Lesson 52: The Rule of Thirds Revisited

We talked about the Rule of Thirds very early on in Lesson 2.  In that lesson, we talked about framing a dog or a person and placing the intersection of the rule of thirds grid on the subject’s eye.  However, there are lots of ways to apply the rule of thirds.

Today, let’s talk about landscape scenes.  Landscapes are usually divided between sky and ground or sky and water.  To apply the rule of thirds to big sweeping scenes, you can make a simple choice:  is the scene more about the sky or the stuff below it?

If it’s about the sky, make two-thirds of the frame sky.  If it’s about what’s below it, make the sky one-third of the frame.

Here is an example of a landscape photo where I split the sky and sea about down the middle of the frame. I did this on purpose.  I wanted both rocks, the bird, and the water washing back to sea over the sand.  There was no way to apply the rule of thirds and get all of these elements into the frame the way I wanted them.  I happen to like this photo (sorry, it’s not an iPhone photo, but it makes the point).  I’ve also included two cropped versions that put the line between the sea and sky at the lower ⅓ of the frame.  In this case, I prefer to break the rule of thirds.

On the same beach, I took the following shot of a bunch of seagulls rising off the beach.  I was pretty far away when this happened, but I liked the breadth of the flock of seagulls (for all you old enough to remember, no, I’m not referring to the band).  I also like the expanse of beach underneath them with an almost equal expanse of sky.  However, I thought we should try this with the rule of thirds applied, so I cropped with ⅔ of the frame beach and another with ⅔ of the frame sky.  I think the one with ⅔ of the frame sky works rather nicely with the gulls taking off.

The next example splits the sky and land about ½ way.  This one is an iPhone photo, by the way.  I’ve cropped the photo to show ⅔ sky and again to show ⅔ land.  I prefer the one with ⅔ land in this case.  The sky is not particularly interesting or well exposed.  The land is a bit dark, but the bridge in the foreground adds more interest to my eye than the sky in the previous version.

My final example, another iPhone photo, is one where the rule of thirds was perhaps over-applied in the original photo.  The foreground rock starts at the ⅓ point on the left.  The mountains in the middle of the frame end at the ⅔ point on the right.  It’s almost too stripe-y.  I cropped this one very slightly to put the mountains at the ⅔ point on the left side of the frame.  To me, the first version confuses my eye as to which element the photo is supposed to be about.  The second version makes it obvious to me that the photo is about the river valley and surrounding mountains.  I would prefer if the barge were further in the frame, but somethings can’t be fixed.

Your Assignment:  Take a look at any landscape photos you’ve taken with a strong horizontal line.  Is that line at ⅓ or ⅔ of the frame?  If not, try cropping the photo just to see if you like it better (Snapseed provides a nice cropping tool–see Lesson 41).  Sometimes you will.  Sometimes you won’t.  Just remember that the rule of thirds can help you emphasize the part of the scene that you most want to draw the eye to.

Lesson 11: The Rule of Symmetry

Back in lesson 2, we talked about the rule of thirds.  I showed you how to turn on the rule of thirds grid in your iPhone and gave some examples of how images can be improved by applying this rule.  Today, we’re going to talk about another rule, the rule of symmetry.

The rule of symmetry can be stated as:  if what you’re shooting looks symmetrical, don’t mess with that.  Often, subjects like architectural structures, moons, subjects with reflections in water, and anything round look better when they are more or less centered in the frame.  Sometimes, people do things that make great symmetrical photos as well. 

I pulled out a few examples from photos I’ve shot in the past.  I added an example that used a DSLR just to make the point.

In this example, I lined up the moon right on the center vertical line of the image and allowed the shapes of the bridge to create a nearly symmetrical image.  It bugs me that the bridge elements are not identical on either side, but that’s because each section of the bridge is progressively larger.  To make it symmetrical, I’d have to shoot at an angle (which might be worth trying).   Click on the image to enlarge. 


In the next example, this is a pretty classic way of doing symmetry.  I was on a business trip and took a quick photo of a road leading to an arched entrance to a large courtyard in Madrid.  This is an iPhone photo taken at the peak of the afternoon sun, creating some very bright areas in the photo, but it is nearly symmetrical.


The next example shows a photo taken by laying back on some steps that lead up a fire tower in a park.  The outside frame of the structure is quite symmetrical, but the stairs add a slightly off-balancing element.


Finally, in this image, I unconsciously applied a slightly revised rule of thirds and the rule of symmetry.  The bridge is at about the top grid line for the rule of thirds, but the entire subject is centered on the vertical center of the photo.  This helps capture the uphill climb to the bridge as well as draws the eye more effectively to the bridge itself.


To frame a shot symmetrically, I just leave the rule of thirds grid on.  However, if you’re using the Camera Awesome app, you can also choose a square grid, which can be helpful if you’re planning to crop the image to a square later or if it just helps you predict whether you’re image will be symmetrical or not.  To select the guidelines you want to display, just tap the tab at the top of the screen.  A “drawer” of options slides out and you can choose what you want to use.  We’ll stick the rule of thirds and square options right now.


If you also took lesson 7, you probably have your level turned on in the Camera Awesome app.  The center circle for the level also indicates the center of your frame, which is another way to determine symmetry.


Now, I just want to show one example of what happens when you try to treat a non-symmetrical subject like it’s symmetrical.  My dog is not symmetrical (at least not a this angle).  When I try to create symmetry with his head by taking a picture with his head in the middle, I don’t actually get any symmetry in the image at all.  From this angle, he’s all rule of thirds.


I wanted to show how my dog can look symmetrical if photographered from head on, but my dog wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about modeling for me tonight.


Your Assignment:  Look for symmetry around you. Taking a photograph up a flight of steps, head on to a person or pet, straight at a doorway, or centered on a round flower will all create symmetry.  Try different subjects that have their own symmetry to them and see which ones you particularly like shot symmetrically.  Try combining symmetry with the rule of thirds and see what you get.  What kinds of subjects did you come up with that work well symmetrically?

Lesson 2: The Rule of Thirds

In our last lesson, I explained that rules are just a way of organizing the choices you can make when you take a photo.  The rule of thirds is one of those choices.

The iPhone default camera app can be set to turn a rule of thirds grid on in the Options menu.  Most camera apps and point-and-shoot cameras have this option.  This is what it looks like with the grid on:

iPhone camera with grid on
iPhone camera with grid on

The grid divides the frame into thirds both horizontally and vertically.  For many subjects, placing the subject so that the most important feature aligns with the intersection of one of these lines can make the subject grab the eye much more effectively.

Here’s an example.  First, in the next image, I’ve centered my dog’s head in the frame:

Subject centered in frame
Subject centered in frame

In the next image, I placed one of the grid intersections on my dog’s left eye:

Rule of thirds grid 3

I chose the lower-left intersection in the grid because it allowed me to get his front legs in the frame as well.

Which one do you like better?

Your Assignment:  Turn the grid on in your camera app or camera if it has it.  If not, you can imagine where the grid would be by guestimating.  Pick a subject that isn’t moving like a flower or a vase or a sleeping dog.  Try photographing it centered in the frame, then try each of the 4 intersections of the rule-of-thirds grid.  Which do you like best?