If you’ve taken any type of photography course – online, offline, free or paid – likely you’ve heard of the ‘rule of thirds’. It’s one of the first photography techniques I learned.
Some people think of it as a great rule for beginners but not anyone else. Others hate the idea of it all together, claiming it as a risky ‘rule’ that can stunt growth and creativity for even the most novice artists.
So which is it?
While there is no right answer, let me share with you some of my insights from this rule and how I think it’s best approached.
The Basics of the Rule of Thirds for Composition
The rule of thirds is a guideline applied to the art of visual composition. This can be applied to design, photography, painting, and any other visual art.
At its simplest, you take an image and divide it into 9 equal parts. This is done by placing two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines within a standard ‘frame’.
The collision of vertical and horizontal lines creates ‘power points’.
It is believed that placing your subject on these key points is likely to spark more visual tension, energy, and interest in viewers.
Additionally, it is believed that placing your subject area outside of the central square can help you create more interesting compositions.
As you’ll soon find out, it can – and it can’t.
The rule of thirds, you see, is a rule that can be applied to a vast majority of great works of art. It can also be applied to an even larger collection of poor quality photographs, paintings, and art.
Correlation does not prove causation.
To clarify, let us take a quick look at how the rule of thirds was born.
The Birth of the Rule of Thirds
The development of the Rule of Thirds is attributed to John Thomas Smith in 1797 on ‘Remarks on Rural Scenery’.
While John Thomas Smith was no Michelangelo or Picasso, he had a few things to say. Mainly, he described the division of a picture into thirds. He described how placing the horizon a third above or below the center rather than centrally was a useful technique.
These views on visual art paved the way for even more artists and critics to tag along.
Add a few hundred years of art history and now we’ve got the rule of thirds as a standard practice learned in composition 101.
The thing about science and our minds is… we work to prove or disprove only that which is in our awareness.
Now that the rule of thirds is a common technique many know of, people are even applying the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio to this.
In its simplest for, many see the rule of thirds as a practical application of the Golden Ratio.
While I won’t bore you with the mathematical details, the golden ratio is built off of the fibonacci sequence. This sequence begins with 0 and 1, with the following number being the sum of the previous 2.
An example string is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13,21….
The ratio of each pair of consecutive numbers approximates phi, or 1.618.
This sequence, when used visually, creates a spiral pattern many have observed in nature. Examples are sea shells, sunflowers, and the galaxy itself.
When you take a standard photographic frame and divide it into squares where the ratio of the length of the sides of the larger square to the next smaller square is 1.618 to 1, this is what happens:
The fibonacci spiral is then created by connecting the arcs, joining opposite corners of the squares.
As you can see, this makes for a convincing case why the rule of thirds is a holy thing we all should follow for visual arts.
The thing about art is that there are no rules. There are only guidelines.
With that said, rules are meant to be learned first before breaking, right? So following the rule of thirds is a great thing to do for beginners, isn’t it?
Why the Rule of Thirds Should Not Be Blindly Followed
I tend to disagree that you should blindly follow the rule of thirds to learn composition. Placing your subject on the main power points and a certain side of the frame, while it will help you avoid the center, can actually do more harm than good.
I know it did for me.
While the rule of thirds is designed to help beginners avoid placing their subject dead-center, often what happens is something equally ineffective.
When I started using the rule at first, here’s what happened.
Rather than focus on composing and seeing what is within the frame, I just placed my subject on the ‘power points’. Or I just placed my subject to the left, right, top, or bottom area instead of the center.
Simple enough to follow.
Yet more often than not my photographs lacked any visual appeal.
Focus on the Main Purpose Behind the Rule of Thirds Instead
Rather than focusing on the specific details that have developed with the rule of thirds (power points, avoiding the center, etc), focus on the main purpose of the rule of thirds:
To get you thinking about framing and where you place your content
Get out of the typical beginner approach to photography where you ‘point’ and ‘shoot’ at any subject with little effort on how you frame your image.
When you do this, often your subject does end up dead-center. But when you continue doing this but place your subject on a ‘power point’, you just end up with a poor composition with the subject on a point.
Rather than just blindly following rules, think of a few of these other compositional pointers.
Many of these align with the rule of thirds, but encourage you to think more creatively about your composition.
#1. Where Are the Main Points Within the Frame?
Knowing about the ‘power points’ from the rule of thirds is most definitely a good thing. Even better is being aware of these points but also open to whatever captures your vision most effectively.
A great first start to this is asking yourself where the points of interest are in your frame.
Are they placed on the power points? Would placing them there enhance your image?
Most DSLR’s have built-in grids that allow you to see the intersection of vertical and horizontal lines (often power points if there are 2 vertical and 2 horizontal lines).
Turning this on allows you to more easily see and position your subject to these points.
While you don’t need to adhere to these points 100% of the time, it’s a great reminder to help you avoid placing your subject dead center or anywhere without visual consideration.
Experiment placing your subject on the power points. Does it look good? Or not?
Sometimes placing subjects on these points can actually make for a boring image. I know I’ve had this happen many times.
To illustrate, several years back I was photographing a boat from a distance. At first, I just shot the boat intuitively, how I felt it looked best.
Then I remembered that ‘rule of thirds’ I had learned. So I placed it according to these principles. Upon looking at the images I took, I discovered that my first pictures were must more refreshing and interesting than those that followed the rule.
I was using my eyes at first, not a rule. And using your vision almost always yields better results.
Test out the rule of thirds. See if it helps you better compose your frame.
More importantly, get back to your sense of observation. Treat the power points and rule of thirds as a training wheel.
Be careful to do more than just look through your camera and place your subject on a point on the grid.
Ask yourself if the image actually looks good? Is there a better angle – a better place around you – that can make the composition more interesting?
#2. Be Aware of Visually Dominating Forces
As humans, our sense of perception is heavily influenced by numerous things – not just the golden ratio and points on a grid.
Gestalt psychology, or the study of visual perception, covers a great deal on this subject.
Certain placements on a frame weigh more due to our experience of ‘gravity’, weighing things on the top of the frame as lighter than those on the bottom.
Those on top are compelled to get pulled down. Those on the bottom are perceived as heavier.
Bright colors are heavier and more prominent than subdued colors.
Our eyes naturally gravitate towards the brightest area of a frame versus the dark spots.
When you compose an image, placing your main point of interest on a grid will likely do little if it’s darker than another area in your image. Or if it’s the weakest color of the frame, with a bright red object in the background.
The key to overcoming and assimilating everything within your frame to create a pleasing image is NOT with rule of thirds.
It’s by understanding and using visual balance.
While visual balance is a nuanced subject, the more aware you are of the entire frame, the more likely you’ll create a more balanced image.
Don’t just look at one point on your frame, look at the entire picture.
#3. Give Negative Space a Compelling Purpose
Negative space is the area of an image that surrounds your main points of interest. For portraits, for example, the negative space would be the area of the image around the subject’s face.
The rule of thirds is believed to help you better use negative space as you don’t just push your subject dead center.
Instead, you give the frame more negative space by placing your subject on the power points.
While this is true, that doesn’t necessarily mean it makes you use negative space in a visually pleasing way.
Placing your subject off centered, you see, can do two things:
- Make your photograph more interesting
- Keep it just as boring (if not more boring) as it was before
When you place your subject off-center, you likely create more negative space. Does this negative space have a reason? Is there something compelling in the negative space that adds to your main subject of interest?
Or is it just an empty area added to your image for no purpose than to follow the rule of thirds?
Close your eyes. Open them again. Look at your image as a whole.
What do you think?
How are your eyes encouraged to move when you see the image?
Is there symmetry and balance within the frame?
Do the lines lead to your subject of interest – or lead you to other areas outside of the frame?
Negative space can be very powerful when used right. It can invoke isolation, tranquility, and a number of other powerful feelings.
Used incorrectly, however, it can invoke absolute bore in viewers.
#4. Don’t Be Afraid of the Center
When I first learned of the rule of thirds, I didn’t take pictures with my subject centrally placed for years after. Literally.
Only later did I realize how powerful a centrally placed subject can be.
As I mentioned earlier, avoiding the aimless ‘pointing and shooting’ that often results with a subject placed dead-center is a great tip for beginners.
Avoiding the center all together? Not so much.
What’s bad is a subject placed dead center with no regard for background, left, right, top, and bottom area of the frame. This is just bad composition!
Place a subject dead center with absolute care of all the areas of the frame. Compose the visual elements to really lure in the viewer and keep them captivated.
Make note of the power points. Do you have details at those points? What about the top, bottom, left, and right area of your frame?
#5. Be Observant of the Frame
The rule of thirds is a great starting point to help you pay more attention to how you compose. But even better than just following the rule of thirds is carrying it a step beyond that.
You do that with the power of observation.
See the entire frame before you press down on the shutter.
As an artist, there are an endless variety of ways you can compose. The tiniest change in your position – from a centimeter move of your hand to a slight change in your focal length – can dramatically change your image.
“A photographer can bring coincidence of line simply by moving his head a fraction of a millimeter. He can modify perspectives by a slight bending of the knees. By placing the camera closer to or farther from the subject, he draws a detail – and it can be subordinated, or he can be tyrannized by it.”
Think of composition as a whole, with the power points as central parts to your image.
See the shapes, lines, colors, circles, spheres and how they can be arranged and made captivating.
The more you can see, the more you have to work with. While the rule of thirds can help you become more aware of how you compose, don’t stop there. Always aim to see more of what’s in front of you.