As photographers, one of our goals is to create visually strong images.

Composition, which is the placement of subjects within a frame, should be considered and used purposefully in order to enhance the visual aesthetics of an image. The Rule of Thirds (ROT) is one of the more well known and utilized tools a photographer has at his/her disposal as a means to enhance composition within a photograph.

Painters, during the Renaissance period, found that the most pleasing placement for the subjects in their paintings was based around the Rule of Thirds. Many of today’s photographers have adopted this principle when composing images. The general principle behind the Rule of Thirds is to divide your frame into nine parts with two horizontal lines and two vertical lines placed equally throughout the frame.

rule of thirds overlay

The Rule of Thirds specifies that placement of a main subject within a frame should fall along one of the vertical ROT lines, as this will help lead a viewer’s eye through the frame and enhance the viewer’s visual experience within the image. Western cultures read images left to right, top to bottom, therefore subject placement along the right ROT line is typically favoured because it allows the viewer of an image to gradually explore the first two thirds of the frame, gathering information about the image, then stop at the two thirds point to view the main subject. By the time the viewer has explored the first two thirds of the frame, it is believed the viewer is more invested in the image and will linger longer within the frame. This type of scan path typically enhances an image.

example of the rule of thirds by Gina Yeo

However, placement of a subject along the left horizontal Rule of Thirds line can also be powerful. Left line ROT placement of a subject allows for a more shared experience between the viewer and subject, especially if the subject’s placement is one of looking into and across the remaining two thirds of the frame. This type of placement allows the viewer to almost be present in what the subject is experiencing which enhances visual experience.

the rule of thirds on the beach by Gina Yeo

Placement of the main subject or primary interest of the frame at one of the intersecting horizontal and vertical lines within the Rule of Thirds will further enhance image composition. With a human subject positioning an eye of that subject at one of the intersecting points along the ROT lines is said to further strengthen composition and viewer experience because the human eye naturally rests at the intersecting ROT lines.

girl running in a field using the rule of thirds for composition by Gina Yeo

The Rule of Thirds recommends placing horizon lines or implied horizon lines within an image along one of the horizontal ROT lines, as it is believed this evokes a more natural and comfortable experience for the viewer. This type of placement also allows for the photographer to make a decision about what will be the primary subject within a frame, specifically with landscape imagery and imagery where the main subject is more ambiguous. In landscapes, will the sky and clouds take up two thirds of the frame and therefore be showcased or will it be the foreground taking up two thirds of the frame and become the primary source of interest? In the image below, the mountain takes up the majority of the frame as the horizon line has been placed at the one third mark and is therefore the primary source of interest.

black and white landscape photo by Gina Yeo

It is always best to keep composition in mind prior to pressing the shutter rather than try and fix an image in post processing. Keep the Rule of Thirds in mind when composing your shot in camera. Many cameras have Rule of Third grids, which can be turned on in camera, or focal points, which closely line up with the intersecting points along the Rule of Thirds grid. If your camera does not have an internal grid or you question composition, there are many helpful apps available for your smart phone, which will showcase a scene with the Rule of Thirds to help you decide on image composition before you capture the image in camera.

Once an image is pulled into a post processing program such as Lightroom, Photoshop, or Photoshop Elements, the composition of the image may be tweaked by simply selecting the crop tool and choosing the Rule of Thirds grid overlay.

Lightroom cropping using the rule of thirds by Gina Yeo

They say that rules are meant to be broken. Knowing when and why you are breaking the rules is important. Keep in mind that the Rule of Thirds is more of a suggested guideline for composition. Perhaps you’ll come across a scene, which allows for flexibility with compositional rules. That’s okay! Until then, consider using the Rule of Thirds as a guideline in order to create compositionally stronger and more visually pleasing images.

Related: Beyond the Rule of Thirds

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