Composing a Photo: Understanding the Rule of Thirds

April 09, 2015

Composing a Photo: Understanding the Rule of Thirds

One of those most fundamental compositional rules in photography is the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds has its roots in the world of fine art. It dates back to the Renaissance period when the artists and painters of that time noticed that centered compositions could often appear static and uninteresting. And from that they happened upon the notion that placing their main subject away from the center made for a more visually compelling piece.

The theory behind this is that an off-center subject adds an element of artistic tension because the human brain prefers order to disorder. And in that, there is implied movement as the mind's eye works to center that subject. So, in that sense, a composition that displays its main subject away from its center triggers mental interaction and stimulation. This stimulation is missing when the subject is in the center, with equal distance all around. In that case, there's nothing for the brain to do, no challenge to overcome. The story is told, the game is over, the ship has sailed…lights off.

Using the Rule of Thirds

So that's the theory behind the rule of thirds. I don't know if that's the real reason the rule of thirds works. But I do know that following it can improve almost any image regardless of the subject matter. And that it's a simple way of changing a static image into an interesting, dynamic and compelling one. In fact, I would argue that understanding and using the rule of thirds is the easiest way to instantly improve your photography.

To apply the rule of thirds, mentally draw a grid over your scene using three equally spaced vertical lines and three equally spaced horizontal lines. Then, in composing your photo, place your main subject along one of these lines…

rule of thirds
…or, even better, at the points where the lines intersect known as the “power points" of the composition:
rule of thirds

Applying the rule of thirds can instantly improve your photos. Below you can see examples of this. In all three cases, the composition was tweaked to move the subject to a position that follows the rule of thirds and the result is a stronger image.

rule of thirds

Before Rule of Thirds

rule of thirds

After Rule of Thirds


rule of thirds

Before Rule of Thirds

rule of thirds

After Rule of Thirds


rule of thirds

Before Rule of Thirds

rule of thirds

After Rule of Thirds

Counterpoint: Extending The Rule Of Thirds To Two Subjects

You can extend the idea behind the rule of thirds to include a secondary subject.

To do this, place your primary subject on one of the intersections of the rule of thirds grid. Then place the secondary subject at the diagonally opposite intersection.

This may sound confusing, but I think the example below will help.

rule of thirds

The placement of the secondary subject in this way helps to add a sense of balance to the photo. That said, composing an image to include a counterpoint can be tricky. It's all about the geometry in your scene and it may or may not work in your favor. But use it when you can and be on the lookout for such positioning when cropping

If you would like to learn more about the rule of thirds, below you'll find links and videos that I think you'll find helpful. Enjoy!

Composition: Rule Of Thirds

Rule of Thirds in Photography

The Rule Of Thirds And Photography

Rule Of Thirds: Use It And Break It With Confidence

Breaking the Rules: Ignoring the Rule of Thirds

Add Visual Interest To Your Photos With The Rule Of Thirds




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