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A common rule of thumb known as the ‘rule of thirds’ is often used to improve your composition (the way things are arranged within the frame) for both photography and filmmaking.
In today’s post, we’ll talk about why this rule exists, how it works, as well as when and why you should use it… most of the time.
Not just for beginners.
I used to think that composition was one of those basic concepts that you master as a beginner and then move on to more complex and interesting ideas. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The more I learn and grow as an artist, the more I realize how much there is to improve in my own work. One of those areas is composition.
When I look at the work of photographers and filmmakers that I admire, one thing I quickly notice is how interesting and creative their composition is. It’s something that often goes ignored, but it absolutely shouldn’t be.
Let’s dive into the basics and beyond to discover how this fundamental rule can improve both our photography and filmmaking.
Originating from the Renaissance age, early painters realized that framing their main subject along the outer thirds of the frame was a more interesting and balanced way to compose a masterpiece.
There is something about groups of threes that feels more balanced to the human eye. It just so happens to also be a rule of thumb in interior design that you balance off to the sides in groups of threes or fives.
Here’s how the rule of thirds works: for any given frame, draw two lines horizontally and two lines vertically, each equally spaced, creating three long sections in both directions with nine equally sized zones.
By placing the most interesting and relevant visual elements along these lines, the composition starts to feel more interesting and balanced. Typically areas of interest are placed either along one of the lines or at the intersection of two lines or both.
Note: not everything has to match the lines or intersecting points perfectly. Just position them close to the guide points or lines according to what feels natural for each photo.
There are so many ways the rule of third can be used to grab attention and hold it. Let’s take a look at a few more great examples to see different methods for how this rule is affective.
The rule of thirds is often used in landscape photography. It’s great for outdoor sunsets, fields, and highways like the one pictured here to draw your eye upward as you follow the road.
Notice how its much more balanced to place the horizon line on the upper or lower third zone than it is right in the middle.
By placing the road or horizon on the lower third, it gives a feeling that you are moving forward as your eye travels upward, much like you are going on a journey.
Here are a couple of great examples using objects that are closer to the camera to add interest and depth to the photo. Notice how these blurred objects in the foreground are placed in accordance with the rule of thirds.
Speaking of how humans are naturally drawn to threes and the balance found within the rule of third, it’s amazing how perfectly the human face fits in line with the rule of thirds. When possible, it’s best to place your subject’s eyes directly along one of the lines.
Here are some other examples of how to find great balance using portraits and the rule of thirds.
Notice that each of these examples places the subjects eyes along a different lines of thirds. There’s creative freedom there to decide what makes the most sense for your own film.
As you become more and more familiar with the rule of thirds, you should start to try and frame your shots with it in mind. Here are a few practical ways to modify your shots on the fly with this rule in mind.
Practice visualizing the rule of thirds in everyday life. When you see an image you love, dissect the composition - what is it about the image that drew your eye?
The more you think about how this rule applies throughout daily life, the more familiar you will become with it. Soon you’ll be framing your work this way without even thinking about it.
You can easily turn on the grid setting within your iPhone camera settings so that you can see the rule of thirds in your composition in real time.
To do this, simply open Settings -> Camera -> Grid On
Most DSLR and Mirrorless Cameras also offer this handy feature.
Very often in the heat of the moment, you may not nail your composition. However, all is not lost. You can often crop your final photo or video in post production so that the composition still falls within the rule of thirds. Here are a few ways to turn on the grids for some commonly used editing programs.
2. Now you need to adjust how many lines are displayed on the grid. To do this, navigate to Preferences -> Grids & Guides.
3. Now adjust the Proportional Grid to be 3 Horizontal and 3 Vertical lines. You can also adjust the color and style of the lines as you wish.
That’s it! Now you’ll have your own custom rule of thirds grid for your next After Effects project. To quickly toggle the grid on and off, you can hit ALT ‘ as a shortcut for the rule of thirds grid.
2. The transparent video settings menu will pop open. You can just click ‘OK’ to leave the settings as is. They should match your current timeline settings.
3. Drag the transparent video to sit directly above your current clips in the timeline.
4. Double click on the transparent video layer to select it. Now navigate up to the effects window and open Video Effects -> Generate -> Grid
5. Follow the exact settings I have mapped out below to overlay a rule of thirds grid on your footage:
6. You can toggle the transparency video layer on and off whenever you want the grid to disappear or of course once you are ready to export your video. Simply hit the little eyeball icon on the far left corner of your timeline panel.
Now that we’ve covered the ins and outs of the rule, let’s talk about some more advanced composition techniques. As you become more comfortable framing your subjects, you’ll start to expand your filmmaking skills by thinking outside the box a bit. This sometimes means breaking the ‘rules’.
Sometimes placing something smack dab in the middle of the frame just works, especially to add some extra emphasis.
Sometimes the use of negative space acts makes for an interesting composition as well. In the above example, technically the rule of thirds is broken. The rooftops of the houses is framed way too far beneath where the proper rule of thirds line exists. However, in this case it makes the photo even more interesting as you realize the rule has been broken. There is so much emptiness or ‘negative space’ in the sky that it emphasizes the symmetry, pattern, and color of the houses below.
Another great example of when you may break the rule is when you want to emphasize symmetry in an image. If you’re shooting an image to highlight balance and symmetry, go ahead and do what feels right and don’t worry about the rules.
So far we’ve touched very much on the fundamentals of this rule, which apply universally across just about any form of design: photography, videography, painting, graphic art, etc.
Is there anything specific about this rule that changes when we apply it to filmmaking?
Honestly, not really.
Other than the fact that our subjects are often in motion or we ourselves are in motion. There are a few ways to handle this.
You can keep your subject in the same zone as they and you move -or- you can have them start within the rule of thirds and move out of it. You could also have your subject start out of frame and move into the correct positioning of the rule of thirds as the shot continues for a more interesting perspective.
In general though, the rules still apply either way. Just like every other visual art, filmmaking falls into the category of thirds.
Now it’s your turn to get out there and start making something creative. I’d love to see what you come up with so leave me a comment below and let me see what you’re working on!
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