Trevor Waldron
Trevor Waldron

Strong composition is one of the cornerstones of photography. It can be immensely satisfying when it works, but frustratingly difficult when struggling with decisions about where to place key subjects and how to divide the picture space. The 'Rule of Thirds' is a very simple concept which can make life easier. We'll explore what the rule is, how to apply it, and why it works – or not.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

The idea is to imagine two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines in the viewfinder. So the horizontal lines create three equal-sized "bands", and the vertical lines create three equal-sized "stripes".

Rule of Thirds Grid

This simple structure can be used in several ways. First, the four points where the lines cross can be used as anchors for placing key subjects in the image. Second, the horizontal bands and vertical stripes can be used to apportion the main areas of an image. Third, the lines themselves provide a reference for aligning features of the image such as towers or the horizon.

How can this rule be used practically?

1. By position: The main subject – or key points of visual interest in the image – can be placed on one or more of the points where the lines cross. In this case the butterfly's head is a natural point of attention, and falls on the lower-right intersection of thirds

Rule of Thirds example

This allows the butterfly to "look into" its environment, while visually it balances the other two pink flowers In the frame.

With people, having the eye – or dominant eye – fall on a third also provides a natural point for the viewer to start exploring the image.

Rule of Thirds and people

The rule can be potentially used effectively in all genres of photography – landscape, travel, action, abstract and more. In this image of Venice, the ornate prow of the gondola contrasts with the dark door which sits well in the intersection of thirds.

Rule of Thirds and Venice Example

Of course, there are many things to consider when composing a photograph. However the intersection of thirds lines can be a valuable reference when thinking about how to position key elements of an image. We'll see why this is after looking at some other applications.

2. By area: Classically used in landscape photography, the horizon could be placed on one of the horizontal dividing lines, so that the sky forms say the top third of the image. Alternatively, one third could be given to land, one third to water, and one third to sky. However this use of the rule of thirds can be applied wherever there are fairly distinct bands of subject matter, colour, or tone.

Rule of Thirds and horizontal

3. By alignment: This option places strong features such towers, fence lines, single trees etc along one of the thirds lines

Rule of Thirds and vertical

Why does the Rule of Thirds work?

In the first place, trying to apply the rule of thirds avoids a natural tendency to place a key subject in the centre of the picture space. Central positioning can create a rather static mood in a photograph. The viewer's eye immediately goes to the middle of the image, and is not tempted to explore the rest of the space except cursorily. Or, placing a horizon across the middle of a scene may effectively chop the scene in half, which risks creating two competing half-images.

At the same time, the rule prompts you to avoid placing a subject too near the edge of the frame. There, it could pull the eye away from the bulk of the image and become a distraction.

Deeper roots? Proportion and positioning have been much discussed by artists and architects throughout time, probably since the first cave paintings. The dimensions of the classic facade of the Acropolis are based on what is called the Golden Mean or Golden Proportion, a ratio which is close to 2:3. The Golden Mean crops up time and again in nature, and seems to be a fundamental law of growth. It is the underlying maths which applies to everything from the way in which trees and plants branch out, to the beauty and effortless precision of spiral sea-shells.

Nearer to home, artists from Michelangelo to Mondrian and beyond carefully designed the underlying structure of their paintings well before putting brush to canvas.

Rule of Thirds

Can I fix it afterwards?

If you're happy to do some digital photo editing, the first and easiest step is to crop a photograph. This will immediately change the proportions and positioning of the cropped picture, so allowing you to retrospectively try the rule of thirds if it wasn't done at the time of taking the photograph in the first place.

As always, getting the best possible image in-camera is more satisfactory. However, in effect trying out alternative compositions after the event is a good way of extracting more lessons from a shoot, and provides helpful learnings for the future.

Should the rule always be used?

The short answer is – definitely not! Useful though it might be, a rule can too easily become over-rigid and a strait-jacket to creativity.

There are many factors at play in a photograph other than a single key feature, and these must be taken into account. For example, allocating one-third of an image to a clear blue sky may give too much importance to it. But a vibrant stormy sky with vivid colours may merit almost the whole frame except for a strip of land to provide a foundation for the spectacle above it.

Breaking the Rule of Thirds

What is valuable is to know is that when a principle is followed, there is a certain result, and when it is broken, there is a different result. In this case, when an image is somehow composed on the basis of thirds, the result is a sense of natural balance, but not necessarily static balance.

The flip side is that when some point of interest is other than on a 'third', the image can be thrown out of balance. Now of course this might be exactly what you intended, which is why the "rule" is better described as a principle. A principle can be followed or not, the important thing is to know the resulting effect beforehand and use it as a conscious part of personal expression and creativity.

Enjoy experimenting, for example try applying the thirds-rule diagonally or along perspective lines. The simplicity and elegance of the rule of thirds will often bring a smile to your face when it works well.

Good luck with some creative compositions!

© Trevor Waldron