Digital Camera Tips > The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds

Compose your photos with little boxes in mind

The rule of thirds is a lot like a rule of grammar. The rule is in place so that anyone learning the technique knows what is considered appropriate by the majority. Professionals who are well versed in the rules are allowed to break them, so long as the decision to do so is deliberate.

The Rule of Thirds Defined

The rule of thirds allows you to create more powerful and visually interesting compositions by dividing the photographic scene into thirds. When you think about placing your important elements off-center, your compositions will improve.

Example 1Example 2
rule of thirds imagerule of thirds image

In both of these photos the primary subject (sun and dog) are not smack in the center of the photo. Both have been placed off-center to create a more interesting photograph.

In the case of the sunset photo, the clouds in the sky as much a part of the photo as the sun itself. The sun is intentionally placed in the lower third of the photograph — this reduces the black silhouette at the bottom and focuses attention on the sky and cloud pattern.

The dog is also placed off-center, and this time is intentionally off to the left side of the photo. Since many people view things left to right, the subject is on the left so that it is seen first.

Power Points

Power points are where the lines that make up the boxes cross (there are 4 of them).

If you are taking a photo with more visual elements than in the two examples above, you can place your primary subject at a power point to make it stand out.

This lets your viewer know what the primary subject of the photo is, even when there are many possible subjects in the scene.

Rules Are Meant to be Broken

Calling the rule of thirds a "rule" makes it sound like all photographs that don't follow this approach are pretty much awful and boring. Not the case.

There are thousands of examples the world over of amazing eye-catching photos that do not follow the rule of thirds. Many don't seem to follow any "rule" at all.

The important thing to remember is that in these cases the choice was a deliberate one made by a professional photographer. The pros are good enough that they know when to follow the rule and when to break it. Great writers are allowed to write sentences that are considered gramatically incorrect. Breaking the rule of thirds is equivalent in the world of photography.

Advice For the Non-Professional

The best advice I can offer is this: practice the rule of thirds in all of the photographs you take. Do it over and over again until it becomes subconcious.

It's also important to experiment. When you take a photo of a subject, try placing the same subject at all 4 power points and in every location in the photograph. Eventually you will find that there is one approach that you really like. Once you've found it, you can apply it to all future subjects in a similar way.

Eventually the rule of thirds will become second nature and you won't have to think about it — then you can try breaking the rule and see what happens. You could be genuinely surprised by what you find.