Rule of Thirds in Digital photography: The Essential Guide

Principle of Thirds in Digital photography: The Essential Guide

rule of thirds the essential guide

The principle of thirds is perhaps the most well-known “rule” of photo taking composition . Use it carefully, and you’ll take several truly stunning images.

But what actually is the rule of thirds? Is it really that will helpful? And when can you split the rule for an excellent result?

In this article, you’ll discover everything you need to know about the rule of thirds. And by the time you leave, you’ll know how to use it just like a pro.

Let’s dive right in.

What is the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds is a compositional guideline that smashes an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so you have nine pieces plus four gridlines. According to the rule, by positioning key elements across the gridlines, you’ll end up with better compositions.

Here is a visualization of the rule of thirds:

The rule of thirds gridlines

And to follow the rule, merely use the gridlines to position essential compositional elements.

So when shooting a blossom, you would place its control along the right or still left vertical gridline:

flower rule of thirds example

And when shooting the sunset, you would place the horizon line along the top or even bottom horizontal gridline.

(Note that your digital camera may actually offer a grid overlay, which you can activate in the menus; that way, you don’t have to imagine the rule of thirds. Rather, you can see it as you look through the viewfinder! )

The rule associated with thirds also identifies 4 power factors at the center of each gridline intersection:

rule of thirds power points

Here, you can position points of interest, such as a mind (when shooting a portrait ), a flower (when filming a still life), or the eye of a pet, seeing that shown in the image below:

dog with rule of thirds gridline

As you can see, using the rule of thirds isn’t actually complicated. That is what makes it so effective – it’s a simple way to improve your compositions, and it demands literally zero art exercising or photographic experience.

I will state right up front, though:

Rules are made to be broken, and just because you ignore the rule of thirds doesn’t mean that your structure is uninteresting or mundane or otherwise bad. Despite the name, the rule of thirds is a guideline , not a hard-and-fast rule . You can absolutely create attractive compositions without using the rule of thirds.

Also keep in mind that it is just one composition technique amongst many. There are plenty other “rules” and guidelines worth considering, like symmetry , the principle of odds , triangular compositions , and more.

At the same time, the rule of thirds is an excellent way to get started with composition. It consistently produces great results, and even professional photographers use it all the time in their work. Plus, as a wise person once told me: if you intend in order to a rule, you should always find out it first. That way, you can make sure you break it seeing that effectively as possible.

Why is the rule associated with thirds useful?

Now that you know how to follow the rule of thirds, it is important to understand why it matters and what exactly it may do for your photos.

Really, the rule of thirds is all about two things:

  1. Balance
  2. Dynamism (movement)

1st, by positioning key elements with rule of thirds intersections or gridlines, your photo becomes more balanced . Your important elements create visual interest in a 3rd of the composition, while furthermore balancing out the clean space in the remaining two-thirds. This looks great and feels right to the viewer.

leaf on the ground

Second, compositions that include key elements smack-dab in the heart of the frame often feel static and boring. There’s nowhere for the viewer’s eyes to wander; instead, the viewer looks at the chance, sees the subject at its center, then leaves.

But the guideline of thirds encourages dynamism , in which the viewer sees a key element off to the side, then takes a visual journey throughout the remaining image.

In other words:

A rule of thirds structure provides a more engaging photo taking experience.

Also, the rule of thirds draws on the way humans normally view images. Studies show that will people’s eyes usually go to one of the intersection points rather than the center of the shot – so the rule of thirds works with this natural method of viewing an image.

When to use the principle (with examples)

By now, you should know that the principle of thirds is useful basically all of the time . As long as you have distinct compositional elements to work with, you should consider applying the rule.

For instance, in landscape photography , you can position the horizon across the top horizontal gridline:

The rule of thirds structure on stilts

Also note how another key compositional element – the construction on stilts – lies at the upper-right power point of the frame. Thanks to this, the whole shot feels well balanced and dynamic.

In portrait photography, a person generally want to position the particular subject’s body along the rule of thirds gridline:

The rule of thirds portrait of a woman

And it’s also a good idea to put the head of your subject from one of the intersection points (and the eyes, which are an all natural point of focus for the portrait). In the photo below, the tie and floral also offer a secondary area of interest, and they’re aligned with a second intersection point:

man with microphone following the rule of thirds

In wildlife pictures, you can align the subject’s head (and eye) with a power point:

heron with fish

And in flower photography , subjects look great when the come follows a rule of thirds gridline and the petals sit atop a power stage:

flower close-up

Fast tips for working with the principle of thirds

While it’s easy to use the particular rule of thirds in your compositions, it may take a little time plus practice for the rule to get second nature.

Try to get in the habit of asking two questions for every photo a person take :

  • What are your points of interest (i. e., the areas of the photo that stand out and that you wish to emphasize)?
  • Exactly where are you intentionally placing those people points?

That way, you can determine your destinations, then you can immediately place all of them along a rule of thirds gridline or strength point.

And your composition ends up wonderfully balanced.

Sound right?

Also, if you fail to use the rule of thirds in a shot, it isn’t really the end of the world. In the end, you can always crop your photos later on! (Just make sure to keep your gridlines in mind when modifying. )

Incidentally, if you want to start practicing the particular rule of thirds immediately, you can always pull up old pictures and do some test cropping. See what impact it has on your photos; you might be amazed at the results.

Breaking the rules: should you do it?

As I explained over, it can be possible to break the rule of thirds and end up with beautiful pictures.

In fact , sometimes you can end up with a level stronger composition by overlooking the rule. So while I encourage you to learn the rule of thirds, once it’s ingrained, experiment with smashing it.

Among my favorite times to break the rule of thirds will be when photographing symmetrical subjects. If you’re photographing a delicious or flower from above, the particular symmetry looks even more hitting when perfectly centered in the body:

symmetrical succulent

This particular shot of a corridor can also be roughly symmetrical, which boosts the composition’s intensity:

man in corridor with cello breaking the rule of thirds

And note that a picture can both break plus follow the rule of thirds at the same time. For instance, while the image above is mostly shaped, a key element (the guy playing his cello) lies at an intersection point.

Bottom line:

Learn the rule of thirds. Then break it. Plus above all, have fun!

Final words

Now that you’ve finished this post, you know all about the principle of thirds, when to utilize it, and when to think about breaking it.

So start practicing! Watching as your compositions improve.

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