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The Rule of Thirds

You can observe a lot by just looking around. ~ Yogi Berra

Avoid placing your subject in that center square,
and you have followed the rule of thirds.

Rule of Thirds
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The Rule of Thirds

Too often, photographs have their subject placed smack in the middle, making the image look dull and uninteresting. A simple shift in composition can change all that. The Rule of Thirds is probably one of the cardinal rules of composition. Mentally divide your viewfinder or LCD screen into thirds, using two vertical and two horizontal lines to create nine smaller rectangles and four points where the lines intersect. It has been repeatedly shown that by placing objects over these intersections, a pleasing and balanced arrangement often results, whether the composition is horizontal or vertical. When an image's center of interest is placed at one of these intersections, balance in the picture can often be achieved by placing a secondary object (known as a "counterpoint") at the opposing intersection.

As mentioned earlier, the "Rule of Thirds" is not a rule at all; it's a guideline, intended to help you when you are uncertain as to the placement of elements in a scene when you are framing the picture. By ignoring the rule, you may still have a great picture, depending on the content of the image and how well its elements are balanced. For example, if you want your viewer to ignore all other parts of your composition, then place your center of interest smack in the middle, like a bull's eye. The important thing is to note the reasons for object placement in your images. Knowing why you do something and what effect it will have leads to good composition.

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Golden Mean

The Golden Mean is an old principle that was first used by painters and is quite difficult to apply when taking a photo. Painters have the benefit of starting with a blank canvas and penciling in an outlining pattern that they can paint over to ensure elements are in the relevant areas. Look at the diagram below that shows how the Golden Mean is derived. Placing elements within this frame creates an interesting balance in a photograph. It's made up of a series of squares that become increasingly smaller attached by a curve that spirals inwards like a snail's shell. Place the point of focus at the end of the spiral and other elements along the path your eye takes inwards following the spiral.

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Follow the rule of thirds.

An easy way to compose off-center pictures is to imagine a tick-tack-toe board over your viewfinder. Avoid placing your subject in that center square, and you have followed the rule of thirds. Try to place your subject along one of the imaginary lines that divides your frame.

Watch the horizon. Just as an off-center subject is usually best, so is an off-center—and straight—horizon line. Avoid cutting your picture in half by placing the horizon in the middle of the picture. To accent spaciousness, keep the horizon low in the picture. To suggest closeness, position the horizon high in your picture.

Select a camera angle where the natural lines of the scene lead the viewers' eyes into the picture and toward your main center of interest. You can find such a line in a road, a fence, even a shadow. Diagonal lines are dynamic; curved lines are flowing and graceful. You can often find the right line by moving around and choosing an appropriate angle.

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The Rule of Thirds, and any other rule you hear about photography can (and should) be broken and/or ignored as you see fit. The Rule of Thirds is good to fall back on when you're mystified as to where to place an oak tree in relation to a picnic table. But sticking to rules can stifle your creativity, and it's important to consider when rules should be broken just as much as when they should be followed
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