One of the most popular ways to compose your photographs is to use the “Rule of Thirds”. Although this compositional rule is frequently used by photographers, not everyone understands exactly what it is or when it works. This article introduces the rule of thirds and explains when to use it for composition (or not). Keep in mind that this rule is a suggestion for beginners and those who struggle with properly composing their pictures, and it is far from the only way to take good images.
What is the Rule of Thirds?
The Rule of Thirds is a type of off-center composition where important elements of a photograph are placed along a 3×3 grid, which equally divides the image into nine parts. For many photographers, this type of composition is a basic way to give structure to photographs and make them more appealing. With the rule of thirds, photographers envision four lines across their photographs, which also creates four intersecting points. Take a look at the illustration below:
The important elements within a frame should be placed at the intersection points of these lines, as shown in the above diagram. Or, when photographing subjects like a tree or horizon, which are comprised of straight lines, the rule of thirds suggests placing them along one of the four lines instead. Take a look at the below photograph:
As you can see, both the horizon line and the primary subject are placed along this grid:
You can apply the rule of thirds to any genre of photography. In the portrait example below, the subject’s eyes are placed about two thirds up the photograph, and her nose aligns with the rule of thirds grid as well:
When to Use the Rule of Thirds
So, when should you use the rule of thirds? The basic value of this rule is to remind yourself that off-center compositions can work well and be successful. Most of the time, beginner photographers will place their subjects in the dead center by default, forming central compositions. Although central composition can be a very strong way to compose photographs, using it for every photo can be boring. If you find that you are doing this, you can add more interest and variety by using the rule of thirds.
To use the rule of thirds, start by imagining a 3×3 grid (or use one that is built into your camera) and place your subjects along those lines and intersections points. When you evaluate the result, you may find that you like it more than with your subject in the center.
So, if you are struggling to compose your images, you might find that the rule of thirds can be a quick way to make your photos more dynamic.
When Not to Use the Rule of Thirds
The biggest problem with the rule of thirds is that it doesn’t change, even when your subjects do. It simply does not take into account what you are photographing. For example, in some scenes, you might be compromising your composition and excluding important elements just to adhere to the rule of thirds. So, in a way, it is a cookie-cutter composition.
The whole idea of the rule of thirds is that it introduces beginners to off-center composition. However, it might lead you to think that your subjects always (or often) need to be placed along the exact lines and intersections of the 3×3 grid in order to capture a successful composition.
In reality, any type of off-central composition – not just the rule of thirds – can work well. Instead, try framing your subject just slightly off center, or even in the extreme corners. Sometimes, the scene itself will dictate the type of composition which will work best for your photograph. In the image below, you can see that I purposefully placed the subject close to the edge of the frame in order to convey a sense of isolation with a negative space composition:
While taking this photo, I wanted it to be somewhat striking and unexpected. If I had framed it using the rule of thirds, it would not have conveyed that emotional message.
Along with that, do not underestimate central composition. Although it can be boring if you use it too much, it also can be the most powerful way to compose and frame photographs. Personally, I use central composition quite a bit, especially if there is a single, strong subject in the scene:
The rule of thirds is certainly worth exploring, especially for those who are just starting to learn composition in photography. However, as you get more advanced, you will start to realize that good composition is not about adhering to strict rules, but rather about composing each photo for its own merits. Different compositions will be ideal in different situations. While the rule of thirds works well for some photographs, it is not the only way to capture a good image. Indeed, any type of composition can be beautiful, and you will miss many opportunities if you never go beyond the rule of thirds.