The Rule of Thirds in Photography Composition…is it Really a Rule?

The Rule of Thirds is the most basic photography composition technique that every new photographer learns.  Because of its simplicity and ease of application, it is the most widely used composition technique.

It is probably this reason, why today’s digital cameras have rule of thirds grid overlay as an option. The camera manufacturers are turning every camera user to know about the grid, though many users may not actually understand why it is there.

But the question is…is it really a rule in the first place? Let’s explore.

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What is Photography Composition?

Photography composition means distilling the chaotic world to create a meaningful photograph which viewer can appreciate. In other words, arrangement of elements in an organized way to create a meaningful photograph.

In broader aspect, any photograph you take needs to be composed! If you just point at something and shoot, it becomes a snapshot not a photograph.

A Snapshot, as the name suggests, is a spontaneous shot which does not have any intent or a thought process, is not composed and may lack artistic value. However, it does capture that spontaneous once in a life-time moment. Which is very important in many scenarios.

A Photograph on the other hand is made with an intent or thought process in mind. It calls for representing a scene in an organized and/or artistic way so that it evokes an emotion in the viewer.

The Rule of Thirds is one of the many photography composition techniques which helps the photographer to organize the elements in a photograph in a meaningful way.

What is Rule of Thirds?

Rule of thirds is a guideline to compose a photograph which is visually compelling.

If you divide a photograph with 2 equally spaced vertical and horizontal imaginary lines, you will get 4 intersection points as shown below.

Digital Photography Composition: Rule of Thirds grid with 9 equal parts and 4 intersection points

Rule of Thirds grid created with two horizontal and vertical lines with 4 intersection points (marked in red). It is the simplest of the photography composition technique

Below is the simplified version of the Rule of Thirds.

Digital Photography Composition: Rule of Thirds grid showing only vertical lines and horizontal lines

Simple form of Rule of Thirds grid.
Left image shows 2 vertical lines dividing an image into 3 equal parts: left third, center and right third
Right image shows 2 horizontal lines dividing an image into 3 equal parts: top third, center and bottom third

Two vertical lines divides a photograph into 3 equivalent parts: Left third, Center and Right third.

Two horizontal lines divides a photograph into 3 equivalent parts: Top third, Center and Bottom third.

Now you understand why it is called Rule of Thirds, isn’t it?

As per the statistical data, it is said that a photograph is more compelling or visually interesting if the main subject or subject of interest, is placed on one of the 4 intersection points and/or on one of the horizontal or vertical lines.

Let us explore this concept with examples.

Using Rule of Thirds in Landscape Photography

It is the most widely used rule in landscape photography. You might have an idea by now.

Place the Horizon on Top Third line or the Bottom Third line of the Grid

You can create compelling compositions of the landscapes by placing the horizon either on the top third line or the bottom third line of the grid as shown in below pictures.

Digital Photography Composition: Rule of third grid overlay on a landscape photograph

Rule of Third grid overlay showing the horizon on the top third line or top horizontal line

Digital Photography Composition: Rule of third grid overlay on a landscape photograph

Rule of Third grid overlay showing the horizon on the bottom third line or bottom horizontal line

Place the Main Subject of Interest on Left Third or Right Third line of the Grid

If you have a vertical subject, like mountains, trees, etc, which is the main subject of interest in your landscape photograph, then it is often good to place them on left or right third. Keeping it dead center makes it boring or not very appealing.

Digital Photography Composition: Rule of third grid overlay on a landscape photograph

The Rule of Third grid overlay showing main subject of interest, the snow-capped mountain, on the left third line or left vertical line

Check out the more detailed article on Rule of Thirds applied to Landscape Photography.

Using Rule of Thirds in Wildlife Photography

The concepts explained here for Wildlife Photography can be applied to Portrait and Macro Photography too.

Place the Bird or Animal on either Left Third or Right Third line

You can make interesting composition of birds or animals by placing them either on the left third or the right third line of the grid. This will ensure that you have enough negative space or background to balance the photograph.

Digital Photography Composition: Rule of third grid overlay on a white tailed deer photograph

White tailed deer is placed on the left third of the grid making it more interesting by showing its habitat

Place the Bird or Animal on the Vertical line Opposite to it’s Gaze or Movement

Give enough space for the bird or animal in the photograph to look into or move in the direction, creating sense of comfort for both the bird or animal as well as the viewer.

Digital Photography Composition: Rule of third grid overlay on a green heron photograph

Green Heron is placed on the left vertical line or left third line of the image to give enough space in front to walk into

It is very important to take care of the spacing since we feel uncomfortable if there is not enough space for bird or animal to look or walk into.

Place the Bird in Flight or Animal on Move on the Top Third line

Since a flying bird or a walking or running animal’s body is parallel to the ground, align it’s body to the top third line of the grid.

RoT-Normal-And-Grid-Overlay-top-third-bird

Great Egret is placed on the top horizontal line or top third of the image to enhance its flight and give enough space in the front to fly into

Place the Bird’s or Animal’s eye on One of the 4 Intersecting Points

Since we understand that the bird or animal’s eye helps in making a connection, it is good to place the eye on or close to one of the 4 intersecting points to create interest.

Digital Photography Composition: Blue and white swallow's eye on the intersection point of the rule of thirds grid

Blue-and-white Swallow’s eye is closer to the intersection point of the grid overlay making this photo more interesting

It is not always possible to have the eye on the intersection point, and also it is not necessary. In most of the cases, the eye can be placed on top third or horizontal line instead.

Digital Photography Composition: Green Heron's eye on the top third of the rule of thirds grid

Green heron’s eye is placed on the top third of the image instead of intersection point

Check out the in-depth article on Rule of Thirds applied to Bird Photography.

Is it really a Rule or a Guideline?

What do you think?

  • If you think it as a rule and follow it, then all your photographs will look alike losing their effectiveness in the long run.
  • If you think this as a guideline, then you can make a choice whether to use it or not, depending on what is needed to represent the scene in the best possible way

When to Use it and When to Break it?

Break it, when it does not make any sense to use it!

In almost all the above given example, you can break the rule. The question is…why do you want to break it?

It is always good to see if it works well in the first place, and break it, if it does not.

The rule of thirds is usually, but not always, broken in case of reflection photographs as it looks more balanced to keep the subject in the center. This is because, there are inevitably two primary subjects and both needs to be balanced.

Digital Photography Composition: Great Egret's reflection showing breaking the rule of thirds

The reflection photos whether it is bird or animal or landscape, usually asks for a centered composition since there are inevitably two primary subjects, Great Egret and it’s reflection in the image.

Conclusion

The bottom line is:

Don’t place the subject in the center of the photograph!

Learn the rule/guideline. Understand why it is called as rule in the first place.

  • Does it make any sense to you?
  • Do you agree with the logic?
  • Does it really make your photograph compelling if you use it?

Rules or guidelines are generally widely accepted way of doing somethings. I personally believe that:

  • One who never learns the rule, is ignorant
  • One who learns the rule but never uses it just because it is a rule, is adamant
  • One who learns the rule and uses it blindly, is no good
  • One who learns the rule and uses it when it makes sense and breaks it all other times, is sensible

I have been through all these phases in my photographic journey. And you?

In the upcoming article, I will cover breaking the rule of thirds to create interesting compositions. I hope you have already subscribed to the email list to get notified about it.

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11 Responses to The Rule of Thirds in Photography Composition…is it Really a Rule?

  1. S Kiran December 14, 2013 at 5:23 pm #

    Very Detailed Info .

    • Prathap December 14, 2013 at 8:25 pm #

      Hi S Kiran…I hope it was helpful.

  2. Lokesh MK January 12, 2014 at 1:54 am #

    Rule of thirds simplified!!

    Thanks Prathap

    • Prathap January 12, 2014 at 11:28 am #

      Very well said Lokesh 🙂 Thanks a lot.

  3. Samuel January 18, 2014 at 7:27 am #

    Dear Prathap, Your article is very responsive for a beginner like me. Very detailed yet simplified. Thanks a lot.

    • Prathap January 18, 2014 at 8:40 am #

      Dear Samuel, Thanks for a wonderful comment 🙂 I am very glad that it was simple to understand.

  4. Antonis January 20, 2014 at 7:07 am #

    I think one of the most plain and simple -but still so analytic- explaination of the rule.

    • Prathap January 20, 2014 at 8:35 pm #

      Thanks a lot for the wonderful comment Antonis. I hope it was useful.

  5. Keval Desai October 17, 2014 at 4:39 am #

    Hi,
    thanks a lot for such a detailed and easy explanation. 🙂
    need your suggestion, kindly share your mail id at keval2947@rediff.com
    will be waiting for your mail.

  6. Bharath Mani July 6, 2017 at 2:12 pm #

    Woww….. what a simplified explanation… i just inspired.. thank you so much Mr.Prathap for these helpful articles. Really you made photography simplified…

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