When you compose an image using the Rule of Thirds, vertical elements in the viewfinder are placed one-third from the left or right edge of the frame, horizontal lines are placed one-third from the top or bottom, and sometimes both.
If you do NOT have strong vertical or horizontal objects in the scene in front of the camera, you can still use the Rule of Thirds by placing significant items one-third from the left or right, one-third from the top or bottom, or both.
For example, in the sunset photo above, the horizon line forms a line one-third from the bottom edge. Also, the brightest part of the sky, although not a vertical object, is placed one-third from the right edge of the frame.
In the most general terms, the Rule of Thirds says to compose your image so that items are not dead center. Don’t use the camera like a pistol! You are not shooting a bullseye; you are placing an image within a frame. You are composing an image.
In general, composing an image makes it more appealing, more interesting, more eye-catching. It can be the difference between art and a random snapshot. Using the Rule of Thirds and other compositional rules will give your photography a time-tested classic look. But maybe you do not want that look! In that case, create your own rules!
Rules of composition are never mandatory. The Rule of Thirds can be helpful when strong vertical or horizontal elements are in the scene being photographed, or when you are wondering where to place an object in the viewfinder. There are many other rules of composition. The Rule of Thirds is one of the easiest to use.
Some people struggle with the idea of placing objects in the viewfinder. The idea here is turn the camera to the left or right, to point it a bit upwards or downwards, so that objects move in the frame to the position you want them. Most people know how to get objects in the center of the photo. This is the next step, moving the camera so that objects in the viewfinder move around in the frame. This is composing the image within the camera frame.
Many people find struggle trying to visualize where the one-third lines might be. Many cameras have the option of turning on the one-third lines so you can see them as you are taking photos. My advice is simply to imagine where the one-third lines are. You can be off a bit! Besides, you can always crop your image in post-processing to align elements exactly, if you are an exacting kind of person. Sometimes I am!
Can you see how I used the Rule of Thirds in this portrait? The face is centered 1/3 line from the left, and the eyes are aligned with the 1/3 line from the top.
You can consider the four spots where the lines cross to be the “sweet spots” of the image rectangle. Even if there are no vertical or horizontal lines in the viewfinder, you can still move your camera so that the most important element in the scene is centered at one of these sweet spots.
All photos copyright Danny N. Schweers unless otherwise noted.