Last Updated: February 18, 2014
The rule of thirds is a classic compositional technique used for a wide-range of visual arts, from film-making, to graphic design, and of course, photography.
Often experienced photographers do not adhere to the rule of thirds and still produce fantastic compositions, the rule of thirds is not a strict principle that has to be obeyed at all costs. All rules are there to be broken, after all, but it’s good to understand the rules before you do so.
Often novice photographers can compose many shots centrally, whilst centrally aligned shots can work brilliantly in some cases, often they can result in an awkward and static composition, and ultimately a very forgettable photograph.
Rule of thirds principle
The rule of thirds is based on a very simple grid of two horizontal and two vertical lines. The basic principle behind the rule of thirds in photography is to then align the key element(s) of your image to (or near) one or more of four key intersections (shown in red below).
This approach often gives more visual interest and compositional strength to the image. It’s pretty easy to mentally visualise your image in thirds when you’re shooting, if it isn’t for you, then most modern cameras and smartphones have options to overlay a grid in the viewfinder, thus aiding you further.
Rule of thirds examples
Let’s look at some shots I’ve taken that adhere to the rule of thirds principle, I’ve added a grid overlay to each so you can see exactly how it works.
The first shot below was taken in the Lake District in England, you can see the road and car nicely align towards the lower-left intersection. The top of the hill on the far left of the image is also around two thirds up, which also helps balance the shot.
The shot below was taken in London, the BMX rider is obviously the main subject of the image, and aligns nicely on the right, the left-hand concrete pillar also helps balance the composition.
You can see a similar example below, the main focal point is aligned to the right, you’ll also notice that I’ve aligned the horizon two thirds distance up the image, this illustrates how this principle can easily be applied to landscapes. It’s always good to experiment with how you place the horizon, sometimes it may work when centrally placed, it all depends on the shot, but if in doubt placing one or two thirds up the image nearly always works.
The shot below I took in Barcelona, you can see that the entire subject is placed to the right, the black negative space to the top and left really lends the composition more visual stress and interest.
Another technique you can utilise is using opposites to balance the composition, below is a candid shot I took in London, the woman is placed to the lower right, with the man in the background to the upper left, these opposites result in a nice visual harmony.
Breaking the rules
Of course, on some occasions, the rule of thirds is not what you want, and a more central composition will work much better. On these occasions a central focal point can lead the viewer into the image, thus giving it more depth and drama.
The rule of thirds in photography is used the world over over by professional and amateur photographers alike, for beginner photographers in particular, this principle can be an excellent compositional aid, and also a way to get you really thinking about the composition of your images.