Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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Picture This: Out of the Middle

The Rule of Thirds brings visual energy to photographs.

By Earl Nottingham

For most of my kindergarten career, I was the kid who always colored outside the lines — that is, until the day that my teacher, Miss Sally, informed me that the “rule” was to always color inside of the lines. When I followed her advice, the bunny rabbit and squirrel shapes on freshly mimeographed paper suddenly looked “normal” when colored in.

Photography has its own time-tested rules when it comes to the ways in which we can create more exciting images. One of those ways is by the use of good composition, which helps ensure that any photograph, regardless of subject matter, arrests the attention of the viewer and becomes an engaging visual statement rather than an average snapshot. Even before the first camera was invented, artists used basic rules of composition to visually “grab” the viewer’s eye and lead it through a painting in a controlled manner by the masterful placement of objects, shapes and lines, making their artwork more of a visual story to be “read” rather than just seen.

One of the most rudimentary rules of composition, and one of the simplest, is known as the Rule of Thirds. The photographer visualizes the scene in the viewfinder as divided into nine equal parts created by two equally spaced horizontal and two equally spaced vertical lines (like a tic-tac-toe pattern) and then places the main subject or focal point of the scene at the intersection of two of the lines. This moves the subject away from the more static center of the image to a position where it has more “weight,” thereby creating a visual tension and energy.

The image above is a typical "bull’s eye" photograph where the primary subject is centered in the frame. It could be made more engaging by recomposing the subject. In the image below, the camera has been shifted slightly so that the subject is placed not only in the top third of the frame but also along the right-hand third, giving a sense of height to the nest as well as allowing the viewer’s eye to travel into and interact with other elements of the scene, particularly the other birds at the lower left.

One of the most common mistakes of beginning photographers is to place the main subject directly in the center of the frame. This is called a “bull’s eye” shot and makes a photograph less interesting than it could be with more dynamic composition. One reason there are so many “bull’s eye” pictures taken is that most cameras by default will auto-focus in the center of the frame, compelling the photographer to place the subject there. Learning to change the auto-focus points in the viewfinder or focusing manually will free up the photographer for more interesting compositional possibilities.

Sometimes, though, it’s fun to embrace our inner rebel, break the rules and color outside the lines. Next month, we’ll explore some diversions from the basic rules of composition and see how they can lead to dynamic photographs.


Please send questions and comments to Earl at earl.nottingham@tpwd.state.tx.us.

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For more on TP&W magazine photography, go to our Photography page

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