Lesson Ten: The Rule of Thirds

Composing images is one of, if not the most, important components of photography. The way a scene is presented completely determines a viewer’s reaction and can help trigger specific emotions and responses.

So, naturally, the question arises: “What’s the best way to compose an image?”

While there’s no surefire answer, the Rule of Thirds is a guiding principle to use when composing subject matter within a frame. Use this article to learn everything you need to know about utilizing the Rule of Thirds.

Who uses the Rule of Thirds?

This one’s pretty easy — photographers, videographers, cinematographers, and so on. Basically, anyone who uses a camera frequently in their professional or personal creative work.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

The Rule of Thirds is a photography guideline that dictates an image be divided into nine equal sections by evenly spaced horizontal and vertical lines. The Rule of Thirds technique requires that photographers/videographers align their subject matter with the areas where these lines intersect. By doing so, a balanced image is naturally created, which enhances the viewers’ initial interaction with the photo.

For example, look at the two images below. Both are the same, but the image on the left shows a superimposed Rule of Thirds grid, which allows you to see how the subject matter has been composed in the frame using the intersecting lines.

The rule of thirds can also be used to create “sections” of the photograph. Take a look at the image below, and notice how using the Rule of Thirds helps create three horizontal sections of the subject matter.

Though most commonly associated with horizontal images, the Rule of Thirds also applies to vertical, square, and oblong photographs.

When to utilize the Rule of Thirds

Long answer short … as often or as little as you like.

The Rule of Thirds isn’t so much a rule as it is a guideline, which really just means that you can take it or leave it according to your own creative preference. Some photographers swear by the Rule of Thirds, while others avoid it like the plague. It’s a good technique to know how to use, which also makes it easier to break.

Where should I break the Rule of Thirds?

Like the saying goes: rules are meant to be broken. The Rule of Thirds is no different.

Sometimes it will need to be broken out of necessity — your camera won’t zoom in far enough, proper balance requires a central or symmetrical subject, you can’t physically get to the right angle to properly compose, and so on. But other times, you’ll want to purposefully break the Rule of Thirds.

Take a look at the images below, none of which adhere to the Rule of Thirds. Instead, all frame the subject matter to put emphasis on the image as a whole. Your eye is supposed to take in the entirety, not a single detail.

Or, examine the photographs below. Instead of using the lines of intersection (shown on the left), the subject matter is framed to create interesting, dynamic images that imply movement in other ways (shown on the right).


Why does it work?

Photographers that are new to their craft will often position their subject in the center, since it seems like the most obvious way to capture a scene. This, however, isn’t the most dynamic way to go about shooting because it creates a more static image.

The human eye is also drawn to natural points of intersection, so putting your subject matter at those places where the Rule of Thirds grid lines intersect will ensure  that you’re engaging your audience members’ gaze and attention.

Finally, when your subject matter is placed closer to the outside of the frame (at one of the intersecting grid lines), it creates the illusion of movement. Using the lines to imply activity also helps produce captivating images — if your subject matter gives the impression of continual movement, the viewers’ eyes will naturally follow it. Movement, in turn, creates a more interesting photo — one that is more difficult to look away from quickly or scroll past on an Instagram feed.

Do you have any questions about the Rule of Thirds? Have you tried any of the techniques we suggested? Let us know in the comments below, or check out our other photography guides!