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Using the Rule of Thirds as an aid to Photographic Composition

The rule of thirds is one of the most important rules of photographic composition. Landscape photographers are particularly fond of this one, but it works well for many types of subject.

The rule of thirds simply says that, instead of placing the main focus of interest in the center of the frame, which makes for a very static composition, that you look to position it on an intersection of the thirds. That is to say one third up and one third in or two thirds up and one third in etc. Here's an example:-

Placing the Horizon on the Third

incorrect use of rule of thirds for photography composition
using rule of thirds for landscape composition

Take a look at the two versions of a landscape picture on the left, I hope you'll agree that the bottom photo is a more satisfying composition.

The sky contains very little detail so why show too much of it? In the bottom picture we have enough sky to show that it is a sunny day and now we have more room for interesting subject matter. The top picture looks cut in half, we feel unsure what we are supposed to be looking at when the picture is cut in half by the horizon.

If we had some interesting clouds in that sky we could just as easily place the horizon one third from the bottom of the picture to show that we are most interested in the sky. But we still wouldn't place it in the center of the frame. Never, ever put the horizon in the middle (well almost never).

Also notice, in the pictures above, how the tree takes on more importance in the bottom picture because it now sits on the intersection of the vertical and horizontal third, which is a very powerful position in the frame.

Why the Rule of Thirds Works

I think there are two reasons why the rule of thirds is such a good aid to composition, the first is a more general feeling that a subject in the center of the frame is 'at rest', it's not going anywhere it feels . . . well, a bit boring. Moving the subject, or main point of interest, away from the center of the frame shakes things up a bit, makes the viewer work a little, it just makes the picture more dynamic. The closer your subject gets to the edge of the frame the more unsettling the picture appears to the viewer.

One of my favorite photos of all time, taken by a friend of mine back in the day, consisted of an almost totally white rectangle. He put the skyline right at the bottom of the picture, a wire fence in a farmer's field, and right in the corner of the frame was a small horse which was just about to walk out of the frame. You got the feeling that a few more seconds and the horse would be gone. It broke all the rules of composition, moving things should be moving into the frame not out of it, place the subject on the thirds, but it set up a tremendous feeling of suspense in a 'still' photograph, it told a story, which every good picture should aspire to do. The composition worked because there was nothing else in the frame to distract your eye, the 'sky' was completely white, so your eye was pulled to the corner as it was the only thing to look at in the picture.

Of course we don't want every picture we take to be laced with such drama, but neither do we want them to be boring, so a good compromise is 1/3rd of the way in from the edge. It's only a starting point, it's a 'safe' way to compose your picture, by all means try some experiments, put your subject half in and half out of the picture or right on the edge and see how this sets up an interesting dynamic. The only thing is, you need to be able to convince the viewer that you did this on purpose and not as a result of sloppy framing. And there needs to be nothing else that is going to compete for attention in the picture.

The other reason this rule of thirds works, and this is mostly applicable to landscapes, is that it makes it clear to the viewer what exactly you intended to take a picture of. As mentioned in the example above, putting the horizon in the middle of the frame (a very, very common beginners' error) splits the picture in half and leaves us wondering what the photographer is trying to show us. It rarely works well and usually leaves us wishing that the photo concentrated on one thing or the other, either the sky or the landscape.

If you've got good clouds and there's nothing much of interest below the horizon, put the focal point on the bottom third. In this case I put the sun in the center vertically to show the symmetry of the clouds radiating out from the sun. It would have spoiled the composition to put the sun on the intersection of the thirds, so you have to use your judgment and not just blindly follow the rules.

Rules are Made to be Broken

One possible exception to this is the case of the reflection as in this picture, if you have a reflection of your subject in water or whatever, it may be that the best thing is to divide the picture in half, but then again not always. Anyway that's what makes a good rule, there's always an exception. However, a closer analysis of this picture reveals the pillar to the left of the door, a strong element of the composition, is made even stronger by being on the third. In fact I would say that the pillar, because of it's placement, becomes a stronger element than the door.

Cropping to the Rule of Thirds

Below is another version of the same picture, this time placing the divide between the wall and the reflection on the third line. Now we have the emphasis squarely on the reflection and it becomes the main subject. Which one do you prefer? I think in this instance the top 50-50 shot is my favorite but I think they both have their merits. This example does show though, that you can create a 'thirdsy' picture in the computer, if you don't quite get it right in the camera. But always try to get the cropping right in the camera if you can and make the most of every one of those expensive pixels you paid for. If you can't quite make your mind up how the picture is best cropped, take another, and another, and as many as it takes to cover all the angles. After a while, with experience, you will get a feel of what doesn't work and you can leave out some of the less flattering angles, but always try to cover all the bases.

The Rule of Thirds is not Just for Landscapes

The rule of thirds

Here's another 'thirdsy' sort of picture on the right. Placing the boat near the top of the picture tells the viewer that the main subject of the picture is the reflection in the water.

We could take the boat out altogether, of course, this would focus our attention even more on the reflection but the picture might then be a little too minimalist.

Also the mast is almost exactly on the 'third' line making it a very prominent part of the composition.

Placing the main elements of your composition on the thirds, and especially at the intersection of the thirds, is a powerful composition aid for many different subjects and applying the rule will immediately improve the vast majority of your compositions. Whatever you are photographing, ask yourself; "can I use the rule of thirds?" The answer won't always be yes but you will be surprised at how often it will be.

Taking Advantage of the Intersection of the Thirds

Above is a picture from a recent visit to Davos, the mountain scenery there is hard to beat. The focal point of the picture is the patch of light in the valley lighting up the fields. Placing this at the intersection of the thirds makes it much stronger than if it were positioned in the middle of the frame and really draws your eye in to that point. The picture also divides on the top third line between the rugged rocks and the green of the fields. I think you'll agree it's a pretty dramatic shot.

As I said above, all sorts of shots can be improved by moving the subject away from the center of the frame. The rule of thirds works very well on shots of people too, which is why I have very strong opinions on where you can and where you can't crop a portrait. (see my tutorial on portraits)

Other tutorials in this section


An introduction to composition, explaining the 'rule of thirds' and the use of diagonals.

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Composition - Check the Background

Watch out for those ugly dustbins!

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Rule of Thirds

The most important rule of composition.

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How to fill your frame with your subject.

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Another important aspect of composition.

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Depth of Field

What it is and how to use it creatively.

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Blur or Bleah?

How to use Motion Blur, and a discussion on when it's appropriate.

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