Using The Rule Of Thirds In Photography

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What Is The Rule of Thirds?

If you've even mildly been dabbling in your curiosity on photography and capturing and composing better images, you've probably bumped into the term “Rule of Thirds”.

So what is it and how do we use the rule of thirds in our quest to produce a good shot?

First of all the Rule of Thirds is one that I think can easily get overused. If that's the only conscious element you're going after your composition may fail!

One important consideration when considering the rule of thirds is the Law of Symmetry. This essentially is talking about the human mind's desire to find balance in visual stimuli. Simply put, if we do use the rule of thirds and locate the subject off the center of the frame or composition, then we will need a counter-element to help us balance the image. If a counter-element isn't present, all we've created is a counter productive balance within our image's composition.

Whew… okay let's get back onto the basics of the Rule of Thirds and how it (can be) a very nice element to consider in your composition.

Using The Rule Of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is quite simple math. Think of your frame divided into 3 vertical rows and 3 horizontal rows or 9 equal cubes as seen on the image coming up just below. Almost all DSLR cameras have a menu item that will display some type of grid in your viewfinder for you.

I would recommend not doing this. You're much better served by not leaning onĀ (or constantly being persuaded) any one element of composition. See the alert box just above.

Okay. Using the image below, let's have a look.

In this case, my use of The Rule of Thirds was intentional. I say the rule of thirds, but in reality I just wanted to off-center the waterfall in the composition and in this case the rule came into play naturally as I composed the scene.

To try to give you an idea, think for a moment had I been able to position the camera more directly in front of the waterfall. Or, on a more straight-on composition or shot. Although not a realistic option for me on this day. I would have had to stand in very cold, rapidly moving water to get a straight-on shot.

But had I been able to, Rule of Thirds probably would have not have even been used. I would have more than likely centered the falls to provide more symmetry and balance to the composition. I can't say for sure, but my point is that we must be careful in not using The Rule of Thirds as an absolute element of our compositions. And especially not as your overall style of shooting.

Analyzing The Rule Of Thirds

Did The Rule of Thirds work in this image?

Well, you can certainly be the judge, but in this instance I think relatively so and here was my thought process.

  • First of all, the camera angle was off to the side giving the framing a more right to left perspective.
  • My foreground element was the heavily weighted granite rock in the lower left so I needed some balance.
  • The balance in part comes in the form of the greenery on the left side. It's a larger element and brighter to provide some balance to the weighty rocks. Also note how the greenery forms a descending triangle toward the falls.
  • From this position I can have the falls run across the frame from upper right and exiting lower left.
  • In this scenario the composition was greatly dictated by the environment. In this case, the Rule of Thirds (or off center) came into play and actually did work well in this shot.

rule of thirds

In this shot, had I opted to not use the rule of thirds. Rather, I simply centered the falls from this angle. The right side of the composition would not only have been completely in the shadows but would have used too much of the frame. Also, had I centered the falls from this angle I would have decreased the composition real estate on the left side and lost the balance and the lines I gained from the greenery.

Let's look at a different scenario and though process.

For this image, I felt the water coming more right at the camera worked best and I was able to get a more straight-on shot and maintain compositional balance.

You notice that in this case the foot-bridge is pretty much centered in the composition. Leading lines came into play here quite naturally as the snow-melt running through creek provided that for the composition.


no rule of thirds subject is centered

The takeaway here is not to fall in love with The Rule of Thirds. You want to always consider the composition as a whole and what you're working with. Don't compose your images in a vacuum. The priority of any on compositional element does not fit all scenarios!

The Rule Of Thirds And Space

The Rule of Thirds perhaps becomes a greater consideration when movement or direction is implied. You always want a certain amount of balance or breathing room in your compositions. For example, in the waterfall image above, note that the movement flows from the upper right and exits the frame on the lower left. Had the waterfall been located on the left third of the grid the visual movement would have bumped right up against the left frame and destroyed the perceived movement.

This is true when you capture wildlife, or sporting events, or even someone casting a gaze. The composition of the shot will look better if you give the direction of the movement in the frame room to work.

For example, this early morning shot I took of the Herron (although not exactly rule of thirds) has been off-centered just a bit to give his gaze room to the right side of the frame.

rule of thirds off center

I think you can see had I framed/composed or even cropped this image with his beak too close to the right side of the composition it would have looked tight. And it would have taken the viewer's gaze right off the end of the beak and right off the right edge of the photograph.

Wrapping Up The Rule Of Thirds

This is an element in composition that certainly has it's place. As a beginning photographer you should certainly be aware of it as your eye scans a potential composition. My word of caution is don't become fixated with it. It can do damage as well.

Looking back I can see that I used it too often. Many compositions I now look back on as failed because of worrying too much about this rule.

Remember, don't sacrifice balance and continuity in your compositions simply by being a slave to The Rule Of Thirds. It can work great, but use it wisely.

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