Even if you’re new to photography, you’ve likely heard about the three fundamental aspects to consider when capturing great images: lighting, composition, and post-processing. Composition, being the second most pivotal aspect, will be our focus today. Specifically, we’ll explore the rule of thirds.
What Is the Rule of Thirds?
The rule of thirds is a fundamental principle of many different forms of art. We’ve all experimented with off-center compositions at some point.
Sometimes consciously, recognizing its power in creating a more compelling composition, and other times, intuitively. The result often turns out well. But why?
Let’s grasp the essence of the rule of thirds. This technique suggests dividing the frame into nine equal rectangles, or alternatively, visualizing two sets of lines at equal distances, intersecting at right angles.
Either way, the grid comprises four intersection points and nine equal rectangles. The simple theory dictates placing the subject of interest on one of these four intersecting points. This adjustment can significantly enhance the composition’s visual impact.
Another intriguing application of the rule of thirds involves positioning the horizon line in your scene along one of the two horizontal lines in the frame.
If you want to emphasize the sky, for example, place the horizon line along the bottom line. Conversely, to emphasize the ground, position it along the upper horizontal line.
Composition Basics – How to Implement the Rule of Thirds
There are two ways to achieve the benefits of the rule of thirds. The first method is the easiest: using the concept at the time of shooting.
To do this, you must activate the rule of thirds grid on your phone/camera. This grid is readily available on all cameras, including your trusty phone. It’s either activated by default or can be accessed through the menu options. This grid simplifies composing your shot by guiding you to place the focal point on one of the intersecting points.
The second method is for those who realized too late their composition is not just right: using the rule of thirds grid in their preferred photo editing software.
All editing software offers this feature, usually found within the crop tool option. In Luminar Neo, for example, you can open an image, click on the Edit menu, and use the Crop AI tool to apply the rule of thirds grid. Simply adjust the crop tool until the focal point aligns with one of the intersecting points on the grid.
In the previous section, I mentioned the rule’s application in positioning the horizon line. This is particularly useful for aligning the horizon when you’re not using a tripod.
However, if you’re serious about landscape photography, investing in a tripod opens up a world of opportunities. With a tripod, you can experiment with techniques like focus stacking, HDR photography, and long exposure photography along with composition techniques.
Practical Tips for Using the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds holds widespread applicability. From portrait and wildlife photography to product photography, there’s much you can accomplish with this compositional rule.
For instance, it’s an excellent way to capture depth in a photograph. Consider a scenario in wildlife photography where you’re focusing on a cheetah preparing for a potential hunt. Applying the rule of thirds, placing the cheetah’s head on the top right intersecting point not only fulfills the rule but also introduces a sense of direction into the photo.
Ensure the cheetah is looking towards the left of the frame with ample open space and you’ve got a picture worthy of a wildlife magazine.
This rule can also convey motion in a photograph, particularly in sports and wildlife photography.
By placing the subject to the right or left of the frame, you free up space on the opposite side. If the subject is captured mid-movement, this technique provides a natural flow and a sense of direction.
Product photography is another domain where the rule of thirds comes into play. Off-centering the product allows more space on one side, allowing viewers to explore the frame and return to the focal point.
For example, a chronograph watch positioned on a rock in a natural setting.
Landscape photography frequently employs the rule of thirds. Placing a lighthouse, for instance, on the left or right coinciding with one of the vertical lines, introduces a visual point of focus to the scene.
I’d also recommend aligning the horizon line along the bottom horizontal line to complete the composition.
I’ve come across stunning seascapes where a natural rock formation is positioned on one of the intersecting points, preferably the bottom right or bottom left.
The rest of the frame serves as negative space. You can fill this space with a body of water or the sky to accentuate the composition.
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When to Break the Rule
Much like any other rule in photography, the rule of thirds has its limitations, prompting occasional deviation. However, beyond these limitations, there are other reasons to look beyond this rule for photographic expression.
Let’s explore where and how you can deviate from the rule of thirds. One genre where application is highly dependent is portrait photography.
There are many examples of portraits that don’t comply with this rule. For instance, standard passport photographs. In commercial portrait photography, you will often have limited freedom to experiment with composition.
That doesn’t mean it’s entirely out of the question though, as a subgenre like environmental photography may leave more room for creativity.
Another example of when the rule may not work is when you need to implement a sense of balance in your photograph. Imagine a striking landscape where the horizon line demands to be at the center.
Elements in the frame can be strategically used to create balance. If you want to include a human element, placing it in the center creates a natural point of interest.
Continuing on the same note, if the subject occupies only a small part of the frame, it often makes more sense to place it in the middle than on the line intersections. Ultimately, you must decide what works best for your specific subject.
There are additional instances when this rule doesn’t apply. For example, when you want to fill the frame with a subject. Similarly, when capturing a macro shot of a bug, you don’t have to strictly adhere to this rule.
In my experience, the applicability of the rule of thirds is often limited in documentary and street photography.
I’ve observed street photographers refrain from imposing compositional rules on their subjects to not risk losing the integrity and essence of a scene.
In documentary photography, truth is paramount – capturing something for what it is, without manipulation.
Therefore, I firmly believe that rules of composition, such as the rule of thirds, don’t always apply to documentary photography.
Another instance where the rule of thirds may not necessarily work is when you’re photographing a subject with an immense presence that fills the frame.
For example, capturing an African elephant in its environment, emanating a commanding posture towards the camera. In such cases, centering the animal can provide a sense of balance.
As this discussion has illustrated, the rule of thirds is a guideline, just like any other compositional rule in photography.
I’ve always maintained that there’s no absolute right or wrong way to compose a photograph. It hinges on the photographer’s vision and can play an important role in setting a photographer apart.
Feel free to bend, break, or even make the rules to ensure results that speak to your brand as a photographer.