Using the Rule of Thirds in Photography

The Rule of Thirds is one of several guidelines for composing visual images. The rule of thirds divides an image into a 3×3 grid, created by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. This technique suggests that placing the subject or point of interest in your image along one of these lines enhances the visual aesthetic of your photo by giving the image more energy and impact. In fact, placing the subject at the intersection of the two of the lines, called power points, provides a maximum visual impact. Utilizing the rule of thirds when composing your images is a great way to add dynamic interest to your photos.

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How to Use the Rule of Thirds

The most basic snapshots typically place the subject of a photo directly in the center, most often leaving the image visually flat and without impact. While there are times that intentional center placement can be very powerful, the rule of thirds suggests that we can add interest to our photos by utilizing the grid described above.

While the “power points,” or the intersections of the grid are idea for placement of your subject, the lines in the grid can also be utilized in your composition. See the comparison below for an example of how both the grid lines and intersections can be used to create a strong composition.

In the image below, both the subject and the horizon are centered. The subject resides in the center of the grid, and the horizon passes through the direct center as well.

Compare the above image with this photo below, where the Rule of Thirds was used to compose the image. The subject is at the lower left intersection and the horizon follows the lower horizontal line of the grid.

The above composition not only draws your eye immediately to the subject, but then allows your eyes to naturally wander through the scene and imagine what the subject may see beyond the frame. Rather than searching the image for the subject, your point of interest is immediately identified, which allows for the exploration of the remainder of the image to be that of curiosity and imagination, rather than chaos.

The points of intersection on the grid are the strongest players when it comes to the Rule of Thirds. However, when you can utilize not only the points of intersection, but also allow the horizontal or vertical lines of your image to align with those of the grid, you maximize the visual strength and impact of your photos.

While the points of intersection are a guiding point, it should be noted that placing your subject anywhere near the intersections can form a strong composition. However, when I am utilizing this composition technique, I prefer placing my subject as close to that intersection as possible. Additionally, when your subject is a single person, you can also maximize the power of the rule of thirds by placing the point of intersection directly over your subject’s eye.

Below are additional examples where the Rule of Thirds was used in the composition.

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Why Should I Use the Rule of Thirds?

If the above examples haven’t convinced you of the power of this composition technique, you may still be asking why you should use the rule of thirds. Studies have shown that when people are viewing any sort of visual art, their eyes are naturally drawn to one of the points of intersection discussed above. By placing your subject there, you create immediate visual impact, rather than the viewer having to “search” your image to find the story or subject. When the viewer can immediately find your photo’s intended focal point, it allows the eye to then explore the image with the subject, as opposed to searching the image for information first. This opens up a whole new level of artistic possibilities.

The rule of thirds is just one technique that you can utilize for strong composition in your images. And certainly, some rules are made to be broken! While the rule of thirds is a proven guideline, there are times when you may find that a center composition actually adds to your photo rather than subtracts from it. You will find that the rule of thirds serves as a guide to help you be intentional about how you compose your photos, rather than haphazardly shooting. The very act of considering how to compose your image to best illustrate the story you want to tell will help you increase your visual impact. The rule of thirds is simply a proven guide that can help you begin moving in this direction.

If you would like to read more about other tips for building a strong composition in your photos, be sure to check out this free tutorial!