Understanding the Rule of Thirds

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If you're a beginning photographer, there's a good chance that you have at least some familiarity with the rule of thirds.

After all, it's probably the most commonly used photography tool and is the subject of many articles, book chapters, YouTube videos, and the like.

It may well have been the very first thing you learned about photography composition too.

But there's a lot more to the rule of thirds than what meets the eye.

It's a powerful compositional tool that can bring more balance and interest to your photos, regardless of whether you primarily take landscapes, portraits, or something in between.

Let's dive into the rule of thirds and explore what it's all about and how it can help you create better photos.

The Rule of Thirds Explained for Landscapes


Explaining the rule of thirds is relatively simple.

When overlaid on an image like the one above, you can see how the rule of thirds breaks the photo into nine quadrants of equal size.

This results in a guideline you can use to position the subject of the image and any interesting supporting elements to create a photo with better visual impact.

To achieve that impact, you simply place elements of interest in one of two places: along one of the grid lines, or, even better, at one of the four intersections of the grid lines.

In the image above, note how the Great Wall of China aligns well with the leftmost vertical grid line, and how it also occupies the area around the bottom left intersection point of the grid.

Also note less obvious things about this image and the rule of thirds.

  • The topmost horizontal grid line is near the horizon of the landscape, which helps our eye give the horizon more prominence in the frame.
  • The bottommost horizontal grid line roughly aligns with the top of the two sides of the wall, which helps create a greater sense of balance in the shot.
  • The tower in the midground roughly aligns with the leftmost vertical grid line as well, again, giving it more prominence and importance in the frame.

The point here is that important elements in the photo don't have to precisely line up with the grid lines or intersection points in order to create a more compelling landscape photo. As long as they are in the ballpark, their importance in the shot will be perceived by viewers.

The Rule of Thirds Explained for Portraits


Just like the rule of thirds can help you position landscape elements for maximum impact, it can also help you position portrait subjects such that the resulting image is as powerful as possible.

In the example image above, note how the photographer used the rule of thirds grid to shift the position of the model's face to the right side of the frame.

While this might at first seem like a move that would make the image feel unbalanced, you'll note that it actually makes the image feel more balanced.

With her body positioned more or less in the middle of the shot, having her lean to our right gives the photo a little more visual interest than if she had been sitting straight up with her head in the middle of the frame.

But also notice how her body position aligns her face with the upper left intersection point of the grid - right where it needs to be to capture the interest of viewers.

Again, as we saw in the landscape image before, in portraits, the alignment of your subjects with the grid lines and intersection points needn't be precise.

In the portrait above, ideally, the model's eyes would have been placed at the intersection point. However, getting it close still has the same visual effect of better balance and improved visual interest.

See the rule of thirds at work in the video below, in which Weekly Imogen breaks down why the rule of thirds is so powerful and applies the rule in real-time, so you can see the benefits of using it for your compositions:

Why the Rule of Thirds Works

If you're to truly master the application of the rule of thirds, it's important to understand not just how to implement it, but why.

As I alluded to earlier, the rule of thirds allows you to create an image with improved balance and visual interest.

This is due in part to the fact that when we look at a photograph, our eyes typically avoid the center of the shot. Instead, our eyes are naturally drawn to the four areas where the rule of thirds lines intersect (thus, that's why those intersection points are placed there).

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So, given that, it stands to reason that by placing the subject of your photograph at one of those intersection points that you'll more easily capture the attention of viewers. In the image above, notice how the dog's snout is placed where an intersection point would occur, thus making the dog's face a stronger point of visual interest.

What's more, shifting the subject to the left or right or above or below the dead middle of the shot helps create a more interesting layout.

This is because it helps you avoid the 1:1 ratio that occurs with a subject in the middle of the shot.

In other words, when there is the same amount of space on either side of a subject, the image can look and feel a little static.

However, by shifting the subject away from the center of the frame, you can create a photo that looks and feels more dynamic, even if there's no indicated movement in the shot.

In fact, this concept works even when you fill the frame with the subject.

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In the image above, you can see how the yellow part of the flower would roughly align with the top-left intersection point of the rule of thirds grid.

As a result, the image has improved visual interest because the subject is shifted away from the center of the shot.

What's more, notice how the line of the petal below the yellow portion of the flower would align with the leftmost grid line of the rule of thirds grid.

Again, this helps direct the eye towards the burst of yellow, creating a shot that is much more active for the viewer to engage with.

Yet Another Use for the Rule of Thirds

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The rule of thirds grid also comes in handy for a very important task for landscape photographers - placing the horizon for maximum impact.

As was discussed earlier with the image of the Great Wall of China, aligning the horizon with one of the horizontal grid lines helps draw the viewer's attention to the horizon.

On the one hand, aligning the horizon with the bottom grid line gives the background and the sky more importance in the shot, which is a good thing to do when photographing things like the sunset seen above.

On the other hand, aligning the horizon with the top grid line allows you to place more emphasis on the foreground, which is advantageous when you have interesting elements in the foreground of the shot. As seen in the image below, this allows you to create a more compelling landscape photo.

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Additionally, the rule of thirds grid can help you get the horizon straight.

No matter how gorgeous the shot you take, if the horizon isn't straight, it will lose a great deal of visual appeal.

By using the rule of thirds grid (which many cameras have on Live View), you can ensure that the horizon isn't just placed effectively in the shot, but that it's also absolutely level.

When Not to Use the Rule of Thirds

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As great of a tool as the rule of thirds is, it isn't the end-all, be-all compositional trick.

In many cases - perhaps even the vast majority of cases - the rule of thirds is appropriate to use.

However, there will be times when breaking the rule of thirds results in a better composition than if you adhere to it.

For example, in the landscape above, note how the two tallest trees in the foreground create a frame within a frame that helps direct our eye toward the middle of the shot - precisely where the rule of thirds tries to prevent our eyes from going.

Yet, this is a successful image and one that's very pleasing to view.

The same concept can be applied to portraits.

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In this fashion portrait, notice how the placement of the woman completely breaks the rule of thirds, yet the image is still pleasing to view.

This is due in part to the vibrant colors to catch the attention of our eyes as well as the model's dark, flowing hair, which contrasts nicely with the bright colors that are abundant in the shot.

The moral of the story is that if you have other means of drawing the viewer's attention - using framing elements like the trees in the previous image or color or texture like in the portrait above, you can get away with breaking the rule of thirds because you have other visual elements to draw the viewer's attention.

In the end, how you implement (or don't implement) the rule of thirds is up to you. Yes, it can make for a stronger image. But knowing when to set the rule aside and do something different is just as important.

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