Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The rule of thirds

In a previous post, I mentioned cropping a surfing picture of my son’s friend, Mike, so that it conformed to the ‘rule of thirds’.  So what’s that all about?

sm DSC_1755_thirds
In simplest terms, if you imagine a noughts and crosses grid over your picture (or tic-tac-toe, depending where in the world you grew up), then this divides the picture into 9 blocks – you’ve split it into the ‘thirds’ that the rule refers to, both vertically and horizontally. 

The idea behind the rule is that by placing elements of the picture on the lines that mark the thirds, or on the points where lines cross, the resulting image is more aesthetically pleasing.

Below, I’ve got 3 versions of the same picture (I’ve tried to keep them all with the same 6x4 aspect, and the same level of zoom, to make comparison easier).

The first two versions centre Mike in the picture, which often seems the correct thing to do when taking the picture.  One is centred on his body and doesn’t look too bad – but it’s a typical holiday snapshot, the image lacks space and movement.  The second version centres on Mike’s head, and is just plain wrong on many levels… there is too much wasted space above him (so much so, that to get the same level of zoom, it actually went beyond the bounds of my original photo), and it almost looks as if he is running out of water and grinding his board into the bottom of the photo. 

DSC_1755 body

Centred on body
DSC_1755 face

Centred on head

(If you are wondering about the skewed top edge in the second shot, it’s because my horizon wasn’t quite straight originally, and so I had to apply some rotation to the whole picture to straighten it out…)

DSC_1755_crFinally, here again is the one I originally posted, that uses the rule of thirds as shown above, to place Mike on the left line (well almost – I didn’t actually have the grid when I did the crop, so it was all judged by eye), and the line of the wave along the bottom line.  As you can see in the ‘gridded’ version above, by happy accident, the following wave is just starting to break and lines up nicely with the top line on the right. 

Compare this version of the picture with either of the two versions above, and you’ll (hopefully) start to see this one has a certain “je ne sais quoi…” (something or other) about it, that transforms it from a ‘snapshot’ to an ‘image’.

If you want to learn more about the rule of thirds, and other compositional concepts such as ‘Lead Room’ (that’s the space ‘in front’ of the subject that the subject is moving into or looking towards…), ‘Head Room’ (that’s the space around someone’s head in a portrait type shot), or the ‘Golden Ratio’ (not sure I get this one, but unless you are handy with a slide rule and have a degree in geometry, it’s more likely to just ‘look right’ as opposed to understanding the maths behind it), then have a look around the net.  Wikipedia is always a good starting point.

Until next time,
Snappy Happin’


  1. Hi Grum,
    Great post here. I often ignore the rule of thirds though..... :-( I always thing to myself "You're not doing it right!" but continue.... bad me.

    Thanks for all your comments! I keep meaning to reply to your message soon, but tomorrow I'm really busy, and then we're going out of town for a little while so I'm not sure when I'll get the chance. As for your comment, that was shorter so I can reply that now. :-D

    I'm not really interested in trying GIMP, no matter how handy it might be, because I once had it and I got soooo confused.... Are you talking about Adobe Photoshop Elements? I have 2.0, (I know, it's shockingly old...) but I might be getting 8 next week. I know you can do layers on it, but I had never tried it out. Maybe I'll do that next time! Also, thanks for the suggestion of flipping the mirrored image around. Never even thought of it!!!

    Well, g2g. Thanks for all your help! Do you mind if I post some of your DOF info on my blog?

  2. I've never used Elements, though since it is a simplified version of Photoshop, I suspect that the layers will work in roughly the same way. Certainly worth having a play...

    You want to blog my blog? I'm flattered - go for it!