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Come in! There are a few adventures I’ve written about, but most of the content offers classes in photography and mentoring for photographers, including photo theory, which, although a vital part in our profession, is largely an overlooked subject in all published media that profits from and feeds our gadget minded mindset today.

Lear, practice the rule of thirds to take better photographs – A62

August 08 2012 - Photo Technical

Welcome aboard photo enthusiasts.  We are moving on to talk about visual rules you apply in taking better photographs, of which the primary compositional guideline is the “rule of thirds.”


This rule has its origins in the aesthetically pleasing divine proportions of the golden rectangle brought into prominence by the ancient Greeks…


Construction of a golden rectangle:
1. Construct a unit square (red).
2. Draw a line from the midpoint of one side to an opposite corner.
3. Use that line as the radius to draw an arc that defines the long dimension of the rectangle.

In 1509 Luca Pacioli’s published in De diving proportione the integer sequence named after a 12th Century mathematician, and so called the Fibonacci numbers…


Fibonacci number – In mathematics the Fibonacci numbers are  the numbers in the following integer sequence: 

By definition, the first two Fibonacci numbers are 0 and 1, and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two. Some sources omit the initial 0, instead beginning the sequence with two 1s.  A tiling with squares whose sides are successive Fibonacci numbers in length. 

From here this sequence of squares that visually duplicates the divine proportions of the golden rectangle the “golden spiral” can be drawn.  The flow of the spiral from left to right follows the visual pattern of how we see or look at things.

A Fibonacci spiral or “golden spiral” created by drawing arcs connecting the opposite corners of squares in the Fibonacci tiling; this one uses squares of sizes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and 34…

This brings us to the compositional guideline known as “the rule of thirds.” Many among us believe art is in the eye of the beholder, that is to say forget rules, I know what I like and that’ the way I’m taking this photograph.  It may have too much empty space or head room, but you think it’s wonderful.  It may seems so to you, but you’re wrong for compositionally it is awful.

The rule of thirds uses imaginary horizontal and vertical lines to break an image into thirds or nine sections.  Where the lines intersect are where important elements of the photographic image should be placed.

You can place things, such as the horizon line, a third of the way up or third of the way down, a third of the way from the right of from the left.  And doing so will result in a more balanced photograph that is more pleasing to view.  Of course, rules are meant to be broken, but only after you’ve learned to consistently and effectively apply it.

Even if you use a completely automatic pocket camera the composition is something you and only you can control.  How well you can ‘see’ or ‘create’ a picture will determine the results, but this depends on the gift as well as the experience.

To build on the experience keep in mind you can always move objects and subjects to achieve compositional perfection, and as important you can move yourself.  Try your subjects in different positions and try moving yourself for different angles.

Another aspect to improve your photographs is to fill the frame.  Not too tight, you want to give primary some breathing space, and be sure to also leave some head room.  On the other hand, I’ve seen many photographs with way too much headroom.  The bottom line pay attention to the head room.  And should the subject be moving be sure to give some lead space (for the subject to enter in to) in the direction of the movement.

One other thing to keep in mind when filing the frame is how your images are to be printed.  If you are going for 4×6 prints they will closely match the full frame output of your camera.  If you are intent on making 5×7 or 8×10 prints keep in mind the original image will be cropped, reducing its long side.

Some other compositional tips are to find one central point of interest and with this in mind keep the back ground as simple and uncluttered as possible.  When shooting landscapes always try to add some foreground interest.  His will add dimension to the photograph.  This can be difficult if the platform you a shooting from is the yacht you are sailing on.  Often the best you can hope for then is another vessel in the foreground.  Try your best to incorporate something for the foreground.

If you are dealing with a number of objects or subjects in a composition and I can have control over what is included, I will look for odd numbers… three, five, seven boats.  Think of odd as being more interesting and less boring.

Use lines in your compositions to direct the viewer from one point of the picture to the other, or look for triangulation within the picture to bring the eye around an image.  Using curves or shapes can be a more relaxing way of directing the attention of the viewer.  And don’t forget texture to add depth and interest to your composition.  We professional often use early morning or late afternoon light for the very reason that such intense side lighting adds to texturing… These suggestions should get you on your way to better compositions, so I’ll take leave to go ashore.