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What are the 'rule of thirds' and 'negative space' - when are they used in photography?

Updated: Jun 10, 2021

Learning the beginnings and basics of photography can be a daunting challenge to pretty much every one who decides they would like to pick up a camera and wanting to take steps away from ‘point and shoot’.

Don't be overwhelmed - it's far less complicated than you think

At first, rather than be overwhelmed by all the technicalities of shutter speeds, ISO, aperture and all manner of wizardry that your camera is capable of, perhaps spend time concentrating on what photography is essentially about; capturing thought-provoking, story telling images of your subject. And by this, I mean learning about your chosen subjects so you can anticipate and compose your images. After all, being able to compose your image in a visually pleasing way, is the foundation on which your skill and technical abilities will be built upon.

The 'rule of thirds' and negative space

Within photography there is something called the ‘rule of thirds’ and negative space - If you decide to enrol in a photography class or workshop - it will probably be one of the first topic that will be covered as it’s considered one of the most useful techniques in photography. It will aide you in creating a well-balanced, organised and engaging composition.

As with everything, this will take time and practise, but you’ll soon begin to see a marked difference in the images you capture and even the beginnings of your own style.

The human mind is quirky - more often than not it likes to have things organised and compartmentalised in order to make more sense.

Essentially; the rule of thirds involves mentally dividing and breaking up your image using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines (like applying a nine-square grid to your composition). Then you line up the important elements of in your scene along these lines or at the intersecting points where they meet. Most modern cameras have an option to apply an overlay grid within the viewfinder, this will help you get to grips with the rule of third reasonably quickly.

The concept is that an off-centre composition is more natural and visually appealing than one which has the subject placed right in the middle of the frame - depending on the composition and final image you have in mind. It helps you to frame your subject and encourages you to become more creative with your use of ‘negative space’ - the empty areas around your subject. It makes you think about what the important elements are within your image, trying to position them on, or at least close to the line and intersections of the grid. The elements don’t have to be perfectly lined up but try to get them close.

With practise you’ll quickly become more adventurous with your compositions and will start experimenting with placing your subjects in different areas of the frame.

If you’re photographing landscapes or a stationary subject, all this is fairly straightforward. But what if your subject is moving? The same principals still apply - but try to pay attention to the direction of movement or in the direction your subject is looking in to. A good idea is to leave more space in the direction of travel and interest… to show and lead the eye to where they are going or looking.

Don’t worry if you don’t always get it completely right, or more importantly, to your liking, when capturing the image. Editing software usually has various grids as options within their crop tools, allowing you to reposition the important elements within your image into a more visually pleasing order.

When should you not rigidly use the rule of thirds?

One point I will stress. You don’t have to rigidly stick to this ‘rule’. Think of it more like a guideline. It certainly won’t apply to every image you capture. Sometimes breaking this rule will result in a more eye-catching and interesting image. By all means, experiment. Test out different compositions, even if they go against all the rules you’ve learned from other people.

It’s all part of a learning curve and the journey to creating your own style. However, learn to use the rule of thirds effectively before you bend or break it… this way you can be sure you’re doing it in order to create a more interesting composition, rather than just for the sake of it… The below image is a good example of not rigidly sticking to all the rules. I was fortunate enough to capture this image of a Wild Dog as it looked directly at me, whilst moving directly towards me. If I had positioned the subject to the left or right of the frame, it might not have worked as well.

What is negative space and how to use it?

The easiest way to explain what negative space is, is simply the area around the main subject of your image. Combining this with an understanding of the rule of thirds will enable you to create more engaging images.

When deciding on a composition and which area to apply the rule of thirds, always try to give preference to the direction your subject is either looking or moving in to, remembering to leave this as the majority of the negative space in your composition. For example; if your subject is looking from right to left, position your subject just off centre leaving more space to left of your subject to create a more pleasing and engaging image.

Of course there will be times when neither the rule of thirds or negative space might not be appropriate to your image but I hope this article gives you a little clarity and explanation in to how to begin improving your photography!

Take care and I look forward to sharing my passion for wildlife photography with you soon!

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