What is The Rule of Thirds?

What is The Rule of Thirds?

The “Rule of Thirds” is one of the first compositional tools that you should learn. It is a simple concept that can help you create well balanced and interesting photographs. Once you understand how the rule works, you will start to see it used in all types of photography. Even though it has the word Rule in it, you should consider it a concept rather than something that you must follow and must apply to your composition. Ignoring this one doesn’t mean your images are necessarily bad. My advice to you is that if you learn the rule first to make sure that when you do break it, it’s for the right reason.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

The basic idea behind the rule of thirds is to break an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you end up with a grid.

A white rectangle with two equally spaced lines vertically and horizontally.

Some cameras can display a rule of thirds grid on back of the camera or even onto the viewfinder. If you don’t have a grid in your camera, just imagine one.

Once you have your grid, you will also have four points where the lines intersect. It’s these intersection points that we should really pay attention to.

An example of the rule of thirds grid with intersection highlights

Put elements of particular interest where the lines intersect. Use the lines for vertical or horizontal elements such as  trees or horizons.

The reason the Rule of Thirds works is that an off-centre composition is more pleasing to the eye and looks more natural than one where the subject is placed right in the middle of the frame. By doing this, you make creative use of the empty areas around your subject which is know as negative space.

How to use the Rule of Thirds

What we’re looking to do first is to decide what element in the scene is the most important and try to position it near the lines and intersections of the grid.

Two boys, one in a blue shirt the other in a green shirt, play.
Photo by Ashton Bingham

In the image above, we have the boy in the blue shirt’s head at the top right intersection. We also see his boy along the vertical line.If you can’t quite get it right, think about moving around to get a better composition. Moving around forces you to think more about the image. It’s a good habit to get into even if you’re not working on your Rule of Thirds. I’m always moving around looking for a better photograph.

Some examples

The concept of the rule of thirds can be used in any genre of photography. While not extensive, in this section I’ve given some examples on how the grid can be used in different photographs. Hover over each image to show the grid.

Example #1

Photo by Shane Herring

In landscape photos, it’s usual to see the horizon along the centre of the frame, but this can give the photo a “split in two” feel. Instead, place it along one of the horizontal lines. In the example above, the horizon has been places along the bottom horizontal line while the tree is lined up with the left vertical line.

Place the horizon on the top line if have tje sky isn’t very interesting and you have an interesting foreground.Place the horizon on the lower line if the sky is interesting and the foreground is less so.

Example #2

Photo by Shane Herring

Vertical subjects such as this tree could split the photo in two. To avoid this, position them off-centre in your composition. You may also notice that the top of the tree is on the top left intersection with the clouds on the lower right intersection. This was done to create balance.

Example #3

Photo by Janko Ferlič

It’s a good idea to position people off to one side of the frame. This provides some “breathing space”, shows the subject’s environment, and stops the photo from looking like a mugshot.

Example #4

Photo by Shane Herring

In the above example, there are a few things going on. The large group is along the right vertical line while the small group is along the left vertical line. The top of the large group is near the top right intersection and the top of the small group is at the bottom left intersection. These combined give me a well balanced image despite the two groups being very different sizes.

Example #5

Photo by Juliane Liebermann

Something else to try is to include another interesting object, such as the tree. Follow the rule of thirds and position it accordingly.

Example #6

When using the concept of The Rule of Thirds, and your taking a photograph of  subject that is moving or even looking at something, have more space in front of the subject than behind.

Using software

If you didn’t get it quite right or you want to try a different composition, you can use software to re crop your photograph. Software such as Adobe’s Photoshop and Lightroom have crop guide overlays which include a rule of thirds option. This places a rule of thirds grid on top of your image as you crop it, allowing you to get your positioning spot on. Other free software may also have this type of overlay available.

Finishing up

As I mentioned at the beginning, the Rule of Thirds is a concept. It won’t apply in every situation, and sometimes breaking it can give you a more interesting photo. As you take your photographs using the concept of the Rule of Thirds, please share them on my Facebook page.

Putting it into practice

Take a photograph of the landscape using the Rule of Thirds. Then, photograph it again and break the rule. Compare the two.Take a photograph of a friend or family member using the Rule of Thirds. Then, take another photograph of that person but break the rule. Compare your results.

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