Last week I showed a friend a photo I took of a silhouetted man standing under an archway. His response was that it was a neat photo, but the man should be in the middle of the picture, not on the right side. Was he right? As a rule, no. As the occasional exception, yes. Sounds complicated, doesn't it? It doesn’t have to be. Here are a few guidelines that can help you decide where to place your subject in the frame.
The Rule of Thirds
One of first photography rules most people learn is the “Rule of Thirds.” In fact when you’ve been in the photography world for long enough, you’ll be reminded of the rule of thirds so many times that it will eventually become a part of your subconscious.
The rule of thirds has been around for a long time—centuries, actually, even longer than we’ve had cameras. Renaissance artists used it to compose paintings, just as photographers use it today. It’s such a successful rule that it’s endured from antiquity into the modern age.
So how does it work? Simply put, when you use the rule of thirds you avoid placing your subject in the center of the frame. Instead, you place him/her/it either above, below, to the left or to the right of the center. It’s called the rule of thirds because you decide on the placement of your subject based on a grid—divide the frame into nine equal sized portions (using vertical and horizontal lines placed at 1/3rd intervals) and place your subject along one of those lines, as in this example:
When you place your subject on one of these dividing lines—rather than in the middle of the frame—you leave room for your viewer’s eye to travel around the frame. In the above photo, for example, your eye goes to the lock first—but then it continues to roam around the frame to the water and the blurred buildings in the background. You can imagine other things happening in the scene—maybe someone will put a hand into the frame and unlock this old padlock. The off-centered composition and the extra space encourages exploration.
Now what happens when you place the lock in the center of the photo? The image becomes static. There’s still some space on either side of the subject but when it’s oriented right in the center of the frame, your eyes go there and then they just stay where they are. When the object is in the middle of the frame you’re encouraged to think that the whole point of the shot is that perfectly centered lock. Your eye doesn’t go anywhere else because there isn’t a reason to. The image stagnates, and as a result the viewer isn’t really drawn into it.
The rule of thirds is easy to follow and implement—some cameras even have a rule of thirds grid that you can turn on and off in your viewfinder. When you place your subject along the grid’s lines or intersections, you get a balanced and visually pleasing image. When you use the rule of thirds, you think more creatively. Your subject becomes more than just something to stick in the middle of the frame.
Breaking The Rules
Now if you’re like most creative people, you may grumble when you hear the word “rule.” In the arts, as you know, there really aren’t any rules—only guidelines. So you don’t have to use the rule of thirds in every situation, but remember that any time you break a compositional rule, you have to have a good reason.
In the above image of a man in a kayak, the subject is right in the middle of the frame. Clearly, this is breaking the rule of thirds—but is it effective? In this photo, the answer is yes—and the reason why has to do with the shape of the subject. The kayak is an elongated shape, and it’s been placed diagonally across the frame. The diagonal shape acts like an arrow, encouraging your eye to move across the frame between one corner and another. The shape of the kayak itself implies movement, so rule of thirds orientation isn’t necessary.
Now let’s look at a similar image:
In this photo, the subject has also been placed in the center of the frame. So why is this such an effective image? The subject, when viewed from this angle, is completely symmetrical—which means that the right half of the frame is a near-mirror image of the left half. When you have a symmetrical subject like this one, it makes sense to place it in the center of the frame because that perfect symmetry and balance creates an image that is peaceful and soothing. Your viewer’s eye will still explore an image like this one despite the central placement because the two mirrored halves of the composition encourage the eye to move from one side to the other.
In the above photo, the long and winding road is going more or less right through the middle of the image. It’s not really rule of thirds, and yet it is rule of thirds—but most importantly, it works. The first thing to take note of is the horizon—the division between sky and land almost always belongs along one of those two rule of thirds horizontals. Some beginners default to placing the horizon in the middle of the frame, which seems correct—but that’s really only effective when you’ve got a symmetrical landscape, such as a mountain reflected in a lake. In most other cases, it’s more effective to place the horizon along either the top third or bottom third of the frame.
There’s a suggestion of symmetry in this image, too, with the road winding one way and then the other—but more importantly, that winding road gives your viewer’s eye a line to follow, a reason to travel into and around the photograph.
When it comes to photographing people, you’ve got a little more leeway. Faces are symmetrical, so placing a subject right in the center of the frame is often a very effective way to compose a shot. But what if you have more than one person? In the above image a family playing in the grass, Dad is in the right side of the frame, while Mom is more or less in the center. The little girl gives the image a pyramid or triangular composition, which helps lead the eye around the frame, from on person to another.
Even though faces are symmetrical, the rule of thirds works well with portraits, too, whether the subject is looking directly at the camera or off to one side. Leaving some space on either side of your subject not only helps the eye move from subject to background, it also makes your viewer feel as if your subject has somewhere to go. The empty space makes the image more active. Just keep in mind that you should (almost) always put the largest amount of space on the facing side of your subject—in other words, if she’s looking to the left, put the space in the left part of the frame. If she’s looking to the right, put the space in the right part of the frame. When you don’t have any space in front of or on the facing side of your subject, it can make your viewer feel like your subject is boxed in, and that can make the photo uncomfortable to look at.
Yes, it’s a breakable rule just like every other creative rule, but it’s one that you should take to heart and use in just about every situation—unless you have a very good reason not to. And don’t worry if your camera doesn’t have a grid system and you find yourself guessing—the main takeaway from the rule of thirds is that creating empty space on the left, right, top or bottom of the frame gives the viewer’s eye a reason to move around the image. It’s a time-tested trick that can turn a so-so photo into something really compelling.