Understanding the Rule of Thirds in Photography (With Examples)

Last Updated on October 26, 2020 | In Rules of Composition by Stefano Caioni Leave a Comment

Last Updated on October 26, 2020

Understanding the rule of thirds in photography is essential if you want to take your images to the next level.

Photography has become an integral part of our lives. It enables us to preserve precious memories and important occasions.

Taking cool photos requires more than just owning good gear. You need to learn essential tricks such as positioning the camera, light control, editing techniques, as well as how to compose and position different objects in your scenes. The rule of thirds is one of these “tricks”.

While you may consider photography to be just an art, pro photographers doubles up as science, in that one needs to follow certain rules to produce more engaging and higher quality images.

Even though these principles are essential to quality photography, they’re still mostly optional ( you may choose not to follow them). However, it is essential to first familiarize yourself with all of them, particularly the Rule of Thirds, before deciding to ignore them.

What are the Rule of Compositions?

In photography, composition can be defined as the arrangement of various elements of a photo (foreground, background, subjects, etc.) to suit the main aim or objectives of the photographer.

The rules of photography composition are basic principles that guide photographers and enable them to shoot visually appealing images.

These photography composition rules often vary in number depending on who you ask, as there is no universal standard to determine what passes as a “rule” and what doesn’t. Nonetheless, some of the more common rules of composition include:

  • The Rule of Thirds
  • Use of Creative Framing
  • Space
  • Straight Horizons

Related article: Rules of Composition in Photography

Why They’re So Important

As mentioned earlier, the rules of photography composition do not always apply, but in some instances, you need to observe at least one of them.

For example, the principle of framing guides you on how to make use of items like buildings, trees, or even people, to create frames for your photos and enhance their aesthetic.

Similarly, you may use Leading Lines in your photos to capture your audience’s attention to the main object in the picture.

As you can see, the rules of composition can apply in every photographic situation, and the key is to look at them as creative ideas instead of rules or restrictions.

What is The Rule of Thirds?

Let’s now focus on our main subject: the Rule of Thirds.

Rule of thirds definition:

The rule states that whenever you’re taking a photo, you should mentally draw two lines, both horizontally and vertically, to come up with nine equal parts, which intersect with each other at four different points. 

Notably, some digital cameras and smartphones provide grids and viewfinders, which help you get your 9-square grid without much fuss.

rule of thirds in photo of a girl

The fundamental idea of the Rule of Thirds is to place your main subjects at the grid intersection points.

Note that the subject doesn’t have to be positioned right at the intersection but should be close to it. Like in the image below.

rule of thirds in landscape photography

By doing so, the image viewer’s eyes and attention are captivated more easily to the main subject of the image. 

Additionally, photos taken following the rule of thirds (off-center) are more appealing than those whose subjects are right in the center of the frame. Also, it is by following the Rule of Thirds that you learn how to utilize the empty spaces around your subject (Negative Space), which is also among the key rules of composition.

Rule of Thirds Examples

To use the rule of thirds, you need to take stock of your scene and decide what impression you want to leave on the viewer.

DpS has an interesting guide about it in this post.

Particularly, determine the most elements of the image you want to shoot, whether it’s the eyes of the subject, a car, or building in the distance. Then, mentally create horizontal and vertical thirds on your camera, or use your camera’s grid overlay feature, if possible. 

rule of thirds grid

Then align your main subject (or point of interest), along the lines and intersections joining the thirds together and shoot.

When shooting landscapes, pay attention to the position of the horizon along the grid. It matters just as much as the main subject. 

For instance, having the horizon in the center of the frame will visually split the image into two parts, which is not always the best. Thus, find a way to position most of your horizon along a horizontal line in the grid.

Note that you may need to move around or change your intersections to get the best shot. It’s pretty straightforward if you have a camera with grid features, as you don’t have to second-guess yourself. 

Nonetheless, learning to prepare for and execute the rule of thirds in your shots improves your creativity and critical thinking skills – which are some of the essential skills for a photographer.

Breaking The Rule

As with any rule in photography, the Rule of Thirds is not absolute, and it is certainly not practical in every situation. 

Rule of Thirds  breaking the rule

Sometimes, you may want to snap a quick photo without having to align the scene and all the mental calculations that come along with that. Matter of fact, breaking the rule can result in more breathtaking images because, as you already know, spontaneity is also important in photography.

However, it is best to first be proficient in the rule of thirds before deciding to ditch it. That way, you are better placed to know when to use it or not as opposed to just deciding to break it out of the blue.

Take Away

Here is what you need to consider

The Rule of Thirds is so essential to photography that major camera manufacturers have incorporated it into their camera designs. 

Most editing tools also provide cropping and reframing options that enable you to sneak in the rule after shooting.

Therefore, whether you are an amateur of an experienced photographer, learning and practicing this rule will undoubtedly make you a better photographer. Sounds good, right?

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