The rule of thirds

Rules are made to be broken? Sometimes. But... Rules are made for a reason. If you break this rule, chances are a car won't crash into you at an intersection or a wall won't fall down after you are completed with your remodel. The rule of thirds is a simple tool to help you in your creative composition. When you are laying out your creative element, whether it be shooting a video, creating a graphic, or taking a photograph, think through where you want your audience's attention to fall. The rule of thirds suggests dividing your canvas into 9 equal spaces and placing your subject at the point or on the line of these divisions. Essentially cut your canvas into thirds and use those lines to be your guide on where your subject should be. When this rule is followed, it is claimed your art has more tension, energy, dynamics and interest. For the most part I agree. I don't shoot every photograph following this rule, but I do think of every photograph through the lens of rule of thirds. Let me explain.

The rule of thirds dates back over 200 years ago and has been a major part of photography ever since. Although there is skepticism and debate, it's a rule you can see in several photographs and movies from creatives all over the world.

Setting up for the rule of thirds

When I first started learning how to shoot videos and DSLR photography, a common theme of the rule of thirds continued to appear in my training. I started noticing others were using the rule, when before I thought it was just random placement. Sometimes rules can feel confining and claustrophobic but when you learn the freedom within a rule, it actually helps you structure your creative playbook so that all of your finished products do not look the same.

There are several ways you set yourself up for using the rule of thirds. Many cameras today actually have built in grids you can use while you are shooting, whether looking through the viewfinder or using a screen. I have this set on my Canon 80D both in the viewfinder and live view screen for photos and video. You can even turn on a grid on your iPhone!

Canon 80D Viewfinder

iPhone camera app

80D live view screen

Typically most photo editing software includes grids in the "Crop" section. If you have ever noticed these lines, now you know why there are there! I use Lightroom to edit most of my professional photographs and love this simple feature in the cropping overlay. There are times when I may not shoot exactly level and when I go in to realign, I can use these grids to both level and crop.

Using the rule of thirds

There's several ways to use the rule of thirds. Here's a few ways I use it:

Line up your horizon of your landscape photo with either the top or bottom horizontal line of the grid, depending on what you want your audience to focus on. If the sky is the focus, align the horizon with the bottom horizontal line. It helps you give enough context to see where the photo has been taken, but also, puts emphasis on the sky. If the sky isn't the emphasis, put the horizon at the top line.

It's beneficial to emphasize your subject, specifically a person, from the background using rule of thirds by aligning the subject on one of the vertical lines. Generally, I try and get the subjects eye closest to the camera on one of the intersections of the thirds lines (see example below). You have four spots where the lines intersect so get creative with where your subject is placed on the grid, mixed with the background. Once again, This adds dynamics and helps the subject stand out from the background. If the subject is not a person or animal, place the subject on the line where you see fit. 

Dont forget, you can use the rule of thirds in portrait mode as well. The example shows the body of the subject aligned with the frame right on the right vertical third line. It may be slightly more tricky, but it adds a new dimension to your artwork.



There are several times when I do choose to break the rule BUT I always view the frame through the rule of thirds to see if it would help the composition. Once I rule it out, then I will either bend the rule or break the rule completely. Maybe you want more sky in the frame. Try 1/4ths instead of 1/3rds. Or 1/5ths. You still align your composition to the lines, you just move them slightly in the frame. 

Another option is to just throw the whole idea out of the window. Usually this happens with symmetrical photographs, or when I use lines of the subject, or sometimes, you just want to make your own line.

At the end of the day, you are the artist. You get to choose how you want to compose your art. Rules are here to help us stay on track so I encourage you to embrace the rule of thirds when you can. It will make you a better artist. Once you learn the power of the rule of thirds, you will know how to break it. 


What other rules have you heard of in the creative world?