What is the rule of thirds and how do you use it?

The rule of thirds is likely a term that you may have heard in reference to photography or videography, or maybe even graphic design or art. But you may be asking yourself, what is the rule of thirds and why is it referenced so often? The rule of thirds is a compositional “rule” that suggests diving the image into thirds and placing the subject on one of those sides, instead of in the center. Like other rules in photography, the rule of thirds is meant only as a guideline — but more often than not, helps create stronger images. Here’s how.

Further reading

The simplest rule of composition

There are many “rules” of composition, and we have rules in quotations here because they are more like guidelines than actual rules. The golden ratio is another that you may have heard about, but the reason for the rule of thirds’ popularity lies less in what it promotes, and more in how simple and easy it is to understand. Simply put, the rule of thirds is the basis of most discussions on composition; it is the bedrock of most accepted compositional practices, and for this reason, it is one of the first concepts that photographers are told to learn. So, what is the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds is a set of guidelines meant to help a photographer place a subject in the image, in a way that’s pleasing to the viewer. The most common way that it is displayed visually is with a grid pattern laid over the image, showing two vertical lines (breaking the image into thirds vertically) and two horizontal lines (breaking the image into thirds horizontally), as shown in the image below.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

This rule is so popular and so important to many photographers’ creative processes that many digital cameras these days have the option to overlay the grid pattern over the viewfinder or live-view monitor. This allows the photographer or videographer to correctly line up the subject to be in compliance with the rule of thirds.

But, again you ask, what are the guidelines? They vary from person to person, but in general, the accepted guidelines are as follows:

  • When photographing people, you want your subject to be aligned with one of the vertical lines in the frame. This doesn’t need to be exact, but the closer the better. In addition to the subject being aligned with one of those vertical lines, you also want his or her eyes to be roughly aligned with one of the horizontal lines. As well, if the person is not looking directly into the camera, you want the majority of the frame to be open in the direction that he or she is looking. So if the subject is looking to the right (your left), you will want the subject aligned to the right vertical line; if she is looking to her left (your right), then you want to align it up with the left vertical line.
  • When photographing landscapes, you want to align the horizon with one of the horizontal lines, usually the bottom one. This is to prevent the horizon from being dead center in the frame and visually cutting the image in half. This also applies to photos of people, but the previously mentioned guidelines should usually take priority over this one and often take care of the issue of a centered horizon.
  • Ideally, you want your point of interest (for a portrait, this will usually be the eyes) to be on or around one of the points where a vertical line crosses a horizontal line. This isn’t always doable, while still following all the rules above, but when it is, the results are wonderful.

Do you have to use it?

Despite it being called a rule, as noted above, the rule of thirds is nothing more than a set of guidelines to help you compose your images, video, or art in an appealing way to the viewer. As with any guidelines they can and should be broken, but it is important to have a reason for breaking them, and beyond that, an understanding of how your choice will affect the viewer.

So no, you do not have to use the rule of thirds. However, we do recommend using it whenever possible as it is a proven formula that works, and as the saying goes: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So unless the rule of thirds breaks your image (i.e., it doesn’t produce the look, feeling, or style you are going for) it is best to make use of it.

Learning to use the rule of thirds

If you want to learn how to use the rule of thirds to greater effect in your imagery, it is important to ask yourself two important questions regarding the subject of your image:

  • Which vertical line should he/she be aligned with (remember to pay attention to the direction they are looking)?
  • Which horizontal line alignment, for the eyes, gives the most appealing look? In most cases, this will likely be the upper of the two horizontal lines, but the bottom one should always be considered as well.

In addition to asking yourself those two questions, we also highly recommend turning on the grid in your camera if it has that option. This is so incredibly helpful because it lets you visually see where your subject is lining up in real-time, as shown in this video.

Utilizing this rule comes more naturally to some than others, but if you follow the above points, and make an effort to consider the rule before every shot, then you will eventually get better at just instinctively implementing it into your images.

When not to use it

There are some niche cases where the standard implementation of the rule, or portions of it, does not apply. One of these examples is in standard headshot photography, which almost always requires that the subject be centered in the frame. In a case like that, you would disregard the vertical lines and just worry about aligning your subject’s eyes with the horizontal line of your choice (usually the upper one).

The main thing here is to take your own or your client’s needs into account before applying the rule to a given image. Like in the example above regarding headshots, since the intended use requires a centered subject, it is appropriate to disregard the left leaning or right leaning alignment.

Another reason to abandon the rule of thirds is symmetry. Centering a symmetrical landscape will draw attention to that symmetry while using the rule of thirds will break that effect. A centered composition can highlight symmetry as well as some lines and patterns.

The rule of thirds isn’t just important at capture

Another thing to consider with the rule of thirds is that you are not married to or divorced from it the moment you capture your image. Most image-editing programs these days come with advanced cropping tools that make it easy to reframe an image to comply with the rule of thirds should you decide later on that the change is needed (so long as you are OK with losing some resolution by cropping some of the image out).

Hopefully, this overview has given you a basic understanding about the rule of thirds — what it is, when to use it, when not to use it, and how to implement it into your workflow. Compositionally, nothing will improve your imagery quite as dramatically as the rule of thirds can, so take some time to memorize and practice using it — your images will be all the better for it.

This article obviously focuses primarily on the use of the rule in photography and videography, but other creative and artistic niches — such as painters, graphic designers, and others — use the rule and have their own guidelines about how to implement it for their needs.

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