the rule of thirds

Introduction to the Rule of Thirds

When you bring a camera up to your eyes and look through the viewfinder or at the LCD screen on the back of your camera, you have to decide what to include in your image. If you’re taking a portrait, you may ask yourself whether your subject be to the left, right, or in the middle of the frame. The process of deciding what your going to be in your photograph and where it will be placed is called composition. If you’re new to art or photography, the Rule of Thirds it a helpful basic composition technique so you can create compelling images.

Fortunately there are time-honored guidelines and techniques used to compose a photograph. The Rule of Thirds is one of the most widely used techniques in photography and is often referred to as the basis for artistic composition. The technique is to align the subject or main elements of your image on the 4 intersecting points, or along the vertical or horizontal lines.

The Imaginary Grid

You start be visualizing an imaginary grid that divides the image area into nine equal horizontal and vertical quadrants. When you’re ready to take the photograph, place your subject and important elements of your image along the grid lines or intersecting points. The gridlines over the image are like a tic-tac-toe board consisting of two vertical and two horizontal lines.

rule of thirds grid

Example of the Rule of Thirds in Portraiture

In the first image below we have a beautiful model that is centered right smack in the middle of the frame. So whats wrong with the picture? The model is beautiful, the image is in focus, and the exposure is just right.

rule of thirds centered

The problem with this image is your eye has no place to go other than dead center. Now, move the subject to the right and zoom in a little. Notice how your attention is initially focused on the models beautiful brown eyes?

rule of thirds model right

Rule of Thirds and the Horizon

When shooting a horizon, avoid splitting your image in two. You never want to have the horizon dissect the middle of your image. Place the horizon either in the top or bottom third of the image. Your photos will look much better if the horizon is positioned above or below the middle of the frame, (just not directly in the center of the frame) The only exception is when you’re shooting a reflection. In this case it’s OK to have the horizon in the center of the frame because it creates equal elements on the top and bottom with scene above and the reflection below.

Using the rule of thirds on a horizon

Shooting a Moving Subject

When shooting a moving subject like a cyclist or someone on horseback, place your subject so two thirds of the frame is in the direction your subject is moving towards. Doing this will give your viewer the perception that your subject has room to move. This is sometimes called using looking space and using it creates the feeling your subject is looking towards something or someone that may be out of frame. Otherwise it will look as if they are boxed into the frame.

rule of thirds looking space

Remember, Rule of Thirds is Just a Tool

Before we go any further, we want to point out that the Rule of Thirds is not a rule after all. It is simply a tool to help you compose your shots. It’s not a rule you must or even want to follow in every photo you take. Instead, refer to it as a suggested guideline you can consider while composing your images. The Rule of Thirds is really about balancing the proportion of subjects and interesting elements in your image. It’s drawing the viewers attention to your subjects face, eyes, an object, etc. The goal is to produce an image that has good balance and is pleasing to the eye.

Breaking the Rule

Learning the Rule of Thirds and gaining an understanding the principals behind the rule will enable you to know when to use it, and when to break it. The image below of the stacked rocks withe the coastal shore in the background works.

rule of thirds centered

Some cameras have a feature that will display gridlines in your viewfinder. If you’re just getting started with the Rule of Thirds, you may want to use this feature until you’re comfortable with the technique.