Understanding “The Rule of Thirds”

One of the first things almost every photographer is taught early on is the “Rule of Thirds”. This is a very simple rule that will transform your snapshots into works of art.berryjam.ru

Basically put, a piece of art, in this case a photo is more interesting when the subject is not centered, but instead off centered 1/3 of the way into the photo.

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Rule of Thirds Grid

This is a typical 4×6 photo divided into a “Tic-Tac-Toe” grid. In this case the vertical and horizontal lines divide the photo into “Thirds”. One set, is a left, middle and right thirds, another set is top, middle and bottom. We will refer to these as the Rule of Third’s Lines. The for points where the lines cross each other, we will refer to the Rule of Third’s Points.

So as a rule, your photo will be more interesting if your subject appears at one of the 4 points or uses the lines to divide the photo.

Now, lets examine this photo. This is clearly a snap-shot. I took it and I admit, composing this wasn’t high on my list. I put my center AF point on the subjects eye’s and fired.

Moving the subject left to the cross point of the top and left lines would have minimized background distractions and waisted space above the subject.

Our subject’s head is dead centered in the frame. There is waisted space on either side of him and over top of his head. A simple move to bring his eyes to the top rule of third line would have done wonders for this photo. It would have been even better had I moved his head to the top-left point with him telling his story into the frame. This wasted space, be it empty space, or a busy background is called “Negative Space”. Negative Space simply put is space that doesn’t contribute to the photo.

Now lets look at another example, this time a Landscape.

A landscape using the Rule of Thirds

This time, I chose to use the Rule of Thirds to divide the frame into three horizontal bands. The snowy foreground, the lake and trees and the sky are balanced across the frame. None of the three main areas dominate the photo keeping negative space to a minimum. The position of the tree’s prevented me from putting them on the Rule of Thirds vertical lines but the photo is still kind of broken into thirds horizontally.

As with any rule, they are more like guidelines than “thou must” hard fast rules. There are times where the Rule of Thirds simply doesn’t work. Some notable exceptions include shooting a sunrise over an ocean. If you put the horizon on the bottom 3rd, the sky better be very interesting or it will begin to degrade the photo. Put the horizon at the top third and the ocean will dominate and pull down the interestingess of the photo. In this case centering the horizon may be a better choice.

In this example:


The subject is centered vertically, but I’ve used the grate to split the frame into 3rds. I did not do a good job balancing the model vertically and as a result there is a little too much space at the top and her feet are a bit cramped along the bottom.

Had I spent a little more time with the composition, I could have placed the Rule of Thirds line at her knees and the top of her dress and made this killer.

Now this can be salvaged by cropping the photo. In this case, instead of it being a 4×6, a 5×7 would let me trim probably enough off the top to fix the photo.


In this case, I’m a touch off, but by putting the eyes on the top rule of thirds line. Even so, her eyes are close to the points. You don’t have to be precise with being exactly on the lines or points, but use it as a guideline to avoid centering your subject.

Most head shot portraits will fit well within the Rule of Thirds. You are probably using it and not knowing it.

Use the “Rule of Thirds” as a starting point to your creative compositions. Other compositions can be even more dramatic and of course there will be times where centering makes the best since.

Using Your Camera’s Meter to Set Exposure

In the last post we talked about shooting in Manual mode and the key to being successful in Manual mode is a full understanding of exposure. That means understanding the relationship between changing aperture and shutter speed. We discussed how cameras meter to a middle gray and how that can be thrown off. In this post, we are going to continue to understand how the meter works so you can better detect situations where the camera will get it wrong and how when shooting in manual to determine if the exposure is right.

First up we have to understand how metering works. Look at this diagram:


The light source, in this case the sun, is falling on the subject. The light then bounces off the subject toward the photographer where the camera measures the amount of light. In this scene, the light also bounces off of the tree, the sky and the ground and it reflects towards the camera as well.

In days of old when our camera’s did not have meters, we used hand held meters and read the light at the subject. Its called “Incident Metering”. This meter is the most accurate since it measures the exact amount of light at the subject and does not take the background into consideration.

When our cameras got internal meters, they were able to now measure the light reflected off the subject. These are called “reflectance meters”. They do a great job in most cases where the scene’s different tones all average out to a middle value and can be fooled.

Most cameras have multiple ways of measuring the light. Modern cameras will typically have three different options:

  • Matrix or Evaluative
  • Center Weighted
  • Spot or Partial Spot

Matrix or Evaluative metering is probably the meter mode you use the most. It is the default meter mode on most modern cameras. In this mode, the camera reads data from multiple locations across the frame. Some might be as few as 5 locations to over 1000. These values are then compared to a list of scenes stored in the camera’s database. The engineers evaluated over 30,000 different shooting combinations and they compare the information coming from the different cells in the matrix of sensors looking for a match in the database and it determines the best exposure. In theory, this is smart enough to detect snowy or beach scenes or troublesome backlit scenes and adjust the camera accordingly. This should cause more photos to be exposed properly.

Center Weighted reads the center of the frame (typically the inside area bounded by all the autofocus points) and measures the light there. It also measures the light outside this area. Then it averages the two giving a bias to the center area, letting it factor into say 2/3 of the exposure and the outer area 1/3 of the exposure. This is based on the fact that most people who shoot photos are people taking snap-shots and those people tend to center their subjects. This is the method that most old film cameras use.

The Spot meter measures a very small spot of the view finder. This is a very precise measurement. For many camera’s that spot is about the size of the center autofocus point and is located in the center. More advanced cameras can read its “spot” from any of the autofocus points.

If your shooting in automatic modes, Matrix meters will generally give you the best measurement. Many cameras recommend that if you shoot manual mode to not use Matrix metering but it still gives the best measurement for an in camera meter.

Manually adjusting Exposure


The "250" in the display is the shutter speed, in this case 1/250th of a second. The 9.5 is the aperture, which is 1/3 stop above F8

Your camera has a gauge in its viewfinder. Older cameras might have a needle that slides up and down and when its level the exposure is “correct”, meaning the camera now thinks the camera thinks the camera’s settings will produce a middle gray exposure. More modern cameras will have a digital gauge in viewfinder that looks like +|–0–|- with a pointer underneath the gauge. Each pip represents 1/3 of a stop of exposure either over (towards the +) or under (towards the -) exposure. (some cameras will be in half stops and may show up to two stops over/under exposure). The exposure is “correct” when its at 0 .

While pointing your camera at your subject, you adjust either the shutter speed dial up or down or you adjust the aperture up or down (and with digital you can even adjust the ISO up or down) until the pointer reaches the 0 point. Of course there will be times where you don’t want a zero setting, such as shooting sunsets, or the white background high key portraits and you can adjust the camera to over or under expose for the effect your going for.

When you recognize that the matrix meter is not going to get you the right exposure, its time to switch over to the spot meter and take advantage of it.

In situations where you are in control of the setting, say family portraits, you can have your subject hold a “Gray Card” which can be picked up at most camera stores. These gray cards are middle gray. You then aim your spot meter at the gray card and adjust the meter is centered. This should give you a very accurate measurment for the exposure.

Sometimes you can’t use a gray card in that case you try to find something thats lit with the same light as your subject. Outdoors you can use grass as long as its not washed out from the sun reflecting at you or you can use a light asphalt or darker concrete to get close. I’ve even used the referee’s stripes to meter off of geting a black and white stripe in the area of the spot.

So put it all together. You have light. You read it using the meter in the camera. You adjust the shutter speed or aperture up or down until the meter reads the right amount of light. Take a perfectly exposed photo. Sit back and enjoy the marvel and wonder.

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Surprise! Late Winter Storm Pounds the East Coast

Snowy Tree, originally uploaded by Miracle Man.

Twenty-eight days ago, a rather large rodent was forced out of his box, a simulated hole somewhere in the heartland of Pennsylvania and because some humans saw their shadow, it was decreed “Six More Weeks of Winter”.

For those doing the math, that means winter through March 15th, amazingly there is still a week of “Winter” left after March 15th given the Spring Solstice turns our planet colorful on March 21st.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when we are still dealing with cold gray days during the first part of March. But still, it is very rare for a late snow fall in particular in areas that rarely get snow at all. And with much surprise, the south-east United States and the east coast awoke today to this wet white stuff.

Despite the travel problems this caused to many people (my own son’s hockey team was returning from Atlanta to Virginia yesterday in what should have been a nine hour trip, took 26 hours!!!) snow, in particular in areas that rarely get it is a great opportunity for photographers to get out and try and capture some beauty.

Today, I packed my camera to work with plans to shoot during my lunch walk. Well due to everyone staying off the road, I arrived at work extra early, so I headed out to shoot some photos around my office complex before I went to work.

While I didn’t get anything spectacular, given that I’m bad at landscapes, I think a few shots turned out okay. Many of my photography friends turned out some excellent photos today as well.

Anyway, to make this somewhat educational, shooting in snow is tough. First all the white tends to fool camera meters. If the skies are overcast, it doesn’t give a lot of separation between the sky and the terrain . And of course, early in the morning, there isn’t a lot of light to begin with and that means not a lot of color.

To solve exposure problems, you can dial in some over exposure, somewhere between 1.0 to 0.7 EV if your camera doesn’t recognize snow scenes. This is also a good time to bracket shots as well in particular if you want to play with HDR.

Digital photography when dealing with whites is hard because to get bright whites means pushing the limit of blowing out the whites. Its generally better to let the photos underexpose a bit and then fix it in post production.

If your lucky to get some blue skies and sun to add to your snow, you can capture some great photos. But if you’re stuck with gray overcast skies, it might be a good opportunity to consider Black and White.

So get out, shoot and have fun!