What is the rule of thirds in photography and how does it work?

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Words/photographs: Tony Eveling


The rule of thirds in photography is a guide that tells you where to place the objects in your composition. It works best when there is a natural symmetry in the objects in your photograph.

We’ll deconstruct the process that forms the rule of thirds so that you can see exactly how it works and when to use it.

This article is not a dry objective definition of the rule of thirds, Wikipedia has a very good definition.

I want to show you how the rule of thirds can be interpreted and employed in creative outdoors photography.

Only once you know how it works and why it works, will you be able to apply it effectively to your photos..

What is the rule of thirds in photography?

To kick off here’s a brief explanation of the rule of thirds as I think most people understand it.

An example of the rule of thirds, with the rule of thirds grid applied
An example of the rule of thirds, with th erule of thirds grid applied

Looking at the image with the rule of thirds overlay applied, that grid is what most people would call a ‘tic-tac-toe’ grid from the tic-tac-toe game.

Then, looking at the grid, the four points where the lines cross are the intersections.

According to the rule, when the elements/objects that you want in your composition  are placed on the intersections, the photo will look better and will be better balanced.

It is also said that if you place horizons on the bottom gridline or the top gridline your photo will also be better balanced.

So I have to place my subject on one of four points of the frame?

Kind of yes!

The rule of thirds as I described it above is what I’d call prescriptive, it tells you to do something regardless of what you are pointing the camera at.

So does it work as a rule?

No, it doesn’t really work as a rule.

If you look at a hundred random  photos that are compositionally competent, so let’s say a hundred famous photographs, you’ll find that important compositional objects will rarely be placed on intersections or lines.

The important objects in a composition might be close to a line or intersection, or they might be nowhere near, and sometimes objects in the frame are precisely lined up with the rule of thirds lines and intersections, however, just because it does apply to some photos it doesn’t mean the photographer applied it and it  doesn’t mean that the rule works.

Very few photographs actually follow the rule of thirds, and many people who say they do follow the rule, will move or distort the lines of the ‘rule of thirds’ grid in order to make the rule work.

 Sounds like you hate the rule of thirds, maybe I should look elsewhere for advice on how to use the rule?

Don’t worry, this isn’t an angry rant about the ‘rule of thirds’.  There is a place in photography for the rule, especially for the beginner.

Read on and I’ll dissect my own images, and I’ll be giving some really useful advice on how to use this rule more effectively in your photography.

My own attitudes on photographic rules.

In my own personal photography world there are no absolute rules regarding photography composition in the conventional sense.

There are however, techniques that if you apply them in the correct way, at the right time, then they will help you to create a more compelling composition. We’ll talk about this later.

Photographic rules should never exist to control the photographer. They shouldn’t exist to tell the photographer what he or she can or can’t do. If a rule does that, then it’s probably a bad rule.

When people talk about rules in photography, they very often then talk about breaking the rules.  If you have to keep breaking the rules to make your photo look nice, then the rule is probably no good.

Using that logic, if you have to keep breaking the ‘rule of thirds’, and if you also have to know when and how you can break the rule, then it’s probably a bad rule.

But we all love to break rules don’t we?  Especially photography rules.

The problem is that we all like to think ourselves as rebels, it makes us feel good about ourselves, and it makes us feel like we are more unique and original.

Rebels are the cool guys, and so when we read about breaking the rules we respond positively, because it makes us feel like we are part of a secret maveric club.

But having to frequently break a rule, just means that the rule isn’t working.

But the rule of thirds is older than photography itself, so it must work.

After all of  my naysaying the fact remains that  the rule of thirds has been around for centuries, and because it’s been around so long it must also be right, and it must also be good, and it must also work.

Well, let’s look at the plus points – the good thing about it is that  it is a simple and easy to understand rule, and to the beginner it is something to latch onto.

To some it may also sound like a magic formula to compositional success, and we even get to break it too, which makes us feel a little bit naughty.

Whats not to like?

Okay then, it’s time for me to show you some of my images so that I can explain how I took them, and whether or not the rule of thirds had a role in their creation.

Examples of images that used the rule of thirds, or do they?

How many of the three photos below use the rule of thirds?

I think that after looking at them in the cold light of day, and to most people,  they all use the rule of thirds to an extent.

Boat at low tide, Wells-Next-The-Sea, Norfolk, England, UK
Boat at low tide, Wells-Next-The-Sea, Norfolk, England, UK
Terracotta rooftops, Dubrovnik old town, Croatia
Terracotta rooftops, Dubrovnik old town, Croatia
St Ives, Midsummer day, Cornwall, England, UK
St Ives, Midsummer day, Cornwall, England, UK

For two of the photos I was not aware of employing any compositional rule. For one of them I did apply the rule of thirds.

I’ll talk about these three photos later, but first….

A little story about when I discovered the rule of thirds

A long time ago I travelled across Africa and I came back with photos from my film camera, and I had never seriously taken photos like that before, and I was there as a backpacker not a photographer.

When I got home  someone said that I was using the rule of thirds. I just smiled and nodded my head because I hadn’t the faintest idea what they were talking about.

Eventually I educated myself as to the definition of the rule of thirds and found that it was true, I was using the rule of thirds!

But I didn’t employ the rule knowingly, and looking at my photos today, I constantly ‘see’ the rule applied, but I am rarely aware of actually applying it myself.

How was the rule of thirds discovered in the first place?

Ever since humans have been defacing the walls of caves, other people have been noticing that some people are better than others in the artistic department.

Then people started painting on canvasses and hanging them on walls. Then we started taking photographs. All the while people were noticing that some people were better than others with the artistic bit.

Lets pretend we can really do the following; look at every photo ever taken and sort the really good photos into one pile and put the really bad photos in another pile.

Now that we have done that, let’s ignore the bad pile and only look at the good pile.

There would be some re-occuring compositional techniques being applied more frequently.  So, different genre, photographer, style and subject, but same technique. Over and over.

One of those re-occuring compositional ‘techniques’ would be positioning important objects on the left side of an image or on the right side of an image.

Another re-occuring compositional technique would be the positioning of horizon lines, sometimes lower than the middle, and sometimes higher than the middle.

The trick of the teacher is then to fit all of this into one simple rule.

And so was born the rule of thirds.

Of course, there would be many, many photos that don’t use the rule of thirds at all, and still work compositionally.  I’ll also be talking about that further down the post as well.

So now we have our rule of thirds, what does it all mean?

Well the answer is simple(ish?), the rule of thirds is not not a rule at all.

Sometimes the apparent use of the rule of thirds is actually the consequence of employing other compositional devices or mechanisms, and because that sounds really confusing, the best way to explain is by example.

The photo below is of St Ives at dawn on midsummers day, and the use of the rule of thirds is absolutely obvious.

The position of the sun, the position of the horizon, both obviously positioned one third in and one third down.  There cannot be a more perfect example.

The frame is split horizontally into equal thirds.

If ever a photograph employed the rule of thirds, it is this one.

St Ives, Midsummer day, Cornwall, England, UK
St Ives, Midsummer day, Cornwall, England, UK

So that’s that then. Okay, read on…

So this is how I took the photo…

In the photo above I am standing at the bus station which overlooks the harbour. My camera is on a tripod and is as close to railings as I can get.

The railings are the only things stopping me and my camera from falling onto those rooftops.

I wanted to get those rooftops in the frame, and wanted their outline to contrast against the sea.  It just looked nice to me.

Then I wanted some of the harbour in the frame, that’s the bit you can see on the left near the horizon.

There needs to be as much of the harbour in the frame so that it looks like it’s meant to be there. That meant turning the camera left, which in turn ‘pushed’ the chimney stack on the rooftops too far to the right and it started to leave the frame or got too close to the edge of the frame.

There needs to be a significant gap between the chimney and the edge of the frame so that it doesn’t jar to much with the viewer.

Lastly, I wanted to tilt the camera down to get more of the houses at the bottom of the frame into the shot, but the railings started to come into view.

The position of the sun actually became secondary to all the above and it was just luck that it ended up in the position that it did.

And that is how I framed the shot.

I framed the shot by turning everything into an object, and then ensuring that I placed space around each object so that the viewer can see what it is.

Then I made sure that objects leaving the frame looked like they were meant to leave the frame, making sure that the viewers eye was drawn into the frame rather than wondering what was outside of the frame.

So, now, ask yourself the question; does this photograph use the rule of thirds?

Has the photographer (me) used the rule of thirds to make this image?

I will repeat the statement I made above….

Sometimes the apparent use of the rule of thirds is a consequence of employing other compositional devices or mechanisms.

The rule of thirds was not used when composing the photo, but I did use very specific techniques to place all the objects in the image….I just didn’t use the rule of thirds.

I’m the first to admit though, it does look like I used the rule of thirds, but now you know that I didn’t.

Be careful when ‘reverse engineering’  somebody elses photograph.

When a photo has been taken by someone else it may often be observed that a frame is split into thirds, or that there are important elements one third up and one third in (at an intersection).

However, it doesn’t absolutely mean that the photographer was consciously using the ‘rule of thirds’.

If you ‘reverse engineer’ a photograph to extract the method used to compose the image, then you also really need a worded description of how an image was taken from the photographer.

So we look at the photo above and assume that I have used the rule of thirds when in fact after I describe how I took the photo the rule of thirds was not employed at all.

But that doesn’t mean that the rule of thirds is useless, at least I don’t think it is.

Here’s a photo I took when I did use the rule of thirds

Here’s a look at another example….

This is a photograph of the harbour area in the picturesque town of Wells-next-the-sea in Norfolk, UK.

There were other higher up views of this boat which showed it off in it’s surroundings much better.

Boat at low tide, Wells-Next-The-Sea, Norfolk, England, UK
Boat at low tide, Wells-Next-The-Sea, Norfolk, England, UK

But I also wanted a close up shot of the boat too, but at this level the muddy foreground is dull and boring, the background is quite featureless and the sky wasn’t helping.

So, because I didn’t ‘see’ a composition screaming out at me, but I really wanted to take a photo of this boat, I consciously tried a number of compositions placing the boat in different positions within the frame to find something that I liked.

Eventually I used the rule of thirds grid as a template and placed the boat one third across. Once I had the boat positioned on the bottom right third, you can them move around, moving the background but keeping the boat in the bottom third, until you see something that you like.

This allowed the boats natural surroundings and environment to fan out behind and to the right of the boat, drawing the eye into the frame and placing the boat in context. That was a mechanical decision that I made in order to find a photograph that was aesthetically pleasing.

And that is where the ‘rule of thirds’ can be consciously applied.

I think that this is a method that can be applied if you are less experienced and you can experiment a bit to find what works for you.

Eventually once you tune in to a style that suits you, you will become more intuitive and instinctive, and less mechanical.

I consciously use the rule of thirds when I am struggling to find a composition.  However, when I work mechanically like that, when I get home and look at my images on the computer, they are the ones that I tend to reject the most.

There are times when I am somewhere and I don’t have time to wait for days or weeks to find the perfect photograph, like the boat picture above.

I was only in that location for a couple of hours and the weather just wasn’t being very nice to me and I was struggling to find a good composition for the lighting conditions.

So in that instance I used the rule of thirds grid as a template to position various elements initially, I found something that I liked, and then fine tuned that to try and get the best composition possible.

So I might place a horizon on the lower third gridline to start off with, then shift things around from that starting point. I may then end up with the horizon closer to the edge of the frame, or in the middle of the frame.

There is no right or wrong, and certainly no absolute rules

Photographing instinctively and intuitively is – at least for me – the most rewarding way to photograph, and it’s something that I talk about all the time with photography, it allows you to find your own style.

When you are just starting out or you want to learn a new skill, there is nothing wrong with framing your photographs using the ‘tic-tac-toe’ grid, and then moving things around as you see fit. Practice makes perfect and having this in your armory of techniques can help you make better photographs, but use it as a technique, and employ it as you see fit.

In the long term it should not be used as a rule that must be obeyed at all times.

As time goes by you will rely on the ‘rules’ less and photograph more freely

  • I use the rule of thirds without even realizing it… it’s only when people point it out that I realize I am doing it…

    Your photos are lovely!

  • Like you I only found out about the rule of thirds after somebody else commented on my photos, proclaiming that photography was easy and that I was just applying the rule. Actually I felt quite pleased because I had no idea what they were talking about, so I took it as a great compliment. Now that I am aware of the rule I don’t find myself consciously applying it unless I’m in a situation where I’m short on time and nothing jumps out at me compositionally.

    I think it’s a useful tool for people starting out with photography but don’t believe that you can replace a natural eye for composition by applying it. Great composition takes time, practice and some natural ability, I’m hoping I have the third and am working on the first two 🙂 Great post, thanks for sharing.

  • What you write about the subject is exactly how I feel. But there is an addition to make. Architects use the rule 2.78 or 27.8% (instead of 33.33%). With other words: ‘Balanced’ pictures are the ones with the ‘main subjects’ (from either direction) between 27.8 and 55.6% and between 55.6 and 83.4%
    Rule of the thirds is just a guide line and if you use it it’s fine and you can’t go wrong. The art of photography is to ‘play’ with the rules. Honestly I’m still battling with it …. 🙂

    Greetings from a wonderful village in South Africa

  • I have heard of the “rule” of thirds and I had not thought of turning on the grid in the view finder to check composition, good idea. I will “give it a go” sometimes it is hard to get it just right. I appreciate your comments with the boat picture.

  • Hi. Your images are fantastic! Really happy you visited my blog…thank you. Lots of useful information here! K

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