Since the days of Ancient Rome, artist, architects and great thinkers have pondered what makes a building or picture visually pleasing and have attempted to explain it with the use mathematical and geometric principles. These principles can determine the ideal shape of painting, and where the important elements should be positioned within the canvas for the most harmonious effect.
Although it many seem odd to apply mathematical rules to art there is some validity to it, which is why great artists from Leonardo da Vinci to Salvador Dali have followed them to some extent. Even the image proportions used by most cameras today are based on the classic compositional of 5:4 and 3;2. Picture frame sizes follow these ratios too.
Explaining the Rule of Thirds
The most useful of these mathematical and geometric principles is known as the Rule of Thirds. Imagine dividing your picture area into a grid of two horizontal lines and two vertical ones, all the same distance apart – like a noughts and crosses grid. Each line will be one third of the way in from either the top, bottom, left or right side. The Rule of Thirds says that you should place important elements of your scene on those lines. The real “hot spot” are the four points where those lines intersect. So when photographing a person in a scene, rather than placing them right in the middle of the frame ( which is what most amateur photographers do ) you should put them one third of the way in from one side. With a landscape, that big tree or windmill should also be on one of the thirds, and the horizon should be placed on the upper or lower third.
Think Outside the Box
The rule works surprisingly often, but as with most rules there is a danger of following them to slavishly so that they become dogma. If used repeatedly and relentlessly a set of pictures will eventually begin to look repetitive and boring. It is also the case that , while the rule of thirds creates a sense of harmony in your pictures, harmony is not always what you want to convey. Sometimes it is better to strive for a sense of drama, impact and discord. The best way to achieve this is to deliberately break the rules, such as placing a subject right in the middle of the frame. When combined with a wideangle lens, for example. this can produce a great in – your – face effect. Centred subjects look especially effective if you introduce an element of symmetry to your composition, whether by arranging objects, altering your position or using devices such as reflections in water.