Photography: Rule of Thirds, Explained

I had a new intern/assistant start with me last week, and we went on a photoshoot together at La Pecora Bianca in Bryant Park (wonderful Italian food, and one of my first clients back when I started my biz in 2018). While we were there, we discussed various food photography tips and I brought up the rule of thirds.

If you don’t know what that is, here’s a brief summary, but I will include a link and images because it’s much easier to explain using visuals. And speaking of visuals, shameless plug but if you haven’t tried my Lightroom Presets, they’re linked here! $5 for 10 presets and they really make your photos pop.

The “rule of thirds” is a general “rule of thumb” for composition in photography. Four lines are drawn, two horizontal and two vertical, dividing the image into nine equal squares. Then, the subjects should be placed at the intersection of the lines, in the middle of each square, or on the lines. Here’s a few examples:

As you can see in the above example, which is a little more complex, the edge of the pan and corners of the plate are at the intersection of a line, the top and bottom of the bread is at an intersection as well, and the bread pieces are in the upper right quadrant, with a towel in the bottom right quadrant, filling the negative space.

If you don’t know this already, you can turn on “photo grid” on your iPhone to take photos using the rule of thirds from now on. Go to settings > camera > enable grid (for iPhone). It will significantly improve your photography if you actually pay attention to it. I cannot shoot on my phone without it now. Well, I can, but I don’t want to.

I’m not sure how or why this started, but I know it’s based on our brains/eyes and how they work. Even numbers provide symmetry while odd numbers create visual intrigue – our eyes are immediately forced to move around. Think about other things that are typically paired in threes:

Band names: Blood, Sweat and Tears. Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Slogans: Snap, crackle, pop. I’m lovin it. Just do it. Finger lickin good.

Writing/quotes: I came, I saw, I conquered. Signed, sealed, delivered. And obviously…LIVE LAUGH LOVE.

Even in comedy, jokes are often told in threes, sometimes known as “the comic triple”. Think about most old jokes (that are usually heavily stereotyped, but let’s put that aside for two seconds for the purposes of this example), it’s usually something like, “a priest, a rabbi, and a horse walk into a bar.” The first two are normal, while the third one is the punchline or in this case, the surprise element that keeps you interested.

So anyway, now that you understand the power of three, keep it in mind when shooting. If your subject is a dish up front with two dishes in the background, add a third (and ideally, all dishes in various sizes) to create a small triangle. You’ll notice right away it’s more visually appealing.

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