition: Take any photo and draw four lines through it, each one a third of the way from one of the edges. You’ll end up with something that looks like a photographic tic-tac-toe board.

The rule of thirds is simple to follow if you superimpose a large tic tac toe board over your image and look for the focus of the composition.

Here’s how to apply this diagram in real life: The Rule of Thirds suggests that you’ll get the most interesting photos when you align the subject along one of these lines. If you’re shooting in landscape orientation, for example, try putting the horizon on the bottom third line.

Place the horizon at the bottom third of the image.

If you’re shooting a portrait, arrange the person on one of the vertical third lines, either on the left or right.

In a vertical portrait, arrange the subject on one side or the other of the third line.

There’s more to the Rule of Thirds. Did you notice that the four lines intersect, creating four points in the scene? These are often called “sweet spots” and represent points in the photo so visually compelling that they’re almost magical. In portraits, for example, photographers will often position the subject’s head squarely on the sweet spot intersection of two of the three lines.

The Rule of Thirds can lead you to some interesting compositions. For example, suppose you encounter a line of birds sitting in the water. One way to shoot them is to compose the shot so the birds line up along a third line.

You can also apply the rule to photos in which you’ve zoomed in too far–or the subject is too big–to place it along a sweet spot or a line of thirds. You could choose a single element in the subject–like someone’s eye in a facial close-up, for example–and put that at the sweet spot.

Lining up along the third horizontal line.

Keep things in focus

You might be used to putting the subject in the center of the frame because that’s where your camera focuses. If you’re offsetting your subject, be careful that you keep it in focus. Many cameras are now smart enough to find off-center subjects and focus on them, but if in doubt, you should center the subject, press the shutter release halfway (to activate the auto-focus) and then compose the shot while maintaining a little pressure on the shutter release to lock in the focus.

Break the rules

Of course, you certainly don’t always have to follow the Rule of Thirds to the letter. You might want to mix things up, such as in this photo.

Mix it up a little by placing the subjects both in the center and to the side.

Notice that one of the subjects is dead center in the frame, but the other child, sitting on a line of thirds, shatters the symmetry in an interesting way. Indeed, there might be times when you want to deliberately ignore the rules of composition and try something on your own. Go for it! As they say, you just need to understand the rules before you can break them.

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