The Rule of Thirds
For some reason, I've never written a weekly tip just on the Rule of Thirds.
When most people first start taking pictures, their tendency is to place the subject in the middle of the frame. This is certainly the simplest approach, but tends to produce pictures that are all the same. Such pictures also tend to appear fairly static and lack any real sense of dynamism or tension. Some might even consider them boring.
One of the most widely known compositional techniques, the "Rule of Thirds," can help solve this problem. Imagine that there are lines dividing the frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically, creating in essence a tic-tac-toe board in your viewfinder. Aligning your subject along one of these lines can help to create a more pleasing image. Positioning your subject at one of the intersections (sometimes referred to as "power points") can often make an even more compelling image.
To see the difference, try photographing your subject centered in the frame and then at one of the thirds points and see how you feel about each image.
The Rule of Thirds has its origins in a classical Greek concept of the Golden Ratio. Plato, Euclid and others observed a pleasing aspect to things when divided in certain way. If a line is cut in such a way that the ratio of the smaller part to the larger part is equal to the ratio of the larger part to the whole, the division is said to be the Golden Ratio. To illustrate, imagine we have a line, AB that we want to cut into the Golden Ratio at a point C in between the two ends. To do so, we need to position point C in such a way that CB divided by AC is the same as AC divided by AB. If you're not big on geometry, this works out to a ratio of about 0.618. Somehow, over time, this became the easier to compute 2/3, or 0.666. Perhaps not as elegant as a Greek temple (or da Vinci painting for that matter), but a lot easier to calculate and understand.
Some possible applications for the Rule of Thirds include photographing an animal with their eyes centered on one of the thirds points, looking into the frame, or a person standing aligned with one of the thirds lines.
Using the Rule of Thirds can also help you avoid placing the horizon dead center so you don't leave your viewer ambivalent as to your intent. What's more important in the photograph, the foreground or the sky? You need to decide what holds the most interest feature that. If there's nothing going on in the sky then don't include very much of it.
Start with the rule of thirds and see how your photography improves, but don't get stuck in it.
Just as some people feel the best place for the subject is in the middle of the frame, others can wrongly assume that strictly following the Rule of Thirds will guarantee good pictures. In reality, the "Rule" of Thirds should be considered more of a guideline than a rule. When photographing reflections for instance, centering your subject may actually work better. Consider placing elements closer to the edge of the frame than the thirds line too. You don't have to be on the exact third point or line to be effective — sometimes just slightly off center can work wonders too. Try bracketing your compositions: place your subject in different areas of the frame and when you get your film back, see which ones please you the most and ask yourself why.
One thing that has always puzzled me is why camera manufacturers don't etch thirds gridlines on their focusing screens. Many have lines on them that help keeping horizons level and such, but rarely will the provided lines fall where you really want them compositionally. My only suggestion to work around this is to simply learn where the power points are in relation to the gridlines you do have available. Perhaps this is just their subtle way of forcing you not to think of the Rule of Thirds so much as a rule.
Update 11/30/2004 - A reader wrote in to let me know that their Fuji FinePix S5500 (S5100 in some parts of the world) actually does have viewfinder grid lines that line up according to the rule of thirds. Out of curiosity, I looked in the camera's manual online for details. Fuji calls the feature "Best Framing." A menu option allows you to turn on Framing Guidelines that literally are thirds lines. Quite nice. Now why can't other manufacturers do it this way?
Update 1/11/2005 - Another winner: It seems the Panasonic Lumix FZ series also has true rule-of-thirds grid lines. At least some manufacturers are catching on it seems.