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Visual composition: the “Rule of thirds”

September 20, 2010

Sometimes it’s the simple things that get overlooked most.

There is a fascinatingly simple and effective rule that shows up in lots of contexts called the “Rule of Thirds.”  The first time I encountered this was a photography course back in the days of 35mm SLR cameras and Kodachrome film. The rule is simple, powerful and really fundamental in photo composition. But the rule is just as powerful when used for presentation slides.

While lots of people have heard of it, I’ve been surprised at how few actually know what it is—and understand how it can be applied to presentation visuals. So, here’s a couple of tips for better photography and better presentations.

The dead-center trap

The most common thing people do that makes their photographs unexciting is to put the subject of the shot dead center. “Dead” is exactly right—that spot is a visual null. The rule-of-thirds evolved out of the experience of artists and photographers, and now there’s brain-science that confirms it. The essential point is this: our visual system notices off-center things first and most intensely. On a rectangle like a photograph, painting or a PowerPoint slide, this has several effects, but here we’ll focus on the two most powerful applications.

The horizon linesPlain rectangle showing horizon lines one third up and two thirds up.

The first has to do with horizon lines.

Tip: put the horizon either one third up from the bottom or two thirds up.

Whenever you take a picture with a horizon, do not put it at the center—the picture will ‘feel’ much better if you apply the rule of thirds.

This rule also influences how the audience sees and reacts to our presentation slides, even if what we’re showing isn’t a photo and doesn’t actually have a horizon line. If there’s a strong horizontal element on the slide and it falls on one of those horizontal thirds, it will again ‘feel’ better and get noticed more. This probably has to do with our brains creating a horizon there even where there isn’t one. This can work for us to subtly emphasize something on a slide. But the effect is there whether we want it or not, so it can also work against us by drawing the viewer’s eye to something that we didn’t intend to be a focal point on the slide. So look at the slides carefully and if there’s something on a horizon line that isn’t the focus of the slide, try moving things around a little and you might be surprised at how a subtle change can give the slide a very different visual impact.

Hot spots

Image rectangle with 4 grid lines at one third points horizontal & vertical.The second big impact is illustrated if we add vertical lines at the 1/3 points. This time what counts aren’t the lines but rather the four intersections of the lines. This is the grid that digital cameras often have the option of putting in the viewfinder.

Tip: anything that appears at one of the intersection points gains visual impact.

When you’re taking people pictures, this can have a dramatic impact on how the viewer reacts to the image.

Tip: for portraits, the eyes of the subject should be very near one of the two top “hot spots” and the face oriented so it looks toward the center.

If you want to see how much this matters, here’s an experiment. Load a suitable image (full body or head-and-shoulders work best) into an editor and crop it to create a two images: one with the person’s eyes dead center and one that puts the eyes on an upper hotspot. The difference is normally quite obvious and often dramatic. Another bit of visual drama that you can do with that shot is to then reverse it, keeping the eyes on the hotspot but cropped so the person is looking “out” of the image. The difference is dramatic.

In fact, it can be pretty amazing how different it looks with the person’s eyes placed on each of the four hotspots.  Try the variations on a couple spots where they are looking in and looking out. Striking, isn’t it?

This principle applies equally well to composing presentation slides.

Tip: on a slide anything placed at a hotspot gains impact—whether you wanted it to have it or not.

Our visual system “wants” the important part of that image on one of those spots and we need extra processing time to absorb the content if it’s not there.  The brain starts by assuming that’s true and needs extra processing to figure out that the real subject is something else.

Breaking the rule

Like any other guideline, there are times when you will need to break this rule. You shouldn’t ever ignore it, but sometimes there will be an overriding reason and breaking it will be necessary. That changes nothing about the how the audience will see your photograph or slide—it means that you know where their eyes will go first, but you’ve consciously decided to take that little bit of distraction in trade for something else. It also means that you’ll be sensitive to the fact that you may need some other way (color or contrast, for instance) to compensate and get the audience’s attention where you need it to be.

Bottom line

Avoid the “dead center.” Remember the rule of thirds and how it creates both horizon lines and hot spots. Your pictures will be more interesting and your presentation visuals more effective.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. sandraknz permalink
    October 11, 2010 16:13

    I’m in a video production class here in Madison, and we just talked about this!

    • October 11, 2010 16:17

      Interesting — anything you think worth adding? Did they talk about why it works?

  2. October 22, 2011 03:54

    Synchronicity strikes again. I am an artist teaching and writing about learning how to use your right brain and how to see. Putting together free tips for taking better photographs. I would love to refer to and link this article as a resource in the tips. May I?

    It works because it replicates the proportions of the human face! Proportionately, the eyes are about 1/3 of the way from the top of the head. The human face is the pattern from which the rule of thirds was developed. The pupils of the eyes and corners of the mouth = the vertical divisions and hot spots. Mouths = the lower third division, being 1/3 of the way up from the bottom.
    Our brains are programmed to recognize the familiar and then process to individuate. Recognizing human faces is part of our genetic programming. Looking at eyes and mouths is how we read people, starting as babies.
    Human proportions are frequently used in art, architecture, design. The early marriage of science and art, forgotten by left brainers. Check out this article about Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitruvian_Man

    Useful and well written article. Thanks!

    • October 23, 2011 15:21

      Of course. Glad you found it useful. It’s really basic but it always surprises me how many folks don’t know it.

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  1. Is a picture really worth a 1000 words? « Presentation Impact

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