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The Rule of Thirds: Squaring Away Visual Imbalance
When you study photographic composition, you’ll likely hear mention of the rule of thirds. Read on to get a head start.
When you first pick up a camera, you might naturally be tempted to take aim dead center at your subject. But pro photographers would advise that you first carve the visual field before you into nine equal parts, dividing it into thirds both vertically and horizontally. The intersections—or power points—of these lines should pinpoint the image’s action: a striking land formation, the corner of a smile, the beak of a bird feeding its babies pancakes. An off-center—but still balanced—focal point draws the eye across the image, introducing a sense of movement and dynamic tension. Major vertical or horizontal lines should follow this guiding grid as well, such that a horizon line will typically mark off the top third or bottom third of the image.
Why do images composed this way have immediate appeal? Mathematicians and artists have wondered for centuries. Some have theorized that it’s because it approximates the golden ratio, which reappears, mysteriously, throughout nature. The seeds in the center of a sunflower, the spirals on top of a cauliflower head, or even the proportions of the human body—they all boil down to a set of numbers known as the Fibonacci sequence, in which each number after 0 and 1 is generated by adding the two previous numbers. Divide each number by the preceding one and you’ll approach an irrational limit of approximately 1.618, the golden ratio.
Continually dividing a rectangle into a set of shrinking squares whose sides maintain this relationship to one another, you’ll begin to see a seashell-like Fibonacci spiral suggested by the corners of these boxes. Superimpose the rational, much more easily constructed rule-of-thirds grid over this graceful shape, and you’ll likely conclude that it’s a good-enough approximation, its lines just a little off from those of the larger Fibonacci squares. What this means is that even in this straightforward rule there’s some wiggle room—and after all, famous scrapbooker Ansel Adams once remarked, “There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”