Rule of Thirds in Photography – Practical Guide

If you’ve ever discussed photographs in internet forums or read photography books, then you’ve surely come across the term “rule of thirds”. But what exactly does it mean?

In a previous post on composition, I mentioned “the rule of thirds” as one of the classical rules of composition, not only in photography but also in other arts such as painting or film. Let’s learn more about this rule and when to use it (or break it).

What is the rule of thirds in photography?

Imagine that the frame you see through your camera’s viewfinder is divided in nine equal parts by means of two horizontal lines intersecting two vertical lines.

Rule of Thirds in Photography

The rule of thirds says that the points of interest in your photograph should be placed at or near the intersections of those lines. This is thought to create more balance in your photo and make it more pleasing to the eye of the viewer. Note that according to the rule of thirds your focal point cannot be placed in the center – something that people with no knowledge of this rule often do.

A few more “sub-rules”

There are a few “sub-rules” to the rule of thirds which have proved to be effective in composing different types of photographs.

When shooting landscape photos, for example, try to align the horizon with one of the horizontal lines rather than letting it divide the image in two equal parts. If the point of interest is the land or the lake in the foreground, it’s better to align the horizon with the upper horizontal line.

Here the point of interest is the river in the foreground and so the horizon is placed close to the upper horizontal line.

However, if you want to create a dramatic sky effect, as in the image below, align the horizon with the lower horizontal line, so that the sky fills more space in your frame.

In portrait photography you’d, want to place the subject near one of the two vertical lines. This will leave more free space on one of his or her sides which you can use to provide some more context.

Taking an environmental travel portrait, for example? Use the free space to include recognizable landmark in the background, even if it’s blurred.

The rule generally states that the free space should be placed in front of the subject. This means that if the subject is looking to the right, leave more space to the right. If he’s looking to the left, leave more space to the left. This way you’ll avoid a photo in which the subject is looking at something that is outside the frame. Follow the same rule when you’re shooting a moving subject. If he’s running to the left, for example, place him along the right vertical line and leave more space to the left.

In photographs of people we are, usually attracted by their eyes first. To make sure you’ve highlighted the eyes of your subject, place them near or at one of the horizontal lines.

Sounds difficult?

Well, as with everything related to photography, the rule of thirds requires practice. Some digital cameras, however, have the option to select a grid from the menu that overlays the view through the viewfinder. This way the photographer can easily place the objects in the scene in a compositionally balanced way. 

On most modern digital cameras, you can activate the Rule of Thirds Grid overlay on the camera’s LCD and EVF.

Even if your camera doesn’t support this option, you can practice the rule of thirds during editing. You’ll quickly learn how to apply it during shooting in order to minimize cropping and reducing the resolution of the image.

The Crop Overlay tool in Lightroom with the Rule of Thirds Grid overlay grid.

Can I break this rule?

Of course you can. That’s what photography rules are for. In fact, breaking the rule of thirds is sometimes unavoidable. Consider the photo below, for example. It wouldn’t make much sense to place the road at one of the intersecting points. It naturally leads the eye into the picture and to the rock formations in the background. Placed in the middle, the road creates symmetry in the picture which is pleasing to the eye.

Even subjects in portraits can be placed in the middle, usually when they are looking straight at the camera.

Placing the important objects in the middle also works well in photos that are cropped as squares (think Instagram, for example).

But you can break the rule in many other ways. Don’t forget that your artistic statement is much more important than any photography rule you can think of. If you think your subject must look at somewhere “outside the frame”, to convey disconnection or tension, for example, then do it. The broken rule may well lead to a visually striking image.

Do you have any questions on the rule of thirds?

Applying the rule of thirds may sometimes sound like a lot of work. With time, though, it happens naturally. If you didn’t know about this rule before, try to follow it when you’re framing your next photograph. See if your camera has it as an option or play with it in Photoshop or Lightroom.

Did you have any problems applying the rule of thirds? Or would you like to learn more about it? Let me know in the comments section.

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