The Rule of Thirds: The Secret to Compelling Compositions

The rule of thirds is less of a rule and more of a design guideline in photography. If you’ve ever taken an art or design class, you’ve probably learned about this rule. I’m not sure where it came from or if there is any science behind it, but most people agree that an image divided into thirds is most pleasing to the eye and elements that fall on the edge of each third just look “right.” I can’t explain it, but it looks right to me too, so when it doubt, I will use this guideline to balance a photo and make it look pleasing to most of the people who see it.

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Photo of Couple - Image Divided into Thirds

An image divided into thirds

Applying the rule of thirds

To apply the rule of thirds, draw or imagine lines running horizontally, one third from the top and one third from the bottom. Then draw or imagine lines running vertically, one third from the left and one third from the right. Important elements of your photo or parts that you want to draw a viewer’s attention to should rest on these lines, and for even more visual power, they should rest at the intersection of the lines.

Take a look at photos around you. You will find that some of the most interesting and compelling images have a subject who is off-center or a horizon line that does not run through the middle of the photo. Maybe it’s our sense of fairness and equality that makes most people want to place a subject dead center, with their head in the middle of the photo and the bottom half of their body cut off. And perhaps it’s the tension of not having everything perfectly divided in half that keeps a viewers attention. Either way, the rule of thirds is all around us and you will find it in photography, cinema, paintings, graphic design and publishing.

Cityscape of Pittsburgh: Rule of Thirds

Horizon line sitting one third from top


Let’s take a look at landscapes and how the rule of thirds may apply. In a landscape you will typically have a horizon line where the sky meets the land or the water. It would follow the rule of thirds if this horizon was exactly one third from the top or bottom of your photo. Maybe the most interesting part of your landscape is an eagle sitting in one of the trees. Place that tree one third from the left or right in your frame. Most people will find the composition pleasing just based on these things.

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Image with the Focus Point in the Right Third

Focal point at the intersection of thirds


The same idea applies for portraits. Usually, my focus is the person’s eye. So I want whichever eye is closest to me to be on one of those third lines, or even better, at the intersection of the lines. Or if it is a head-to-toe shot, I will place the person’s body one third from either edge rather than dead center.

Meant to be broken

Like all rules, the rule of thirds is meant to be broken. However, the reason we break rules as artists is to push the limits of our creativity and the boundaries of what is aesthetically pleasing. When you see a bad photo with someone dead center and cropped at the knees, no one assumes that the photographer knew about the rule of thirds but decided to make a statement with their composition. But when the composition is thoughtful and artistic decisions are made because the rule of thirds doesn’t get the message across as intended, that is when this rule is meant to be broken. Get good at the rule of thirds and then you’ll have a better idea of when to break it.

How often do you use the rule of thirds in your work? Do you think about it every time you shoot?

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