The rule of thirds the most ubiquitous rule in all of photography. The rule of thirds can be applied to virtually any type of photo, from a portrait to a landscape to a street scene. What’s more, the rule is more easily applied today than ever before - most cameras have a rule of thirds grid that can be engaged such that you can quickly and easily compose a better shot.
But, though the rule of thirds is probably the first rule that new photographers learn, there isn’t much discussion of why it’s important to learn. There might be an understanding of how to use the rule of thirds, but no understanding of how it makes an image more compelling to view.
In this guide, we take a deeper look at the rule of thirds, first defining it, then explaining how and why it works to answer the question, "What is the rule of thirds?" We’ll examine rule of thirds examples along the way, and even offer up some instances in which this rule should be broken.
With that, let’s get started!
Rule of Thirds Definition
The rule of thirds breaks an image into nine equal quadrants using two vertical and two horizontal lines, as seen in the sample image of the Great Wall of China. The resulting grid shows you where to place elements of interest in the shot such that they have maximum impact - along one of the four grid lines, or, even better, at one of the four intersecting points where the horizontal and vertical grid lines meet.
Using the image of the Great Wall of China as an example, note how the wall in the foreground and the tower both align with the leftmost vertical line of the grid. Note how the horizon line - the mountain peaks in the background - roughly align with the uppermost line of the grid as well. The photographer has used the rule of thirds to place these elements of interest along planes that maximize their impact, just as the rule suggests you do when composing a landscape photo.
Rule of Thirds Photography
Essentially, the rule of thirds allows viewers to engage with the photo in a more natural way. But how?
Our eyes tend to avoid the center of a shot, instead, going first to the areas where the rule of thirds lines intersect. Thus, placing objects of visual interest at one of those intersection points makes sense. It’s a way to use our natural visual tendencies to grab the viewer’s attention and pull them toward the subject of the shot.
So, why does this work? With the rule of thirds grid to guide you, you can create an image that avoids the 1:1 ratio that results when the subject is placed in the middle of the frame. That is, a 1:1 ratio occurs when there is an equal amount of space on either side of the subject. Instead, by creating an image with a 1:2 ratio, like the portrait of the young woman at sunset in which she is placed to the right of center, the image looks and feels more dynamic.
Quite simply, it’s a more interesting shot to view than if she had been placed smack in the middle of the frame. By shifting her to one side, the viewer’s eye has to move around to find her. Additionally, because there is so much space to explore on the left side of the image, it becomes a much more interactive photo.
Let’s use another image to further illustrate how the rule of thirds helps create a more interactive image and helps you master composition.
Looking at the sample image of the mountain biker, you can see that, again, the subject has been placed to the right of center near the rightmost vertical grid line (note how the biker’s body aligns well with the uppermost grid line as well). With his placement there, the eye is drawn to the right side of the photo. But, because the biker’s movement is clearly going to the left, the eye now follows that implied movement to the left as well. The result is that you engage more deeply with the photo because the eye has a place to go.
What’s more, even though the biker is shifted to the right side of the image, there is the perception of greater balance in the photo. If he’d been placed in the middle of the frame, the image would feel static and stuck. There would be no visual space for the biker to move into, nor would your eye have anyplace to go. So, even though there is more interest in the right side of the shot, the ability for our eyes to move to the left to see where the biker is headed allows the image to seem more balanced.
Photography Rule of Thirds: Horizons
The rule of thirds has an additional use - making images more interesting through the placement of horizons. Generally speaking, if you’re presented with a scene that has a lot of interesting elements in the foreground - or, conversely, has an uninteresting background - placing the horizon near the uppermost horizontal grid line helps you maximize the view of the interesting foreground elements.
In the sample image of the seascape, you can see how this strategy works. The sky has some interest, but the texture in the foreground rocks is far more interesting. By shifting the horizon upwards, the photographer is able to give us a better glimpse of those rocks, thereby introducing more texture and color into the scene.
Additionally, shifting the horizon line towards the bottom of the frame and placing it nearer the bottommost horizontal grid line, you can highlight an interesting background and minimize the view of a foreground that doesn’t offer much visual interest. This strategy works well in the image of the Northern Lights because it allowed the photographer to give us a fuller view of the gorgeous sky while minimizing the featureless and dark lake in the foreground.
The rule of thirds grids can also be used to help you keep the horizon straight. Just line it up with the horizontal gridline and you'll be able to avoid one of the most common composition mistakes: having a crooked horizon.
Rule of Thirds: When to Break It
Now that you have a deeper understanding of the rule of thirds, how it’s used and why, we can discuss why breaking the rule can be as advantageous as complying with it.
If you think about the purpose of the rule - to add interest and balance to a shot - there are instances in which completely breaking the rule actually gives the image more interest and balance.
Looking at the image of the Taj Mahal, you can see how the building is placed right in the middle of the frame. What’s more, the horizon line is also in the middle of the frame, yet the image still works. When it comes to balance, it’s hard to get a more precisely balanced shot than this. The visual weight is well proportioned from top to bottom and left to right.
There is also a lot of visual interest in the image to keep our eyes engaged, from shapes to patterns, lines to textures, and light and shadows. If you think about it, using the rule of thirds in this instance would have generated an image that just doesn’t make sense (just imagine the scene had the Taj Mahal been shifted to the left side of the image).
This concept works with portraits as well. Consider the candid portrait of the little girl and her pregnant mother as a prime example of how to break the rule of thirds. Note how the focal point of the image - the girl’s eyes - are placed along the vertical midline of the shot. Yet, the image still feels interesting. This placement allowed the photographer to give more importance to the girl placing her hand on mom’s belly.
Had the scene been shifted to the left, we wouldn’t have as good a view of this interaction because part of the belly and the hand would be cut off. Conversely, had the scene been shifted to the right, there would be too much dead space on the left side of the frame. So, again, breaking the rule of thirds generated the best possible outcome.
The rule of thirds is one of the three main rules of photography that have made countless photos better over the years. Yet, as we’ve learned here, there is a time and a place for using the rule and instances in which it’s best to simply throw it out the door.
Likewise, there are instances in which the composition doesn't perfectly fit the rule of thirds (like the image above), but it's close enough that it still has the effect of helping you create a balanced shot.
A good exercise is to look for rule of thirds examples not just in photography, but also rule of thirds in art - paintings, in particular.
By learning more about it and practicing using the rule of thirds in photography, you’ll become more adept at knowing when to use it and when to skip it. The result? More compelling images that keep viewers engaged. Who doesn’t want that?