Learn to Love the Grid

Hello all!

I’d like to take a moment to talk about proper composition in you photos.  Namely, we’re trying to avoid a common mistake; and work on using a technique called The Rule of Thirds to improve the overall look.

The Rule of Thirds actually dates back to 1797, in a book called Remarks on Rural Scenery, John Thomas Smith laid out the general guidelines.  The basic idea is that we need to move the subject away from the center of the frame.  I hear the gears turning in your head “but where to?!”, don’t worry, we’ll get to that soon.  Let’s start at the beginning…

Rebatement of the Square–

Every rectangle in the world (just like the one you’re looking through when you take picturesl, can be divided into two overlapping squares.  Don’t worry, it’s easier than it looks, and there’s no math involved.  Let’s start with a standard rectangle  with the short sides measuring 1″, and the long sides measuring 1.5″ (just bear with me here):

1" x 1.5"

It’s a rectangle, nothing special here, yet…

Now, within this same rectangle, we highlight one of the short sides like so:

Things are just starting to get interesting,,,

Shennanigans begin to abound

You can even see in the diagram, that we’ve determined that the first two edges of the first hidden square can be determined by simply laying the short side down, and marking the side.  But what happens when we lift it back UP, only the other way?

Hidden Square Within the Rectangle

The shenannigans just stepped it up a bit

As you can see, we’ve discovered one of the hidden squares that lie within the rectangle.  If we were to repeat the whole process from the other side, we’d arrive at a finished product something like this:

Now the second square is playing along too

Now the second square is playing along

And here is a rebated rectangle
Discarding the extra parts reveals a rectangle that has been rebated

So now we have a rebatted (pronounced reh-baht-ed) rectangle, and you’re saying “so what?”  Well, as it turns out the asthetics of the physical world tend to conform to this standard to some degree.  There are many rennaisance paintings that use this system by placing their subjects or points of action on those middle lines.  Go ahead and check your rennaisance painting!  I’ll wait…

OK, you back?  I told ya they used it!  Now that we’ve established that, let’s look at the next logical step.

If you notice our rebatted rectangle, it’s divided the original rectangle into three equal parts.  If you create new lines and do the same thing vertically, you divide it into three equal parts that way, too.

Grid Pattern

Rebatted rectangle taken to the next evolution

Does this grid pattern look familiar?  It should, since it’s probably visible in your camera’s viewfinder.  Well, it’s there for a purpose, and we’re going to talk about that now.

Before we talked about improving asthetics by placing your subject on the vertical lines.  Now we can improve it even more by placing the most important part of your subject at one of the intersections of the lines.  Using the lines still works, both horizontally and vertically; but now we have the intersections, and the intersections are more or less ideal places for your subjects.

This process is called The Rule of Thirds; and it’s a photographer’s bread and butter.  Let’s see it in action!

Here we have a picture of a kid examining a model dinosaur.  It’s fairly plain-jane, but has room for some improvement.  You’ll notice the grid that’s likely visible in your viewfinder (if it isn’t, turn it on!)

Notice that, while he’s sort of near the left line, he’s off the intersection.  His face is pretty much right in the middle of the shot, the dinosaur is way off to the right, and not doing much for the look.

Here, we’ve zoomed in a bit so his face is at one intersection, his body follows the left line, and the dinosaur is on the top right intersection.  This creates a more interesting and asthetically pleasing picture.  We now also have a proper amount of headroom for the subject (it is what it sounds like, that’s a whole other tutorial).

As you keep using this rule over time, it will become second nature.  Eventually, you won’t even need the visible grid to place the subjects where they need to be.  There are even some circumstances where creativity dictates that you violate the rule; and that’s fine, this is art after all.

So go out there and practice this technique!

Happy Shooting!


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