This is a guide covering the “rule of thirds.” The rule of thirds is an important composition technique that every photographer or videographer should know and utilize — but since I am a photographer, I will mostly be explaining it in the context of photography.
This is where the famous saying “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” is coming from. Our eyes have a distinct point of interest, which may be different from the eyes of others.
When you take a photograph, it is best to wear two sets of eyes; your eyes and the eyes of your viewers.
With this, there is one rule in photography that should be considered; and that is the “rule of thirds.” This rule is one of the fundamentals in the field of photography.
Pros, amateurs, and beginners are called to consider this to make their shots more interesting.
This photography rule is all about placing your objects at the point of interest. Doing this will make your photo eye-pleasing.
What is the Rule of Thirds?
The rule of thirds is a “rule” that means dividing your image or video into three equal lines horizontally and vertically. The corners of your central square will be the intersections. Intersections are critical in a photo because it is where you will position your subject. Following this rule means placing your photo subject into a perfect position so whoever will view it will see the main point you want to convey.
As mentioned above, this rule is one of the fundamentals of photography.
When you take a photo, you want nothing but for people to appreciate it.
Implementing it in your photo shoots will help you achieve that.
And when it comes to this rule, one thing should be top of mind; that is aligning perspective.
1. Aligning Perspective
Perspective is an essential factor in photography.
In any photo, there is a central focus, and the goal is for the viewer to see that.
One photo may have many perspectives, but if you want to highlight one or two, you should be using the rule of thirds.
If your viewers are clueless about the thing you are stressing, this rule will help them refocus on that point.
You need not explain what it is; you need not write long captions or even write an article of explanation.
A good photo can speak for itself, and you will be able to deliver that quality if you follow this rule.
2. Digesting Rule of Thirds
The first thing to consider is this is a rule.
Photography is creativity, and we all know that creativity knows no bounds.
So why insert rules?
Rules are set to make things in order. When you’re taking photos, you usually have a target subject. You don’t want to have a burst of subjects and allow them to clutter your photo.
There’s a clear message that will be represented by the subject of your photo.
This is where rules should come in. If you allow the rule of 3rds in photography to guide you, you will be successful in positioning your subject.
3. Focusing on “Thirds”
Next is to focus on the word “thirds.”
Thirds here means dividing your photo into three equal lines horizontally and vertically.
Doing this means dividing your photo into nine perfect squares.
Your point of interest must be within the bounds of the intersections. You should not place it inside a square; else, your viewers will lose sight of your subject.
The bottom line, following this rule is placing your photo subject into a perfect position so whoever will view it will see the main point you want to convey.
Why Do We Use the Rule of Thirds in Photography?
Here are some key points on why this is essential in photography.
1. Creating Eye-Pleasing Photo
Instead of creating an eye-catching photo, why not make it eye-pleasing?
Because eye-catching could mean two things. The positive side is you are showing an attractive photo. The negative side is creating an eyesore or something that will make your viewer frown.
Yet, both mentioned are eye-catching. Whereas, an eye-pleasing photo wows the eye and draws the viewer closer to the photo, and will make them look at it longer.
If you follow this rule, you are sure to create eye-pleasing photos because you are putting your photo elements in their proper perspective and creating one or two focal points where the viewers should concentrate.
2. Targeting the Eye Focus
According to studies, when one looks at a photo, the focus is not basically on the center.
More often than not, the eyes are focused on the sides. And if one is already looking at a certain point in the photo, it is difficult for the eyes to refocus.
So, what happens is the eyes stay at one end, and that is usually not in the center.
The Rule of Thirds in photography validates this. That is why the focal point is never at the center. The focal points are situated in the intersections, which are the four corners of the middle square.
This just simply says that this rule meets the focus of the eyes. Where your eyes are focused, that is where you apply this principle.
3. To Have a Balanced Image
Again, this rule would like to defy the old belief that the center is the best place to position your subject.
A balanced image must draw the viewers to look at the whole picture if not at the intersections.
Putting the subject at the center somehow erases the appreciation of the entire photo. It is merely saying that the other portion of the photo is not worth looking at.
Applying this rule will balance the image.
If you put your subject at the intersections, you are enticing the eyes to roam around the photo from the sides to the center to the other sides of the corners.
4. Attracting the Viewer to the Point of Interest
Say you have a specific subject in the photo where you want your viewers to focus, or you don’t want your viewers to spot an eyesore in your photo, using the rule of thirds will solve this.
The eyes will automatically focus on the intersections where your target subject is if you are applying the rule.
In this case, you can divert the focus instead of seeing that tiny error or eyesore that you don’t want them to see.
What is the Theory Behind the Rule of Thirds?
Rule of thirds they say is a rule of thumb in photography.
It is not a required law to be followed, but more of a universal guideline to make the photos pleasing to the eyes. The theory explains that in a photo, there should be a balance of everything.
“A balance of lightness and darkness, warm colors to dull colors and other elements.”
This theory started way back in the 18th century through a painter, writer, and engraver John Thomas Smith.
He wrote a book titled Remarks on Rural Scenery where he quoted Sir Joshua Reynolds and highlighted the following:
“Two distinct, equal lights, should never appear in the same picture.”
There should be contrast within a picture. The whole photo should never be so bright or so dark.
There should be a portion that will display a little less dark while the rest may be showing the sunshiny day.
This sounds rational.
Try looking at a photo where the whole picture reveals a bright sunny day at the park. Bet you’ll frown because it is too bright for the eyes.
“One should be principal, and the rest subordinate, both in dimension and degree.”
Just like in a story, there is exposition, and there’s a climax.
In a movie, there’s the main actor, and there’s the villain. The same is applied to a photo.
There should only be one principal, which should be the center of attraction, and the rest are subordinates.
A good photo should be able to highlight the principal without making the viewer clueless about what it is.
“Unequal parts and gradations lead the attention easily from part to part.”
Move away from the concept of equal parts in photography. An excellent blending of photo elements is best shown in unequal partitions and successive changes. This concept excites the one who looks at a photo—looking at a specific part with anticipation of the more exciting part on the other side of the photo.
“And to give the utmost force and solidity to your work, some part of the picture should be as light, and some as dark as possible.”
Again, this is what we call contrast. There should be two extremes in a photo, and you should be able to synchronize the two to form an eye-pleasing photo.
In summary, the theory behind this rule is to create contrast, extremes, and variances in a photo. Through these, one will know that there is a focal point to look at; and not all that you see are subjects.
How to Use the Rule of Thirds in Your Photography?
The general rule was mentioned in this article a couple of times.
The subject should be placed in one of the intersecting lines to create a focal point.
The latest digital camera, as well as mobile photo cameras, has a built-in rule of thirds functionality; hence, you will now find it easy to follow the rule.
But let’s dig deeper and explore the different facets of photography where we can use this.
1. Portrait Photography
Portrait photography is by far the most straightforward photography form where you can use the rule of thirds.
With the concept in mind, you can easily position the subject on the intersecting lines.
Whether you want to highlight the face, the eyes, the hands, or any part, you just position it before you take a shot.
The question here is where you will place the subject. Top or bottom intersections? Left, or right? This is something you can experiment on.
You can combine this rule with the other provisions in photography. If the subject is looking at the left, the position of the subject should be on the right part.
Another is if there is too much light in the photo, you put your subject on the darker part to create a good contrast.
2. Street Photography
There’s not much time to think about how you will apply this rule when taking street photos, especially when your subject is moving.
In street photography, just remember that people read from left to right. Placing the subject on the left will catch the attention right away.
3. Negative Space
This just means that if your subject is a repeating pattern, do not allow it to overpower itself by highlighting it as a whole in one image.
Create a negative space.
This is positioning your subject at one or two-thirds of the grid, and the rest will be your negative space.
Negative space will bring the eyes of the viewer to the focal point.
There are other opportunities to experiment when applying the rule of thirds. Again, this is just a universal guide.
You can tweak it or even break it just to make your photo more eye-pleasing.
Can You Break the Rule of Thirds?
Yes, of course!
But generally speaking, a rule is worth breaking if you already mastered it.
So before thinking of breaking the rule, make sure you are already a master of it.
In that case, breaking it will result in more enticing photos.
So, when can you break the rules? Here are some instances:
- When the whole photo is the subject
- When you are highlighting a vast scenery
- When you are taking shots of symmetrical photos
- Camera or Smartphone
- Grid Overlay
- Image Editing Software
- Online Grid Overlay
- Photography App (Optional)
- Understand the grid: Familiarize yourself with the concept of the Rule of Thirds grid. Imagine dividing your frame into nine equal parts by drawing two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. This grid will guide you in placing key elements within your composition.
- Identify your main subject: Determine the primary subject or focal point of your composition. It could be a person, an object, or a specific element you want to emphasize. Once you've identified the subject, consider how you can position it along the grid lines or at the intersections to create a visually appealing balance.
- Balance your composition: Consider the other elements in your scene and how they interact with the main subject. Aim to place secondary objects or supporting elements along the grid lines or at the intersecting points to create a sense of balance and harmony within the frame. This helps guide the viewer's eye and adds visual interest to the overall composition.
- Utilize negative space: Negative space refers to the empty areas in your composition. Instead of placing your subject at the center of the frame, consider positioning it along one of the grid lines or intersections while leaving some empty space around it. This use of negative space can add depth, emphasis, and a sense of openness to your composition.
- Experiment and adapt: While the Rule of Thirds is a useful guideline, it's essential to remember that it's not a strict rule. Feel free to experiment with variations and alternative compositions. In some cases, deviating from the rule can create more dynamic and unique visuals. Trust your artistic intuition and adapt the rule to suit the specific context and desired effect of your composition.
It’s Time to Practice
Now it’s time to practice the rule of thirds. Grab your camera and take shots applying this concept. Compare your shots to your old photos and see the difference.
Frequently Asked Questions
When should you use rule of thirds?
The rule of thirds is typically used in photography and visual arts to create balanced and visually appealing compositions by dividing the frame into nine equal parts using two horizontal and two vertical lines, and placing the main elements of interest along these lines or at their intersections.
What is the risk to using rule of thirds?
The risk of using the rule of thirds too rigidly is that it can lead to predictable and formulaic compositions, lacking creativity and spontaneity. Over-reliance on the rule may also limit experimentation and hinder the exploration of alternative, unconventional compositions that could convey unique artistic expressions.
What part of the rule of thirds should be avoided?
One aspect of the rule of thirds that should be avoided is strictly adhering to it in every composition, as it can stifle creativity and limit compositional options. Additionally, blindly placing all elements precisely on the intersecting points can result in compositions that appear contrived or forced, lacking a natural flow or visual interest.
Nate Torres is an entrepreneur, growth marketer, and photographer and writes mostly on those topics. Nate runs his own professional photography business and photography blog called Nate Torres Photography. Nate enjoys learning about new digital marketing strategy and new ways to think creatively. He is also a photography speaker and author on Photofocus.