Composition: The Rule of Thirds

If someone new to photography asks, "How can I take better pictures," it is inevitable that a discussion on composition will move to the rule of thirds. Before panicking and refusing to submit your art to a set of rules (especially one that sounds like math), take a deep breath, go on Instagram or Google images, and find pictures you think are stunning examples of what you want to take. Chances are in many cases, some compliance to the rule of thirds was followed.

Note, however, that photography is not math and that rules act more as guidelines than mandates. Further, there are types of images where the rule of thirds simply fails.

But by and large, rather than just pointing and shooting, composing your image into the rule of thirds will usually improve the appeal of your pictures.

So, what is this rule?

Divide your view into parts like a tic-tac-toe board. You end up with a grid having nine boxes, like in the image that follows:

Apply the rule of thirds this way:
  1. Put the most important things at the intersection of two lines. Have them looking or moving INTO the image.
  2. Put horizons or other long, linear things on one of the two horizontal lines.
  3. Use the vertical grid lines to line up subjects. Center objects on the vertical grid lines.
  4. If you can, put the second most important thing at one of the other intersections of lines.
  5. The rule of thirds combines with other techniques, such as point of view or perspective to, as a whole, make images more interesting.

Here's an example. In the top image to the right, the boring objects are centered in the image.

This is a screen capture from an iPhone showing the grid lines option activated. You can turn grid lines on in the phone settings. Likewise, there are ways to turn on grid lines in many point-and-shoot cameras, and some modes in DSLRs allow them to be displayed, too.

While the subject of this image is far from exciting, sticking it in the center makes it even less interesting. Compare to the next image, where the same thing is shifted down and to the left. Keeping in mind that it is still just a cork and an eraser, the argument would be made that it is far more interesting.

The composition of this was meant to lead the eye to follow the down-slope of the eraser into the image. Though it is not going to win any prizes for being amazing, it comes of a little more interesting than the first, centered image.

The effect is more profound in other cases, and where the subject is interesting to start with, the results are even more powerful.

Take a look at the following and review the comments…

The bee is located at the top, left intersection in the grid. It faces into the image, actually looking down and to the right.

The bench is located at the bottom left intersection. The person's back follows the left, vertical line upward. The subject is facing into the rest of the photograph. The (somewhat discernible) stream bank roughly follows the top horizontal line.

Though there is no action in this image, the viewer is moved through the image based on its composition.

The closest hinge in this picture follows approximately the right vertical line with the lock perhaps even closer to it. The tops of the doors in the distance and the tops of the lock pockets roughly follow the top horizontal grid line.

A vertical line through the center of the barn falls on the left vertical grid line. The horizon and the foundation of the barn lie closely on the bottom horizontal grid line.

Not every portrait will adhere to the rule of thirds, but some aspects of this one does. A line through the model's eyes would fall near the top horizontal grid line. The top, right intersection would fall close to the bridge of his nose. Below the bottom horizontal grid line, the details begin to fade out.

Another composition of this would have been to put the bridge of the nose on the LEFT TOP intersection. That would have looked more like this (but from the other side):

In this, the forehead is at about the top horizontal line and the right vertical line runs through the middle of the model's face. The phone is below the left, bottom intersection, but as a secondary focus, it works there.


As a starting point for composing better pictures, the rule of thirds is definitely to be considered first. It is easy to use and will in most cases result in an interesting picture. 


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