The Rule of Thirds Explained

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When I first started getting serious about my photography, I operated under the conclusion that a perfectly centered subject was the goal in composing an appealing picture. It seemed obvious to me that an off-center subject would make the photo look odd, so I needed to concentrate on framing it so that an equal amount of distance existed between the subject and the top, bottom, left hand side, and right hand side of the photograph.

Boy howdy, was I wrong.

The rule of thirds operates under the principle that a visually appealing photograph is composed along converging points in the frame, not at absolute center. If you imagine a grid laid over your photograph, dissecting the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically, this is the basis of the rule of thirds. Like this:

Placing important elements of the composition of the photograph along the lines and at the converging points of the grid creates a more interesting photograph. The easiest way to demonstrate the importance of the rule of thirds is with horizon lines. Instead of centering the horizon in the middle of the photograph, one should strive to either draw attention to the sky by using the bottom horizontal line in the grid, or draw attention to the ground by using the top horizontal line in the grid.

Here is the original photo:


You can see here when I apply the grid, that the horizon (or in this case, convergence between the ground and the mountains) falls nicely on the lower horizontal line, and the tops of the peaks fall well on the upper horizontal line:

Here is another example, this time using a subject that falls along the vertical line. Original photo:


And when I apply the grid, you can see that the left leg of the statue falls nicely along the left hand vertical line:

The rule of thirds still applies if an element of the photograph falls near to one of the converging points, or close to one of the horizontal or vertical lines, but not exactly on the line or point itself. Perhaps we should rename it the “guideline of thirds” instead of “rule”. At any rate, begin to visualize your photographs with the grid overlaid on top of them while you compose the shot, and see how much the quality of your photographs improve!

Photo credits (all): Tiffany Joyce.

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  • David

    I like your suggestion the “guide line” rather than “the rule.”

    I am an adamant supporter of the “rule of thirds” as a guide to good composition, however, I have no problem with breaking the “rule” as long as it is a thought out decision.

    Last year I joined a local photo club and immediately got myself in trouble when I would comment on a photograph suggesting it may be more interesting if the important elements of the picture followed this guideline.

    In the end, it became obvious that nearly all of the members were familiar with the rule of thirds but would break it simply “to break it”.

    Needless to say, I did not return to the club this year.

  • Dean

    Here's a composition related tip your readers may like to apply. I took four years of photography back in high school. Even though I learned of the rule of thirds, my skill at compostion in still pictures came when I started using a video camera. Wanting to take the best composed video shots, I found that “composing on the fly” really helped my still photography composition.
    Now for instance, from my many road trips in Gettysburg, PA, I have a wonderful collection of stills because my eye is trained to capture the best shot “on the fly”.

  • Xcrave

    Good rule….pretty basic :P

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