How to Follow (and When to Break) the Rule of Thirds
Stick with us and we’ll teach you how the rule of thirds was developed, when to follow this rule, and when to break it.
The rule of thirds is a technique used for visual composition, traditionally used in design and photography.
When it comes to composing an image, three is the magic number.
With the popularity of iPhones and DIY design software, more people have access to the tools they need to create images and designs than ever before. These tools are creating a new generation of artists who haven’t been classically trained.
Traditionally, professional cameras and graphic design software have been prohibitively expensive and used only by experts. However, the phone cameras and free design platforms that have emerged in the past couple of decades have become more advanced.
In fact, entire movies have been filmed on iPhones. And many businesses are using free or affordable DIY design software to create their own ads and website content.
This accessibility also means that more people are looking for design and composition tips online and are learning how to design and take aesthetically pleasing photos.
You don’t need to go through years of training to be an excellent artist, but beginner photographers and designers should be aware of some classic rules of photography.
That’s where the rule of thirds, and other compositional rules, come into play. We’ll be covering the rule of thirds in this post.
The rule of thirds is a general guiding principle for the best way to compose images.
In this article, we will talk about the history of the rule of thirds, how to use the rule, and when to break it. Plus, we included some excellent examples of artists and photographers using (and breaking) the rule of thirds to help you visualize how you can use this trick.
Let’s jump right into it.
What is the Rule of Thirds?
The rule of thirds is a compositional rule that suggests aligning your subject within specific guidelines and intersection points.
The rule states that an image should be divided into nine equal parts with four imaginary lines. This involves two horizontal lines and two vertical lines, equally spaced.
Here’s a visual of what the rule of thirds grid looks like.
Some cameras and phones automatically do this, making it easier to follow the rule of thirds when you shoot a photograph. You can also add these lines as an overlay on a piece when you’re first getting started with graphic design.
Using the rule of thirds will generally (but not always) result in better compositions. This rule works for designing ads, creating PowerPoints, taking photographs, and more.
The rule of thirds is really more of a suggestion or guiding principle rather than a hard rule that you should always follow.
And while it’s not a hard and fast rule that can never be broken, it can be an excellent way for beginners to have a place to start. When you’re first getting used to creating art, it can be daunting to know how to get started.
The rule of thirds works well for beginners because it gives them a clear idea of how to shoot their first batch of photos or line up their first design.
Before we talk about how to use it, let’s chat about how the rule of thirds came to be.
History of the Rule of Thirds
The earliest written account of the rule of thirds in composition was discussed by John Thomas Smith in 1797 in his book Remarks on Rural Scenery.
John Thomas Smith, also known as Antiquity Smith, was a painter and writer in the 18th century. In his book, he mentions the rule of thirds as the best way to break up a photo.
“In connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion” - John Thomas Smith
The key elements of the rule of thirds grid have remained popular in photography and design and are still used today.
Although a bit controversial among artists and not always used in design and photography, it’s a good rule to be aware of for any artist.
Let’s chat about how you can use the rule of thirds for your composition.
How to Use the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds will help you create aesthetically pleasing photos and make your work more eye-catching. This is because the rule of thirds plays on how people naturally view images.
The human eye tends to move to certain parts of images, the points of intersection in the rule of thirds. This intersection point is called a power point or a cash point.
This is a perfect visualization of where user attention is most focused and where the best place is to place your focal point in images.
It is recommended to place the horizon on the top or bottom line and line linear features in the image up from section to section. It’s also recommended that major focal points of your composition do not cross the intersection lines.
Placing the subject of your photo or design in the center of an image is considered a static image. The theory behind the rule of thirds posits that with a static image, the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to it and then left with nothing else to discover.
Placing your subject along one of the intersection points is a great way to encourage people to explore the image with their eyes. Encouraging interaction will make your photo seem more interesting to the viewer.
As a photographer or designer, it's wise to play on the grid intersections in order to make your art more interesting to look at.
It also differs from the amateur photographer’s initial instinct to line up the photo’s subject directly in the center. This is colloquially called the Kodak rule.
When Kodak cameras were released, they encouraged amateur photographers to capture images by telling them to simply line their focal point up in the center of their image and shoot.
Another basic rule of photographic composition to keep in mind is that you should use negative space wisely. Too much can make an image seem stark, and not enough will make an image appear crowded.
However, much like the rule of thirds, you can break these general principles of composition with excellent results.
If you become more experienced with photography or design and find that you don’t like to use the rule of thirds, don't worry. We’re about to talk all about how you can break it.
How (and Why) to Break the Rule of Thirds
Now that you know how to use the rule of thirds, let’s discuss when and why you might sometimes want to break this rule.
The rule of thirds can be the wrong fit for your photo and designs at times. The rule of thirds is a general rule of thumb that can result in excellent compositions, but it doesn’t always apply.
In fact, many famous photographs have been taken without using the rule of thirds. And many brilliant graphics have been created without obeying the rule as well.
We’ll give some examples below of great photos and designs that don’t follow the rule of thirds.
If you line your subject up in the rule of thirds grid and the photo looks better without using the rule, follow your gut and don’t use it.
After all, rules are meant to be broken.
While Smith might be right about the eye-catching in certain spots of a photo, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always the best way to shoot a photograph or create a design.
Some examples of times when the rule of thirds isn’t the best fit for your work include symmetrical images, etc. Also, sometimes your subject is simply too big to fit correctly into the grid.
Now that we’re familiar with the rule of thirds and when to use or break it let's look at some examples of photographers doing it right.
Examples of the Rule of Thirds
These examples are a perfect visual representation of how great the rule of thirds can make your photos look.
These images will inspire you and hopefully help you realize the difference the grid design can make in your art.
Always use other completion techniques that work well for you in addition to the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is just one way that you can create a stunning image.
Let’s get started with our first example.