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Mastering Composition: The Rule of Thirds Demystified

Updated: Jan 23


Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds divides your image into a 3x3 grid to enhance composition. By placing your subject at grid intersections or along the lines, you create balance and interest. This article explores the rule’s origins, guides you through its application, and demonstrates how it can influence your photographic approach, all with clear, practical advice.


I am RayCee the Artist, a professional portrait photographer, event photographer, and wedding photographer, and if you would like to schedule a photoshoot with me, please contact me at raycee@rayceeartist.com!


Also, be sure to follow me on Instagram and YouTube!


Main Points

  • The rule of thirds is a fundamental compositional technique in photography, where an image is divided into nine equal parts using two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines, and key elements are placed along these lines or at their intersections to create balance and visual appeal.

  • The rule of thirds can be applied across varied photography genres, such as landscape, portrait, street, and wildlife photography, to guide the viewer’s eye and enhance the overall composition, although it can be sometimes intentionally disregarded for creative effect.

  • Modern cameras and photo editing software often feature built-in rule of thirds gridlines and overlays to aid photographers in composing shots, while mastering this rule also involves practice, experimentation, and learning from the work of experienced photographers.

Understanding the Rule of Thirds


At its core, the rule of thirds is a compositional technique that splits an image into nine evenly distributed segments. Picture a 3x3 grid overlaying your frame. Now, imagine placing your subject/focal point at the intersections of these lines or along the lines themselves. The outcome is a harmonious, visually appealing shot that guides the viewer’s eye smoothly across the photograph.


But where does this rule come from? And why do we use it in the first place? A journey back in time can help us understand its origin and purpose.


Origin and Purpose


The rule of thirds took its first breath in the world of painting. John Thomas Smith, in his 1797 book “Remarks on Rural Scenery," referenced Sir Joshua Reynolds’s 1783 examination of the equilibrium of dark and light in a painting, focusing on the one third of the composition, leaving the remaining two thirds to be balanced. This concept laid the foundation for what we now know as the thirds composition.


From canvases to camera lenses, the rule of thirds transitioned into photography, becoming a widely recognized guideline in composing dynamic and engaging visuals. Setting the subject along the thirds lines allows photographers to establish a visually balanced, aesthetically pleasing composition that adds tension and dynamism to the scene.


Gridlines and Intersection Points


Rule of Thirds

Gridlines and intersection points are the silent heroes of the rule of thirds. The grid consists of two equally spaced vertical and two horizontal straight lines that partition the photo into nine equal parts. But what magic do these lines hold?


The magic lies in the four intersection points - the points where the horizontal and vertical lines intersect. These points are considered to be the most visually interesting spots in the frame and are ideal for positioning a key element in the composition. Effectively drawing attention to, and emphasizing elements within the frame is possible when photographers align important subjects or focal points on these intersection points. This method creates a sense of balance in the photo.


Why Does the Rule of Thirds Matter?

The rule of thirds is crucial as it introduces an element of balance to your photographs. By strategically positioning key elements along the gridlines or at their intersection points, your photo achieves a sense of equilibrium. The main subject garners visual interest in one-third of the composition while balancing the empty space in the remaining two-thirds. This arrangement is not only aesthetically pleasing but also feels intuitively "right" to the viewer.


Moreover, the rule of thirds encourages dynamism. Images with centrally placed subjects often feel static and uninteresting. The viewer's gaze is locked onto the central subject, with no incentive to explore the rest of the photo. On the other hand, a composition that adheres to the rule of thirds provides a more engaging photographic experience. The viewer is first drawn to a key element of the shot and then led on a visual journey through the rest of the scene.


How to Apply the Rule of Thirds in Various Photography Genres


The rule of thirds is not bound by the genre of photography. It can enhance the composition of any photographic genre, including:

  • Vast landscapes

  • Intimate portraits

  • Bustling streets

  • Serene wildlife

But how does the rule of thirds translate into different genres of photography? A closer examination of its application in landscape, portrait, and street and wildlife photography is warranted.


Landscape Photography


Rule of Thirds

Landscape photography and the rule of thirds go hand in hand. A balanced shot of the sky and the land can be achieved by photographers by aligning the horizon along the top or bottom horizontal thirds line. Furthermore, aligning key landscape features with the grid lines or at their intersections can establish balance and visual interest, guiding the viewer’s eye through the photograph.


However, there are situations where this rule can be disregarded. For instance, when capturing reflections in still water, a centered horizon may be more visually compelling.


Portrait Photography


Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds plays a significant role in portrait photography. Positioning the subject within the left or right third of the frame, or even in the upper third, rather than centering them, can result in a more attractive and engaging image.


This offset positioning not only creates a visually captivating composition but also fosters a stronger connection between the subject and the viewer.


Street and Wildlife Photography


Rule of Thirds

For street and wildlife photography, the rule of thirds can bring about a significant change. By positioning one or two subjects along the grid lines or at their intersection points, photographers can direct the viewer’s attention and create a powerful visual attraction towards the main subjects.


Cameras and Editing Tools Supporting the Rule of Thirds


Given that the rule of thirds is an integral part of photography, numerous cameras and editing tools now incorporate built-in support for it. Whether you’re using a high-end DSLR, a compact point-and-shoot, or the camera on your smartphone, you’ll likely find a grid feature that can help you apply the rule of thirds to your compositions.


But that’s not all! Even in the post-production stage, software like Photoshop and Lightroom come with a built-in rule of thirds overlay, making it easier for you to refine your compositions during the editing process.


In-Camera Gridlines


In-camera gridlines are lines that can be overlaid on the camera screen before taking a photo. They serve to aid composition and are frequently present in modern digital and smartphone cameras.


By providing a visual reference, these gridlines play a pivotal role in aiding the rule of thirds, helping photographers align subjects along these lines or at their intersections for a balanced and visually appealing shot.


Post-Processing Software


Post-processing software like Photoshop and Lightroom offer built-in crop guide overlays for the rule of thirds. This feature can be particularly useful during the editing process, helping photographers refine their compositions.


Enhancing Composition with Additional Techniques


While the rule of thirds is a fundamental guideline in photography, it’s not the only technique that can enhance the composition of an image. Other techniques, such as leading lines and symmetry, can also be used to create more dynamic and visually appealing images.


An exploration of how these techniques can augment the rule of thirds and elevate your compositions is in order.


Leading Lines


Leading lines are compositional elements that serve to direct the viewer’s focus and establish a perception of depth and motion within the image. They can be anything from a horizontal line, such as:

  • a road

  • a river

  • a fence

  • a row of trees

These key elements guide the viewer’s gaze towards the main subject of the image, as humans naturally view images by following visual cues.


Photographers can generate a sense of balance and harmony in the image and direct the viewer’s attention towards the main subject by aligning leading lines with the rule of thirds.


Symmetry and Balance


Symmetry and balance, on the other hand, play a crucial role in creating visually striking images that break away from the rule of thirds. By positioning the horizon line at the center of the frame or incorporating symmetrical elements on one side of the frame, photographers can create a sense of equilibrium in the image.


When and Why to Break the Rule of Thirds


Rule of Thirds

Like any other rule, the rule of thirds does not always need adherence. There are instances when breaking this rule can result in more powerful compositions, such as creating creative tension or embracing symmetry (such as having a photographic composition where the subject is dead center).


Creative Tension and Storytelling


Breaking the rule of thirds can create tension and enhance storytelling in a photograph. Incorporating diagonal lines or patterns into compositions can disrupt the traditional grid and introduce dynamic tension into images.


Deliberately situating the subject or significant elements outside the rule of thirds grid, while utilizing negative space, can generate a feeling of imbalance, enigma, or unexpectedness, thereby introducing complexity and fascination to the narrative conveyed in the photograph.


Embracing Symmetry


Embracing symmetry in a composition can create visually striking images that defy the rule of thirds, resulting in unique and captivating photos.


Renowned photographers like Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Pablo Picasso, among others, have been known to intentionally break the rule of thirds for artistic reasons, creating some of the most iconic images in the history of photography.


Tips for Mastering the Rule of Thirds


Rule of Thirds

Achieving mastery over the rule of thirds is not an instantaneous process. It requires practice, experimentation, and learning from others. But with time and practice, you’ll soon find that it becomes second nature, and your photography will greatly improve as a result.


Practice and Experimentation


Achieving mastery requires practice and experimentation with the rule of thirds. Several practical exercises can be done to practice this rule, such as:

  • Placing the subject along the gridlines or at the intersection points

  • Utilizing symmetry in shots

  • Experimenting with various compositions by dividing the frame into thirds

  • Analyzing photographs that effectively employ the Rule of Thirds

Analyzing and Learning from Others


Valuable insights and inspiration for enhancing your own compositions can be gleaned from analyzing the work of other photographers and understanding their use of the rule of thirds. Renowned photographers such as:

  • Ansel Adams

  • Edward Weston

  • Arnold Newman

  • Johannes Vermeer

  • J.M.W. Turner

  • Pierre-Auguste Renoir

  • Dorothea Lange

  • Richard Avedon

  • Annie Leibovitz

are recognized for their adept application of the rule of thirds in crafting dynamic and compelling compositions.


Frequently Asked Questions


How do you explain the rule of thirds?


The rule of thirds dictates that by placing the main subject along the grid lines or intersections, your photos will be well-balanced and visually appealing every time, making for a much more natural image.


What is the rule of thirds saying?


The rule of thirds suggests that placing points of interest on the grid's lines and intersection points in photography will create more visually pleasing images. It's a composition guideline that can lead to compelling and well-composed shots.


Why is the rule of thirds so effective?


The rule of thirds is effective because it helps create a balanced and visually appealing composition by aligning major components of the image along specific lines. This technique manages the empty space and provides a good balance between the elements in the frame.


Can the rule of thirds be broken?


Yes, breaking the rule of thirds can lead to more powerful compositions for creative purposes, such as creating tension or embracing symmetry. There are times when this can result in more impactful visuals.


How can I practice the rule of thirds?


You can practice the rule of thirds by placing your subject along the gridlines or at the intersection points, using symmetry in shots, and experimenting with various compositions by dividing the frame into thirds. This will help you improve your photography skills.


Conclusion


The rule of thirds is a powerful tool in the toolbox of any photographer. From its origins in painting to its application in various genres of photography, the rule of thirds provides a simple yet effective framework for creating balanced and visually appealing compositions. However, as with any rule, there are times when it can be broken to create tension, embrace symmetry, or simply to try something new. Remember, photography is an art form, and the rules are there as a guide, not a dictate.


I am RayCee the Artist, a professional portrait photographer, event photographer, and wedding photographer, and if you would like to schedule a photoshoot with me, please contact me at raycee@rayceeartist.com!


Also, be sure to follow me on Instagram and YouTube!


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