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Yes, there is a Rule of Thirds for 360 cameras! Why you should not shoot at eye level

Rule of Thirds for 360 cameras
Rule of Thirds for 360 cameras

Could it be that one of the most common rules for 360 photos and videos actually doesn’t work?  The Rule of Thirds for 360 is a new approach to composition and I bet that it will improve your photos and videos.

00:00​ Intro
00:18​ Why do we shoot from eye level?
02:03​ When is the eye level rule wrong?
03:32​ What is the rule of thirds? What is the golden ratio and golden spiral?
04:17​ What is a reframed photo or video?
05:25​ How do you apply the rule of thirds to a 360 photo or 360 video?
07:46​ How to apply rule of thirds for 360 with different aspect ratios?
08:08​ What about virtual tours?

BACKGROUND

For the longest time, 360 shooters have been advised to put their camera at eye level.  This is a rule that has been used not just by 360 camera shooters but even by several professional virtual tour shooters as well.  But could it be that in most cases, this rule is actually wrong?

THE EYE LEVEL RULE

One of the most commonly used techniques for setting the camera height for 360 photos is to shoot at eye level.  The reason given for the rule is that the viewer will see the photo or video from the perspective of the camera height.  If the camera is at one foot above the ground, the viewer will have a one foot tall perspective.  Conversely, if the camera is shot from 10 feet high, then the viewer will see the photo from a 10-foot high perspective.  Based on this, it would seem as if the best height for shooting a 360 photo or video would be around eye level, which is why it is one of the most common 360 camera techniques.

LIMITS OF THE EYE LEVEL RULE

Although the eye level rule seems to make sense, in actual practice, it does not always work.  In this example, the camera was at eye level.  Yet when we view the shot, it seems that I am too low in the photo (this is a framegrab from the video):

Eye level camera: I appear too low in the shot
Eye level camera: I appear too low in the shot (frame grab from a 360 video)

This is a 360 video so I can swipe the screen to force my head into the rule of thirds.  But when I do that, my head looks disproportionately large and my feet look small.  Moreover, the vertical lines in the shot are no longer vertical but are instead converging downward.

When the eye level shot is adjusted to move the head higher in the shot, it results in converging verticals
When the eye level shot is adjusted to move the head higher in the shot, it results in converging verticals

As you can see, the eye level rule does not appear to result in a good composition.  But why?  That’s because it holds true only when the viewer is looking at the 360 photo or video through a VR headset, which few people do.  I’m not criticizing VR headsets.  In fact, I am a VR enthusiast, have several VR headsets, and I use my VR headsets regularly.  But even I generally do not use VR headsets to view 360 photos or videos (unless it’s in 3D 360).  Rather, like most people, I view 360 photos and videos on my phone or laptop.

From left to right: Oculus Quest, Quest 2 and Rift S
From left to right: I often use Oculus Quest, Quest 2 and Rift S.  But even I must admit that I seldom use VR headsets to view 360 photos and videos.

On a phone or laptop, when an eye-level shot is viewed at default zoom levels, and without adjusting the pitch, the head will appear approximately along the middle of the frame, which is generally undesirable for composition, as shown in the sample above.

RULE OF THIRDS FOR 360 PHOTOS AND VIDEOS

If the eye-level rule does not work (unless viewing from a VR headset), what then is the best height for a 360 camera?  One option could be to use the Rule of Thirds, which most photographers and videographers are familiar with.  An approximation of the golden ratio, the rule of thirds is a time-honored rule of composition that places important compositional elements along the lines or intersection of a 3 x 3 grid.

The question is how to apply the rule of thirds to a 360 photo or video, which are in equirectangular format?  I have found that the key is to change the camera height according to the distance of the camera to the user.  Imagine a diagonal line sloping downward from your eyes, around 30 degrees to a point around 5 feet from you.  If you place the camera anywhere on that line, your head will be in the upper horizontal line of the rule of thirds when the photo or video is viewed from a phone or laptop at default zoom levels.  Beyond about 5 feet, the camera would be at around your waist level.

Rule of Thirds for 360: camera height varies with distance
Rule of Thirds for 360: camera height varies with distance

Here is a comparison of frame grabs from a video shot at eye level compared to one shot with the Rule of Thirds for 360 (in this case, waist level).

Left: eye-level shot; Right: rule of thirds for 360 (waist-level at 5 feet)
Left: eye-level shot; Right: rule of thirds for 360 (waist-level at 5 feet)

CONCLUSION

The eye level rule for 360 photos and videos is useful when the photo or video is viewed in a VR headset.  However, when the photo or video will be viewed on a conventional non-VR display, the eye level rule results in a photo where the subject’s head is usually along the middle of the frame, which is too low for a pleasant composition.  Instead, because most viewers will not be viewing 360 photos and videos with a VR headset, the camera height should be adjusted so that it falls along a line sloping downward 30 degrees from your head to waist level when the camera is around 4 or 5 feet away.   This approach results in the head being placed at or near the upper horizontal line of the rule of thirds.

 

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Mic Ty

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  • It’s funny that you bring this up because I noticed exactly that with a photographer shooting with a 3D 180 rig (made up of two Sony’s). He posted his images as 3D anaglyphs (equirectangular) and in all of them the bottom of his human subjects was cut off while there was a wide space above the head. I mentioned that to him, but he didn’t seem to understand why that occurred.

    • Great example Francois! Yes, some photographers cannot imagine that the eye level rule is not always right. IIRC, I think ZCam or Kandao recommended to their customers to shoot shoulder height instead of eye level.

    • Hey there Richard. Yes for 360 photos you need to consider whether you’ll be showing in VR or not. For reframed 360 photos or videos, it’s not an issue.

  • Interesting. I think there is an even better solution:

    Keep shooting at eye level and crop the image at the top so your head appears at the 1/3 line instead of the 1/2 line.

    That way you have the least amount of distortion on your head and your waist isn’t overpronounced like with your solution. The drawback is of course the loss of image resolution. But there’s always a compromise when reframing for 2d.

  • It’s best to shoot at eye level and then crop the top part to achieve the golden ratio if viewed on a screen snd not a headset.

    • Yes it is possible to do it that way but because it is cropped / zoomed in, then the photo will appear less detailed. In addition, cropping freely is not always an option. For example, on the Insta360 app, there are preset aspect ratios, and you can even zoom in or zoom out but you can’t just crop the top part.