The rule of thirds in photography
If you are a beginner and want to learn photography, there is a good chance that you have heard about this famous ‘rule of thirds’ in photography. I wanted to begin by talking about framing and composition in this photography blog and this is the first element, the one you need to know and master.
All beginners in photography go through this stage and learn how to use this rule. There’s nothing too complicated about it in theory, it’s simply a rule passed down through the last few centuries, which helps you to compose a photograph in the “correct way”. This rule is called the “rule of thirds” and should be used as a guideline, a photographic technique, an important principle. You have to understand this rule before you can use it. Knowing how to frame, capture and immortalize the scene in front of you is what you need to be able to progress in photography. It’s not just a matter of pressing the trigger if you want to succeed in taking beautiful pictures. If you are new to the field, you can refer to all the articles on the basics of photography.
I must point out here that many famous photos, or those considered successful, do not in fact respect the rule of thirds at all and are outside this framework. Therefore, you are not obliged to respect this rule but it’s important to know it … You will have to master many sets of “rules” or photo composition logic if you want to successfully improve your photos. I myself am still learning every day…
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In this article, I will explain exactly what this rule is, in which type of photo it’s best to apply it (with examples), when it’s most interesting to apply it and finally I will show you some counterexamples to this rule… Keep in mind, however, that even if you do not apply the rule of thirds strictly, it still has one important merit: to make you think about your composition, and that is what represents 80% of your photo.
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The rule of thirds in pictures - how it works
Let’s start with the basics by simply explaining what this famous rule of thirds is all about. The principle is very simple. You take a picture and draw two horizontal and two vertical lines to form 9 rectangles of the same size. By doing this you will find yourself with four points of intersection where these lines cross. They’re called “power point, crash point, or point of interest”. The important compositional elements should then be placed along these lines or their intersections. It’s no more complicated than that. It has been accepted that the human eye tends to focus on these guidelines and famous intersections of the image when looking at a photograph, the power points of the image as they are called in photo jargon.
Just between us, if you are a beginner and just starting out with your DSLR and have trouble imagining these 4 lines, you should be able to make them appear in your viewfinder. Take a look at your camera’s manual to find the correct setting to change. The objective when you start will be to highlight your subject as one of the power points of the image, while harmonising the proportions using the guidelines. You are under no obligation to do so, of course, but in the paragraph below I explain the reason behind its use. Practice taking pictures yourself, try to identify the subject you want to highlight and then apply these rules, what do you think?
I grant you, these photos are not mine and the delimitation of the lines is not perfect, but here are two examples of the rule of thirds in two different domains!
What's the point?
You may be wondering what the point of practicing this type of rule is. Why not do as I please? The simple fact is that this rule has the advantage of highlighting a subject in a straightforward way. In the Western world, we are used to reading from left to right and from top to bottom. This is something that can be transcribed to photography. Try it, but I assure you that you actually ‘read’ a photo like you do a book.
The point, therefore, is to use these imaginary guidelines to divide the image to highlight the points of interest while creating balance between your subject and its surroundings. Because, don’t forget, we’ve already talked in other articles about the point of a photo being to highlight something of interest; an object, an atmosphere, a texture, a color, etc. Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
The rule of thirds in pictures in all situations
I want to show you some examples where the rule of thirds has been applied to greater and lesser degrees and how this helps the interpretation of the photo. In most of these cases, these are photographs I personally took during my travels.
I think it is safe to say that this is where the rule of third parties and respect for power points makes the most sense. You might think this is an easy type of photo to take because you just have to shoot the landscape in front of you. In fact, I find that this is one of the areas where you really see the difference between someone who is interested in photography and tries to apply themselves and those who simply “click”…
In this first image the photograph was taken in the Ngorongoro crater during my safari in Tanzania. In this case, there is no real power point in the image but I tried to convey the feeling of immensity that I saw inside the crater. As the sky was very bland and uninteresting when I was shooting, I chose to highlight the endless savannah. You will therefore see that the savannah stops more or less on the upper horizon line using the rule of thirds. The dirt track perfectly guides your eyes to the bottom of the image where you can see the crater. Here, it is more of a driving line guiding the gaze, even though the edge of the right of the track follows a line in the thirds rather well. The final image is dynamic and brings great depth.
Here I’ve chosen two extreme examples. I haven’t perfectly respected the rule of thirds here, but the general idea is apparent. I wanted to prove that the rule of thirds, even for landscape photography, can also work perfectly in a portrait format. The image on the left was taken in the famous temples of Bagan, Burma. As you can see, the sky was uninteresting (grey with low contrast). However, I chose to bring out the subject (the temple at the bottom right), by placing it perfectly on a crash point. The fact that only a very small strip of vegetation is left at the bottom and that the space at the top is almost uniform, makes the subject stand out very well in the image.
The other picture on the right is a picture taken in the mangrove swamp on Ibo Island during my trip to Mozambique. This was taken during a sunset that I don’t think I will ever forget. Here is another extreme example, with its enhancement of the colorful, golden foreground and with the magnificent reflection in the water still present in the mangrove. Once again, even if we can’t, strictly speaking, speak of a line, the gaze is drawn to the foreground to the black spot at the bottom left, purposely placed by me to balance the photograph. If you look you should notice a sequence of dark marks which take you through the image to the bottom top right and the isolated tree which has been placed on a power point. Hopefully you are now beginning to understand the subtleties of the rule of thirds. One can (and sometimes must) place an element in direct opposition to the subject in order to provide counterbalance and therefore, in fact, balance the image. The objective is to make sure that certain points of your photographic work are revitalized or accentuated. Do you want to know more about photo composition?
This is one of the other areas of photography where the rule of thirds applies to a certain extent. In my opinion, it may be less important, but it still has its role to play, particularly in giving meaning to the photo, a sense of “direction” but also a sense of “imagination”.
I would like to show you two more examples of pictures I have taken. The first, below, was taken in a small village in central Thailand. I took a very long series of photos of these monkeys in a beautiful golden natural light in the late afternoon. These will be the subject of an article explaining why the time of day when taking your photos is crucial. Unlike landscape photography, in wildlife photography, you are faced with real living creatures. The idea is therefore to use the rule of thirds in a way (very often) that gives an animal a sense of perspective. In this case, the animal’s eye level doesn’t meet the rule of thirds perfectly, but it’s head is well placed on a line on the left, purposefully leaving room on the right following the animal’s gaze. Doing the opposite (placing the animal on the right in the image) would have been a mistake and the end result would have been very different.
The other photo shows another scene, the gaze of a lion in the savannah in Tanzania. His eyes appear to be searching for something. The subject (the lion!) is not properly placed on a power point, but it is on the right vertical line of the image, and perfectly allows you to follow his gaze and imagine what he’s looking for. The point was to make it clear that the lion was in search of something, perhaps some prey. His gaze goes to the left of the image and by leaving the space the intention is clear. Ideally, I should have shifted the lion a little further to the right, I think…
In wildlife photography, in addition to knowing how to correctly position an animal in order to illustrate your scene, other technical points will come into play, such as using a large aperture to reduce the depth of field and ensure that the background is out of focus. This is not systematic if you want to focus on the whole scene rather than taking close-ups of the animal.
This is clearly a subject that I am much less familiar with but on which I have tried several times. If you look at a lot of portrait photography, you will often find that the eyes are highlighted and very often placed on a power point within the rule of thirds.
Here is a picture I took in a village in Mozambique. This is almost a documentary style photo as it wasn’t posed for, it was taken on the spot, in the street with children. I deliberately wanted to take a picture a little “off the cuff” by cutting off part of the subject’s head while placing his eyes on a power point on the left line. The picture is not perfect in itself, but I like the final result and what it reveals. For the record, the kids don’t have real cars to play with, they simply make their own out of old bottles and Coca Cola caps. It’s beautiful to see from a western perspective where almost all 5 year olds have an iPad these days!
Of course, you can apply this rule in other areas such as urban landscapes, in macro photography or in nature photography.
The counterexample: center your subject
I end this article purposefully with a counterexample to the rule of thirds. As mentioned in the introduction, it is not a question of simply respecting a rule, but of drawing inspiration from it to give meaning to one’s photos. In some areas, the rule of thirds does not necessarily work and it can be very interesting to focus on the subject. I am thinking in particular of photographs of architecture, buildings in the street, or in photos where one can present a beautiful symmetry.
In the picture of my house below (would you believe it or not?), the photographer deliberately wanted to center the subject in the image. A perfect symmetry is almost visible and in this case, centering the house makes sense. The photo on the right is another example of a subject being centered in a way that is perfect to make a beautiful photo
That’s it, I’m coming to the end of this article. I hope I’ve been clear enough and that you now have a better understanding of this famous rule of thirds in photography. If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to leave a short message. In this article, ‘leading lines’ have been mentioned quite a bit and in a more detailed article, I will explain how to highlight your subject by using them.
However, keep in mind that it is possible to retouch (or rather crop) an initially poorly cropped image in post-processing. The ideal in my opinion is to take as many pictures as possible in the field so as to spend as little time as possible in front of your computer screen. To continue learning, I invite you to learn about exposure in photography.
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In the meantime, good luck with your photos.