If you’ve ever gone on a trip and come home with a camera full of terrible, uninspiring photographs… then please keep reading. I wrote this article just for you!
Over the next several minutes I am going to teach you about a simple photo-taking concept called “The Rule Of Thirds” that, if you put it to use, will dramatically improve your travel photos and ensure that you come home from you next travel adventure with a camera full of captivating images.
To start, let me explain something: For the past several months I have been traveling through Peru by myself. I have a camera with me (of course)… but because I’m alone, I have no one else to take my picture as I slowly travel about. Because of this, I’m forced to ask strangers to take my photo – strangers who have no idea what The Rule Of Thirds is or how to properly frame a photograph.
HERE’S PROOF: Just look at the following 3 photos that strangers on my travels have taken of me:
Pretty terrible photos, right?
I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that after this trip is over, I’ll have very few good photos of myself in Peru.
Besides the fact that my eyes are obviously closed in the third image and the picture is slightly out of focus, these three photos do a good job of summarizing the terrible photos I get in return when I ask other people to take my picture. And I’m sick of it!
That’s why I decided to write this post – To teach people about The Rule Of Thirds and the simple art of framing a photograph.
I’ll explain more about The Rule Of Thirds in just a moment. But before I do that, take a look at these photos I’ve taken during my travels in Peru… and note the difference between these photos here and he ones pictures above.
Now, I’m not the best photographer in the world (I’ll be quick to admit that), but I’m pretty sure the photos I’ve taken are a whole lot better than the ones other people on my travels have taken of me.
Do you see the difference between the first 3 photos I shared with you and the 7 travel photos pictured above?
If not, let me explain!
The main difference between the crappy photos at the top of this article and the images I just shared with you is that the images I shot were shot using a concept known as “The Rule Of Thirds.”
In order to best explain this concept, let’s take another look at that first crappy photo I shared with you.
Now compare this image to the photo below. Both photos are taken at the same place and with the same camera, but the difference between the two photos is substantial.
The problem with the first image is that it has my head placed directly in the center of the picture. This results in the boring blank sky behind me taking up half of the photograph… and the landscape behind looking less than impressive.
But look at that second photo now! It’s so much better… don’t you think?
It is! And it looks a whole lot better, because the photo is shot using The Rule Of Thirds.
What exactly is The Rule Of Thirds?
According to Wikipedia, The Rule Of Thirds “states that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Proponents of the technique claim that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject would.”
In other words… when you take a photo, you have to imagine that there are four red lines running across the front of your photograph.
There are two equally spaced vertical lines that run from the top of the image to the bottom…
… and two equally-spaced horizontal lines that run across the image from one side the other.
According to The Rule Of Thirds, the subject matter of your piece should lie on one or more of these dividing lines… or should be placed at one or more of the intersecting points of these lines.
To demonstrate, let’s take a second look at the two photographs we were just discussing – the crappy one with my head positioned directly in the center… and the better one with the subject positioned on the right side of the photo.
The image above is complete sh#* because it ignores the rule of thirds. Instead of positioning my body along one of the red dividing lines, the photographer placed me directly in the middle of the photo, which makes for a boring and unattractive image.
To make matters worse, the person who took my photo in the image above even went so far as to center the horizon line behind me. If he had attempted to place the horizon on the line down by my shoulders… or the line up above my head, this would have been a big improvement. But instead, he decided to center everything in the photograph (my body, my head, and the horizon) and the end result is a photograph that belongs in the trash.
Now let’s take a look at that second photograph. Remember: This photo was taken at the same location as the first photo… and with the same camera. The only difference is that I took the second photo while thinking about The Rule Of Thirds.
Do you see the difference?
The Rule Of Thirds is at work here because:
1) I positioned the subject along the vertical line on the right-hand side of the photograph.
2) The subject’s head is at the intersection of the horizontal line at the top of the photo and the vertical line on the right.
3) The subject is on the right-hand side of the image and looking off to the open space on the left, which creates a sense of direction and space.
4) And finally, the horizon in the background is located along the horizontal line at the top of the picture.
All of this combined makes for a much improved photograph. Don’t you agree?
So, that’s what The Rule Of Thirds is all about. It’s about positioning your subject along these four imaginary lines… and/or placing the important elements of your photograph at the intersection(s) of these lines.
Examples of The Rule Of Thirds in action:
To make sure you totally understand this concept, let’s go back and look at some of those other travel photos I shared with you earlier… and let’s discuss how each of these photos is constructed using The Rule Of Thirds.
Okay. So here’s that picture of the tuba player once again. I snapped this photo during a street festival in Puno, Peru and it’s a great example of The Rule Of Thirds.
Using The Rule Of Thirds, the tuba player in the foreground (the one with the squinted eyes) is positioned along the right-side of the image. His body, combined with the instrument that he is holding, is centered along the right-most dividing line that runs vertically down the screen.
The tuba players eyes (the focal point of the image) are located just outside of the intersection of the two lines (the one running horizontally across the top of the image and the one running vertically on the right side of the image). And like the image above with the guy in the green shirt who is positioned on the right side of the picture and looking off to the left, the tuba player pictured here demonstrates the same characteristics. The open space on the left side of the image dictates which way the subject is heading.
Make sense? I hope so!
Now let’s look at another image with a totally different compositional layout.
The image above is totally different from the previous two photos we’ve been examining, but even here The Rule Of Thirds is in effect.
- Note how the city limits in the distance run along the horizontal line at the top of the picture.
- Note how the horizontal line at the bottom of the image runs along the front of the buildings directly in front of the two subjects in the photo.
- Note how the two people sitting in the foreground of the photo are pushed off to the right side of the screen and their bodies are located almost perfectly along the right-most vertical dividing line.
- And note how the male subject’s head is located at the intersection of two lines – the line running vertically on the right and the horizontal line running across the bottom of the screen.
All of these elements combined make for another great example of The Rule Of Thirds in action.
By now I hope you’re starting to see what I mean when I talk about The Rule Of Thirds. If not, here are some more examples:
The image above is a picture of a painting that was hanging in a convent in Arequipa, Peru. I could have positioned the painting of the nun directly in the center of my photograph, but that would have been rather boring. Instead, I pushed the image of the nun off to the left, while at the same time positioning her close to the vertical line running from the top to the bottom of the image on the left-hand side of the photograph. At the same time, the nun’s eyes are positioned along the horizontal line at the top of the pic.
Here’s another example:
This group of young strangers approached me in downtown Lima and asked if I would help them with an English assignment they had been given by their college professor. I helped them with the assignment and then snapped this picture of the group.
Can you see how I used The Rule Of Thirds to frame up this photograph?
If I knew nothing about The Rule Of Thirds I probably would have positioned the people’s heads in the center of the photo. The end result would have been a whole lot of sky in the background and a four cut off bodies at the bottom.
Instead, I positioned the people’s heads along the horizontal line at the top of the screen… and the end result is an image that pops with character!
This picture from Colca Canyon, Peru is a little different. There is a huge amount of blank space on the left side of the picture, while our subjects (the three people sitting on the edge of the canyon wall) are located in the bottom right-hand corner of the photograph.
This image uses The Rule Of Thirds in three ways:
1) The three people in the bottom right-hand corner are positioned along the lower horizontal line.
2) The subjects of the photo are situated in the right-most quadrant of the image, while the object they are looking at (the canyon on the left) lies in the two remaining quadrants in the center and on the left-hand side of the picture. This is very similar to the first two images we examined – the one with the guy in the green shirt looking out over the pyramid and the city scene in the background… and the one with the tuba player marching from the right side of the screen to the left.
3) And finally, the distant mountains in the background are situated along the horizontal line that runs across the top of the picture.
Here’s another example from the Christmas Market in Nazca, Peru:
The boy in the image above is framed up using The Rule of Thirds as well.
- His body is largely positioned along the verticle line on the left-hand side of the screen.
- His eyes are positioned along the horizontal line at the top of the screen.
- And where these two lines meet is where your attention is first drawn to when you initially look at this image.
This photo of a chullpa (an ancient stone funeral tower) in Southern Peru is very similar to the image of the boy in the photo we just looked at.
Like the boy in the image above, the funeral tower is positioned along the vertical line on the left-hand side of the picture. But unlike the boy in the image above who had his eyes positioned along the horizontal line at the top of the screen, this image here has the horizon in the background running along the horizontal line at the bottom of the screen.
So there you have it! THE RULE OF THIRDS.
When you head out on your next travel adventure, keep this concept in mind.
Instead of positioning you subject directly in the center, position the important elements of your photo along one or more of the four imaginary dividing lines that you’ve learned about in this article. Your photos will be greatly improved… and instead of returning home with a camera full of lackluster images, you’ll return home with images that truly capture the experience of your travels!
Good luck… and happy shooting!
PS – If you’d like to improve your travel photography skills even more, be sure to check out this resource from my friend Darren over at the Digital Photography School website. It’s filled with tons of additional info on how to improve your travel photography.