Photography

What Is and How To Use the Rule of Thirds When Taking a Photograph

Create photographs that are more visually appealing with this framing technique

The rule of thirds is a framing technique for creating a well-balanced composition across different disciplines: design, painting, illustration, cinematography, and photography. Today, we are focusing on how this golden rule is applied when creating a photograph.

While centering your subject might seem like the natural thing to do, the rule of thirds tells us to suppress this instinct and follow this popular theory to create a photograph that’s more interesting and visually appealing.

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Nicanor García

What is the rule of thirds?

To apply the rule of thirds, divide the frame into nine equal parts with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. Most digital cameras have a setting that will allow you to apply this grid to the display screen at the touch of a button. The rule states that any key elements of your photograph–such as the horizon, a building, a person–are best placed along these lines or near the intersections of these lines. Studies have shown that the viewer’s gaze is naturally drawn to these points of convergence as opposed to the center of the frame. This is why using the rule of thirds is considered the best way to achieve a well-balanced, visually-intriguing photograph.

The space you leave around your subject invites the viewer to explore the relationship between the subject and their surroundings, thus conjuring up a more interesting story. When an image is focused on a centered subject, the viewer’s interaction with the image becomes very static. Applying this rule is considered a quick and easy way to improve the visual impact of one’s work.

The rule of thirds is something to bear in mind both when taking a photo and editing it in post-production.

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Nicanor García
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Nicanor García

Where did this theory originate from?

Before photography, this rule was applied to painting. John Thomas Smith’s 1797 work, Remarks on Rural Scenery, contains what is considered the earliest reference to the compositional "rule of thirds.” The work quotes English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds discussing the balance of light and dark in an artwork. Reynolds presents the theory as a general rule for achieving balance.

Tips

Eyes

The positioning of a subject’s eyes can make or break a photograph. When applying the rule of thirds, it is commonly accepted that positioning your subject’s eyes on one of the top line intersection points results in a more powerful image that stirs emotion and facilitates a human connection between viewer and subject.

Looking space

If you’re shooting a subject whose gaze is off to one side, it is recommended that you align their body with the vertical line on the opposite side to where they are looking. The space you create is called “looking space.” We use looking space to create the illusion that our subject is looking towards something or someone out of the frame. Were you to position your subject on the vertical line on the same side as where they are looking, it can feel like they are trapped.

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Nicanor García

Where to position the horizon

The horizon is positioned along one of the two horizontal lines. This is a good rule of thumb.

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Nicanor García

Rules are meant to be broken!

These are, of course, just theories. Experimenting is key! So once you have got to grips with the rule of thirds, break it! Symmetry is an example of a framing technique that defies the rule of thirds but results in some very interesting photographs.

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Nicanor García

Travel and architecture photographer Nicanor García talks about framing techniques in his course, Architectonic and Urban Photography.

You may also like:

5 Essential Books to Learn Composition and Balance
What Is and How to Apply the Rule of Thirds in Illustration
Basic Settings for Editing Photographs

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