Hints on taking better photos #1: Rule of Thirds

Sunrise at Nitmiluk, Northern Territory

Sunrise at Nitmiluk, Northern Territory

One of the things I like most about digital photography is that there's no film: pressing the shutter button costs nothing. This means you're free to experiment with camera settings, composition and lighting and you can see the results immediately. I bought my first digital camera way back in 2002 (it had a whopping 2 megapixels!) but I learnt a lot from books and on-line, and by just taking lots of photos.

This post is the first in a series that summarises some tips and techniques I've pick up over the years, things I wish I'd known when I started playing with digital cameras 9 years ago. The first one is a simple rule that can really help improve the composition of a photo: the Rule of Thirds.

Rule of Thirds

Images generally look better if the main subject is offset from the centre, and in many cases the Rule of Thirds can be used to help decide on the best composition. When looking through the viewfinder, imagine that the frame is divided into a regular 3 by 3 grid, like this:


Try composing the photo so that the main subject is at the intersection of a pair of these lines and/or one of these lines follows the horizon. Here's an example:


Sunrise at Nitmiluk, Northern Territory

Note how the horizon follows the lower one-third line and the brightest part of the sky is lined up to intersect with a vertical one-third line. For a landscape, deciding where to put the horizon depends on what the photo is about. In the case of this photo, it's obviously the dramatic stormy sky at sunrise, and the sun beginning to break through the clouds. In the following example, it's the amazing reflections in the water on a very still morning:

Mt Rugby Reflections, Bathurst Harbour

Mt Rugby Reflections, Bathurst Harbour

The horizon is placed near the upper line, leaving plenty of room for the reflections. And here's an example of a portrait of my son taken using the rule of thirds with his face on a vertical one-third line:


I put his face on the left line so that his shoulders were turned in toward the centre of the frame. It's usually good to have the subject turned toward or moving into the centre of the image. The photo would have looked odd on the right hand line in this case.

In fact many cameras and camera phones give you the option of overlaying a 3 by 3 grid over the live view of the scene. It's worth turning this feature on if you have it so you can line up on the grid.

One last thing: rules were meant to be broken! While the rule of thirds works well in many cases, it may not for every situation. Some very striking images can be made with the subject dead centre.

Here's an example