The rule of thirds is likely a term that you may have heard in reference to photography or videography, or maybe even graphic design or art. But you may be asking yourself, what is the rule of thirds and why is it referenced so often? The rule of thirds is a compositional “rule” that suggests diving the image into thirds and placing the subject on one of those sides, instead of in the center. Like other rules in photography, the rule of thirds is meant only as a guideline — but more often than not, helps create stronger images. Here’s how.
There are many “rules” of composition, and we have rules in quotations here because they are more like guidelines than actual rules. The golden ratio is another that you may have heard about (and if you’re having trouble with it, there are tools to help). But the reason for the rule of thirds’ popularity lies less in what it promotes, and more in how simple and easy it is to understand. Simply put, the rule of thirds is the basis of most discussions on composition; it is the bedrock of most accepted compositional practices, and for this reason, it is one of the first concepts that photographers are told to learn. So, what is the rule of thirds?
The rule of thirds is a set of guidelines meant to help a photographer place a subject in the image, in a way that’s pleasing to the viewer. The most common way that it is displayed visually is with a grid pattern laid over the image, showing two vertical lines (breaking the image into thirds vertically) and two horizontal lines (breaking the image into thirds horizontally), as shown in the image below.
This rule is so popular and so important to many photographers’ creative processes that many digital cameras these days have the option to overlay the grid pattern over the viewfinder or live-view monitor. This allows the photographer or videographer to correctly line up the subject to be in compliance with the rule of thirds.
But, again you ask, what are the guidelines? They vary from person to person, but in general, the accepted guidelines are as follows:
Despite it being called a rule, as noted above, the rule of thirds is nothing more than a set of guidelines to help you compose your images, video, or art in an appealing way to the viewer. As with any guidelines they can and should be broken, but it is important to have a reason for breaking them, and beyond that, an understanding of how your choice will affect the viewer.
So no, you do not have to use the rule of thirds. However, we do recommend using it whenever possible as it is a proven formula that works, and as the saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So unless the rule of thirds breaks your image (i.e., it doesn’t produce the look, feeling, or style you are going for) it is best to make use of it.
If you want to learn how to use the rule of thirds to greater effect in your imagery, it is important to ask yourself two important questions regarding the subject of your image:
In addition to asking yourself those two questions, we also highly recommend turning on the grid in your camera if it has that option. This is so incredibly helpful because it lets you visually see where your subject is lining up in real-time, as shown in this video.
Utilizing this rule comes more naturally to some than others, but if you follow the above points, and make an effort to consider the rule before every shot, then you will eventually get better at just instinctively implementing it into your images.
There are some niche cases where the standard implementation of the rule, or portions of it, does not apply. One of these examples is in standard headshot photography, which almost always requires that the subject be centered in the frame. In a case like that, you would disregard the vertical lines and just worry about aligning your subject’s eyes with the horizontal line of your choice (usually the upper one).
The main thing here is to take your own or your client’s needs into account before applying the rule to a given image. Like in the example above regarding headshots, since the intended use requires a centered subject, it is appropriate to disregard the left leaning or right leaning alignment.
Another reason to abandon the rule of thirds is symmetry. Centering a symmetrical landscape will draw attention to that symmetry while using the rule of thirds will break that effect. A centered composition can highlight symmetry as well as some lines and patterns.
Another thing to consider with the rule of thirds is that you are not married to or divorced from it the moment you capture your image. Most image-editing programs these days come with advanced cropping tools that make it easy to reframe an image to comply with the rule of thirds should you decide later on that the change is needed (so long as you are OK with losing some resolution by cropping some of the image out).
Hopefully, this overview has given you a basic understanding about the rule of thirds — what it is, when to use it, when not to use it, and how to implement it into your workflow. Compositionally, nothing will improve your imagery quite as dramatically as the rule of thirds can, so take some time to memorize and practice using it — your images will be all the better for it.
This article obviously focuses primarily on the use of the rule in photography and videography, but other creative and artistic niches, such as painters, graphic designers, and others, use the rule and have their own guidelines about how to implement it for their needs.