The “Rule of Thirds” – Part 1 – Following the Rule

Welcome to Part 1 of a 2-part blog on the “rule of thirds”. The rule of thirds is perhaps the most well-known guideline in art and photographic composition. Part 1 focuses on creating images that follow the rule. For you rebels out there, Part 2 focuses on breaking the rule. So, there is something for everyone in this blog.

First, what is the “rule of thirds”? Let’s start with what it is not. Take a look at the image below. This is your typical awful, boring vacation snapshot that your college roommate just brought back from a weekend trip to Chicago. Only it is not just this one picture… your roommate has seven of the same shot and you need to look at all of them. Notice how the subject is dead center (left to right), the horizon line is very close to the bottom (and crooked) and there is too much sky in the picture. The picture just looks off-balance and compositionally boring. This picture is a snapshot and does NOT follow the rule of thirds.


Now, take a look at this next image of a fisherman I shot in Guilin, China.

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Morning on the Li : Prints Available

Chinese fisherman silhouette on the Li River

Notice that this image really works compositionally. This one doesn’t look like your roommate’s vacation snapshot. One reason this picture works so well is because it follows the rule of thirds. Now, I haven’t forgotten that I still haven’t really told you what the rule is. So, let’s do that now. Let me take this same image and put a “tic-tac-toe” grid over it using two horizontal and two vertical lines, each 1/3 of the way into the scene.

Morning on the Li

To follow the rule of thirds, you place “points of interest” (the subject, horizon lines, etc) 1/3 of the way into the image, using both the lines and the intersections of the lines to guide you. You would often place your subject (or a key part of your subject) at one of the intersections and also use the lines themselves for important parts of the picture. In the image above, I placed the fisherman at the lower right intersection, while the horizon line and mountains are generally along the top line.

So, how do you know which line(s) and intersection(s) to place your subject and points of interest at or along? Good question! Remember, photography is more about what works as opposed to following rules. However, here are three guidelines to consider:

  • If your subject is moving, you usually want them moving into the image rather than out of it. Notice my placement of the fisherman on the right of the above image means he is moving into the composition. Placing him at the lower left intersection would have looked awkward… like he is moving right out of the image.
  • Similarly, if your subject is someone or something with eyes and is looking left or right, you generally want them looking into the picture, not out of the picture. In the image below, the woman on the left is looking into the image which works well. I’ve also placed the two women along each of the vertical lines. I’ve placed the main subject (the face of the woman on the right) at the top right intersection.
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Friendship : Prints Available

Older Chinese women sitting on the stairs

  • You typically want the most important part of the picture to take more space. This factors into a decision on where to put the horizon line in a landscape photo. Placing the horizon on the bottom line would generally result in about 2/3’s of the image being sky. This might work if you want to emphasize the sky. However, you may not want to short-change the main subject of the image… the landscape foreground. In the image below, I placed the horizon along the top horizontal line because I wanted more emphasis on the lavender fields than the sky. Notice the tree (the subject) is at the top left intersection.

Leading Lines : Prints Available

Late evening light strikes a tree in the middle of a lavender field

There is more to say on the rule of thirds. However, hopefully this helps with an introduction to what the rule is and how to follow it. In Part 2, I’ll show you that it is often a good idea to break the rule.

Also, if you would like to read more about the rule of thirds, you can also check out the following article at Photography Talk:

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