The rule of thirds is one of the first composition techniques new photographers learn once they’ve figured out how to get sharp focus. I’ve written about the rule of thirds in detail before and said then that I’d write a follow up article on the importance of the intersections of the thirds grid.
Well, this is that article, but with lots of examples of the rule of thirds in photography, because as we all know, a photo says so much more than words. And in less time too!
We’re taking it to the next level.
Why use the Rule of Thirds?
Before we get into examples of the rule of thirds in photography, let’s quickly go over what’s involved.
Firstly, just because “rule” is part of the name of the Rule of Thirds, doesn’t mean that every single photo needs to be composed using the rule of thirds. Definitely not. It’s not a strict rule, merely a guide to creating more compelling images.
In fact, a very good time to break the rule of thirds is when you want to highlight a message in a photo.
Because the rule of thirds helps us to establish balance in an image, when we specifically break the rule, it creates imbalance. In photography imbalance equates to discomfort, or tension. So:
- If you want tension in an image, break the rule
- If you want harmony and balance, use the rule of thirds
Beginner photographers tend to place their main focal point dead center, which is usually an uninspiring composition. Our eyes need to travel over a photo to be interested, so using the rule of thirds is a better composition technique.
How to use the Rule of Thirds
The basis of the rule of thirds is that an image is divided into 9 equal blocks by 4 lines that create a grid. Rather than place the subject in the center of the frame, it’s more pleasing on the eye for them to be off-center on one of the four intersecting points.
The rule of thirds grid is the most commonly used form of off-center composition.
It’s used that often that most digital cameras have a rule of thirds grid overlay to help with composition. Many editing programs, such as Lightroom, also have a thirds grid crop overlay.
All these images are actually screenshots of my photos in Lightroom with the crop tool on to show the rule of thirds overlay.
So, if you can, adjust your composition by using the crop tool.
Rule of thirds grid
The grid is created by 2 equally spaced horizontal lines and 2 equally spaced vertical lines – like a tic-tac-toe board. Think of the intersection of the lines as power points. This is where we tend to look first in an image.
It’s as true of portrait photography as it is of landscape photography, product photography, food photography, etc. In fact the photography grid rule applies to all types of art and design.
Where the grid lines intersect is where you place your main subject. The viewer’s eye will naturally go to a point of interest in an image. Lining points of interest up on the intersections of the rule of thirds grid lines makes the pull to the main subject even stronger. It tells the viewer that this is the subject.
The left side of the grid holds more power to draw our attention than the right side, and the top more than the bottom. So the:
- Top left intersection has the most powerful draw for a viewer’s eye.
- Followed by the bottom left intersection.
- Then the top right intersection.
- And lastly the bottom right intersection.
If a secondary point of interest is on the opposite intersection, balance is created. It also helps the viewer’s eye to travel from the main subject to this second element.
First image – the horizon line is in the middle of the frame, so it’s a bit dull. Sea and sky are visible in two equal parts of the photo. Second image – the horizon line is at the upper horizontal line, so the sea is more dominant. Third image – the horizon line is at the lower horizontal line, so the sky is more dominant. I made these changes with very small tilts of my camera.
Horizontal lines of the rule of thirds
Place a horizon on the upper horizontal line, so that the sky occupies just the top third, and the foreground becomes dominant. Place it on the lower horizontal line and the sky becomes dominant.
For headshots the subject’s eyes should be on the top horizontal line. This allows enough space above them in the frame. It also places the most important part of a portrait, the eyes, where the viewer will look.
For portraits a little further away where more of the subject’s body is visible, the eye closest to camera should be on the top left or top right grid intersection.
Vertical lines of the rule of thirds
But bear in mind another compositional technique – the left to right rule of composition.
This rule states that when there’s movement in an image, like a cyclist whizzing through the frame, that it should be from left to right. Because that’s how most cultures read – left to right. This is slightly controversial, because it doesn’t bear in mind cultures that don’t read from left to right or from top to bottom.
Likewise top to bottom. Unless you’re photographing a rocket taking off of course. That absolutely should be going from bottom to top of frame if all is going well!
Placing her eye on the top left grid intersection and having her look down to the left of the image is disturbing, because the composition is unbalanced. Humans naturally follow the gaze of others, including in photos. We’re also drawn to eyes. So we start off looking at her eyes, then look to where she’s looking. Then we look back to her face. Her arm as a leading line, helps direct us back up to her face. The negative space to camera right is not used at all, except for the bright reflection, which in itself attracts our attention as eyes go to bright areas. So by using the rule of space in this way, we’re left feeling unsettled, which underlines the unhappy vibe of the photo.
Harmony vs tension using the rule of thirds
For harmony, place your subject looking into the frame. So, if they’re on the left vertical line, they should be looking into the empty space on the right of the frame. And vice versa.
To really ramp up the tension, have your subject looking out of frame. So if placed on the left vertical, they should look to the left, out of shot.
That’s a double dose of tension, because the subject’s eyes will direct the viewer to the left, rather than moving to through the image from the subject in the left to the negative space, or secondary point of interest, on the right.
Examples of the rule of thirds in photography
Now let’s take a look at the rule of thirds examples in action.
This first example is a trick one for you to work out – answer at the end.
How is the rule of thirds being used in this photo?
2 classic rule of thirds examples
Although the eyes are in different places on the rule of thirds grid, both photos are classic examples of how to use the rule of thirds in portrait photography.
When we talk about rule of thirds in portraiture, this is textbook.
Another classic rule of thirds portrait for beginners
Using the top horizontal line on the grid
You don’t have to stick to the rule of thirds grid exactly. Placing a subject with their eyes on the upper horizontal line gives them room to breathe in the image while allowing a little creative leeway in the photo’s composition.
Even though she’s dead center of the frame, the subject’s eyes appear on the upper horizontal line. Plus the pillar on the right breaks the image up. So the rule of thirds is being used, even if not in the exact way we expect. Note also that the horizon is on the lower horizontal line.
Almost dead centre, but not quite. If her eyes were dead center the composition would be less interesting. By placing her eyes on the upper horizontal line, it keeps it interesting. Her pose is asymmetrical for compositional interest.
I broke the rule again for this shot by not having her eye on the intersection, however it’s still on the upper horizontal line. In this case, so is the horizon. If I’d stuck to the rule exactly, the composition would have suffered with too much space to camera left for this particular image.
Using two sets of grid intersections
Placing points of interest on a secondary point in the thirds grid, strengthens the composition. Because our eyes are drawn to the intersections, it helps to direct the viewer to the other point of interest.
Reflections are a great time to use both top grid intersections, as I’ve done in this photo. Her face is on the most powerful intersection point (upper left) and her reflection is on the third most powerful (upper right). You could argue that the eye closest to camera should be on the intersection, but that would be applying the rule with zero flexibility, rather than as a guide to more interesting composition.
And again… but with much more exact placement of the eye closest to camera.
Using the rule of thirds for three quarter length portraits
Place the subject on either the left or right vertical line for three quarter and full body photos. In both these images I’ve also used leading lines to draw the viewer’s eye to the subject.
Although we’re looking at examples of the rule of thirds in photography, it’s impossible to use the rule of thirds on its own, without other compositional techniques.
She’s placed on the grid power point that our eyes are most drawn to. To make it even clearer that she’s the subject, diagonal lines point like and arrow to her from above. The top third of the image is all hard, dynamic diagonal lines and the bottom two thirds are soft s-curves. Did you notice the red painted lines echo her shape?
The subject stands out because she’s wearing red, a color that’s very demanding on the eye, and is placed against a background of soft grays and white. These are also diminishing leading lines leading straight to her. Plus the diagonal line of the hand rail from camera right also leads to her.
Breaking the rule of thirds to underline a message
You wouldn’t know this by looking at the next rule of thirds example photo below, but this shoot was done on the last day of the year. When we arrived at the location the pillars had been modified from the previous time I’d been there (they’re constantly being changed). It was perfect that they were covered in graphics of clocks! So we used it as an element in the composition.
In addition to that it was a really stormy day. So the weather, the feeling of running of out time on the last day of the year and clocks in the background all added to the shoot and I wanted to capture that.
I asked for a contemplative/sad expression. Then I composed the image with the in focus eye on the grid intersection and had her look to the nearest edge of the frame to create imbalance. Our eyes follow her gaze and bump up against the edge of the frame, then bounce back to her. As our eyes are drawn to writing we’re also drawn the time graphic – 12.59. So we bounce around a little more. It’s unsettling.
The answer to my trick question
Here’s that trick photo with the thirds grid overlay.
She’s clearly not lined up on a vertical line and her eye closest to camera isn’t on the grid intersection.
But, because I love puzzles, there’s more to the composition of this image, as you can see from the crop below. I’ve used a frame within a frame to draw attention to the subject. The beach and sea on the right is unused negative space, dead space.
She’s lined up perfectly according to the rule of thirds when I crop the image to just the green wall, which takes up two thirds of the image.
Learn the rules so that you can have fun with your photography composition. They’re not there to restrict you. They’re there to help you discover new ways to frame your ideas. Literally.
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If you have any questions about these examples of the rule of thirds in photography, let us know in the comments.
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