One of the most well-known rules of photographic composition and one of the most important things you’ll learn in photography is the rule of thirds.
It also happens to be one of the easiest ways to instantly improve your photography skills and capture visually appealing and balanced images.
There is a number of things that influence whether or not a photo is considered to be good. After all, photography is subjective.
But no, before you ask – the reason will never solely be that you like the subject in the photo.
In fact, an eye-pleasing photograph will always have great composition.
An experienced photographer will know how to create a perfectly composed photo. By thoroughly considering object and subject placement & focal points, he will be able to do it.
Now, wouldn’t it be nice if you could do the same with your photographs?
In today’s post, we’re going to take a closer look at the rule of thirds. It is a concept that will help you take the placement of your subject into great consideration. Doing so, the composition of your photos is well-balanced, visually appealing, and interesting to look at too.
Though this is something that we’ll be taking a closer look at later, I just want to mention this upfront – as with all rules in photography, the rule of thirds is meant to be broken.
Ignoring this rule or bending it doesn’t mean that your photos won’t look good. But you should always fully learn and grasp a concept before you break the rule so that when you do, you can break it effectively.
What is the rule of thirds?
The rule of thirds helps capture the subject of a photo in a way that’s pleasing to look at. It involves breaking any image you want to photograph into thirds, horizontally and vertically, so that you have nine equal parts.
Who invented the rule of the thirds? Believe it or not, it was first talked about in 1797. Of course, it was not about photography, but painting – the principles were the same, though. At that time, people were discussing the balance between warm to cold colors and how much of the painting should each of the elements occupy. They said that one third should be composed of land and water, and the other two thirds should remain for air and sky. This is where the idea for the name came from.
We’ll further explain what is the rule of thirds in photography. Painting and taking a picture may have some things in common, but the process is quite different.
Within the grid, you’ll notice the lines intersect at four distinct points. These are your points of interest.
You can imagine this grid while you’re peering through your viewfinder. Or, you can use the LCD that’s used to frame the shot you’re about to take.
Better yet, this rule is so popular, that most digital cameras come with a rule of thirds grid overlay. So you can enable while you’re taking pictures.
This grid will help you position the elements in your shot and frame the most important parts of your photo. Basically, the rule of thirds states that if you place the main subject of your photo in the top, bottom, left, or right sections of the grid, you’ll snap a perfect picture every time.
In fact, the rule gets even simpler than that. All you have to do to take a well-balanced photo is avoid placing the main subject in the box in the center, such as this photo does:
That’s because it has been suggested that when people look at photos, their eyes are naturally drawn to one of the points of interest – and not the center of the shot.
Of course, we know it takes a little more than that to grab an award-winning shot, right?
The rule of thirds explained: Landscapes
You can apply the rule of thirds to your landscape photography by following some simple guidelines.
To start, align the horizon of the shot with one of the horizontal lines on your rule of thirds grid (the bottom one is usually best).
Of course, the horizon doesn’t have to line up precisely with the horizontal line. The key here is to use the rule of thirds grid to help you better frame the shot and avoid things like cutting your image in half by lining up the horizon across the center of the frame.
If you have other elements within your landscape photo, aim to place them near at least one of the four points of interest.
Remember, this is where your viewers will look first. You should make a good impression by adding something interesting and exciting near the focal point.
Notice in the image above that the horizon is near the bottom line. Plus, the main subject of the image, the tree, is right on two of the four focal points.
And to make things even more exciting, the secondary element, the sun, is not on the point of interest but is alongside one of the grid’s horizontal lines, which works too.
All of these carefully placed elements lend to a compelling image that people just can’t look away from.
The rule of thirds explained: Portraits
You can use the rule of thirds on any type of photograph you’re taking, even portraits. In fact, using the rule of thirds on portraits will help you turn a simple photograph into a stunning one, based on subject placement alone.
Check out an example:
As you can see, the man’s face is right on the point of interest. This is perfect because when taking portraits, your goal should be to get the eyes of your main subject on or near a point of interest. This way, people see this part of your photo first.
Here are some other tips for nailing the rule of thirds when photographing people:
- Try to have the person’s body aligned with one of the vertical lines in the grid
- If your subject is looking to the right (your left), aim to have them lined up with the right vertical line in the grid (and vice versa if the subject is looking to the left)
There will be times when you take a portrait, and the subject of your photo is dead center. When this happens, try to capture the person leaning out to either side to give the shot more visual interest. Also, place elements, such as their eyes, on the point of interest.
Doing this may feel like you’re throwing your photo off-balance. And that’s normal when you’re just starting out.
But trust us, positioning people along the lines of your grid is actually making your images feel more balanced.
Did you grab a beautiful shot, but notice that the person is dead center and not really leaning to either side? It’s okay!
Remember, most editing software has advanced cropping tools to make reframing your images to comply with the rule of thirds easy.
And speaking of editing software. If you need a way to edit your photographs, especially now that you know about the rule of thirds, be sure to check out this roundup of free Photoshop alternatives.
Or, you could even just shift the image to the right or left to give it a unique look. In fact, this method works great for those times your subject fills the entire frame:
Can you break the rule of thirds?
Sure. Using the rule of thirds to guide your photography sessions will help you create dynamic photos that are appealing to the eye.
But that doesn’t mean you have to use the rule of thirds all the time.
As with all rules in photography, there’s always a time to break them.
There will be times when a portrait looks best when your subject is in the middle of the shot. Or the landscape you’ve captured draws your attention to the center of the photo. And that’s okay! The rule of thirds is not in place to restrict your spontaneity or ruin otherwise amazing shots.
It’s just there to guide you to become better, assist you in seeing your shots differently, and help you grab the best photograph possible.
Things to know as a beginner in photography
If you’re just starting out with photography, you might wonder why do we use the rule of the thirds if you can also break it. Well, because it’s not mandatory to fit everything in a pattern. It’s a good-to-know thing and it’s important to follow it so your pictures look attractive. But it’s not necessary to always try to squeeze it in order to do everything by the book. Sometimes intuition works better.
An important thing to remember is to try and find a niche at the beginning. Focus on becoming good at it. After that, you can move to the next one and master it as well. You’ll see that in time you will know when and how to use everything. Follow the trends, keep an eye on what’s new, but always maintain your personal touch.
It’s best to know and understand the rules before you go about breaking them if you want to start your photography business. Even better, if you’re not prepared to do so, you can sell your photos online for money. It’s a great opportunity to at least get started, although many take advantage of this possibility to the fullest. You can actually be successful in this industry and for quite some money.
And since we’re at it, for every beginner that starts on this path and wants to make a career out of it, a portfolio is mandatory. Always look for photography tips that can make your photo look mesmerizing. But tips are not the only thing that you need. You want a tool that helps you in this process and makes it easier.
Conclusion: the rule of thirds
If you want to hone your photography skills, one of the easiest ways is to apply the rule of thirds to every picture you take.
And if you’re looking to level up your photo taking skills, have a look at our pieces on how to start a drone photography business and our definitive guide on creating an online photography portfolio.
And since adding a rule of thirds grid to your images is easy, whether you do it with your camera or in your editing software, there’s really no reason not to try it during your next photo shoot.
Have you ever used the rule of thirds in your photography sessions?