When you look through your camera’s viewfinder, you’ll likely see a faint outline to indicate the center of the frame. This is typically how people learn to create photography compositions. They aim, center their subject, and capture an image they hope will succeed. Truth be told, there are many centered compositions that work. However, by working with the rule of thirds as well, you are expanding the potential for truly artistic results.
Here are several examples of how the rule of thirds can be used to strengthen your compositions.
Upper Left and Right Third
Placing your subject’s head in the upper left third opens two-thirds of the picture area. This space can be used to complement the overall theme of the photo. For example, the chipmunk in the upper left third arrived at this location by scurrying across the branch that leads from the bottom right corner. To make sure the viewer understands what is most important in the frame, the focus point was placed on the animal. Meanwhile, a shallow depth of field of f2.8 renders the rest of the picture as soft and out of focus.
The same concept applies to the upper right third. Here, the Puffin only occupies a small part of the frame. The balance is off, but it’s still an effective image. The key to making this work is the direction in which the bird is looking. By having its head facing the open space, we see it exploring its own environment. The surroundings which fall outside of the frame are a mystery. This leaves us to wonder what this creature has to do in order to survive in the wild. Had the bird been centered, none of this drama would exist as the image would be much more static.
Lower Left Third
A similar effect is created by placing your subject in the lower left third. Here, the repetition of the cement columns is also used as a compositional element. Notice the tight framing which eliminates any distractions. The eye goes directly to the chipmunk, which is the sharpest part of the photo. Had the subject been placed in the upper third, the photo would be quite different with the columns not playing a role in the composition. To prevent background distractions from overpowering the subject, they are thrown out of focus with the wide aperture of f2.8. Not only does this create a desirable shallow depth of field but it lets more light into the camera, allowing a faster shutter speed to be used.
Our same chipmunk in the upper rule of thirds makes effective use of selective focus. From the low vantage point, we are invited into its world rather than looking down on it. With the lens very close to the roots, we can only barely see any detail in the bark. With sharp focus on the chipmunk’s eye, there is no mistaking what the main subject is. As a bonus, perspective from the ground helps to create a clean background with a soft wash of green in the distance. This stylized look is emphasized by the flattening ability of a longer telephoto lens, and the wide aperture.
Landscapes with dramatic skies are the ideal time to use the lower rule of thirds. This effective technique only involves a slight shift in the angle of your camera. As you point it on an upward angle, the horizon line is lowered. This works wonders when you’re trying to show just how expansive the sky is. Scenes that include interesting clouds or the vibrant colors of sunset are just a few of the great ways you can use this.
As you look to introduce the rule of thirds into your own photography, do so with careful intent. There may be some instance where a centered subject is actually a stronger photo. All rules of composition are merely suggestions, not actual rules. The creative photography will break patterns and experiment with new things in order to grow as an artist.