The Rule Of Thirds in Photography Explained

The Rule Of Thirds is a technique photographers often use without realizing it because it is taught from the beginning as a fundamental for basic photographic composition. If you look at the two images below, which one is more impactful or pleasing to your eye? If you answered the image on your right you agree with the majority, but do you know why? If you’ve read the title of this article you’ve probably guessed it has to do with the Rule of Thirds, but what exactly does that mean? This article explains what it is and how to use it to create incredible, visually stunning images!

A Rule of Thirds Comparison
A Rule of Thirds Comparison - Which image is more impactful or pleasing to your eye?

What Is The Rule Of Thirds?

Many photographers will talk about the rule of thirds in art, but few know why it is such a key tool for impressive photographic composition. The rule of thirds is actually a less strict version of the golden ratio that has been used for many decades as a guide for composition and aesthetics.

The Rule of Thirds in photography states that an image is most pleasing when its subjects are aligned along imaginary lines, which divide the image into thirds - both horizontally and vertically. The intersections where these lines meet are considered significant points in the image and should be placed carefully in order to best balance the photograph.

Unfolding Beauty

Unfolding Beauty, Max Foster's limited edition photography print of the rolling hills of Val d'Orcia in Tuscany from his Italy gallery collection. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50. Photo © copyright by Max Foster

The four points where these lines meet are known as 'Power Points' or 'Decisive Points.' When composing a photo, you should position your subject along with one of these lines [or at the intersection of two lines] or at the approximate focal point of your lens [again, at an intersection]. Doing so will add impact to your picture.

One thing about this method is that people often consider it more effective when aligning with verticals rather than horizontals - perhaps because people read from top-left to bottom. This theory can also be seen within a photographic composition, especially with portraits that usually feature strong leading lines created by people's natural inclination to look from the top of someone's head down to their chin.

Morning Glory

Morning Glory, Max Foster's limited edition photography print of Lake Superior from his Minnesota gallery collection. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50. Photo © copyright by Max Foster

Why Do Photographers Use The Rule Of Thirds?

Photographers have been using this technique forever, but there isn't one specific reason why they do it. Instead, many suggest that it has to do with the way the eyes and brain process visual information.

The intersections along the lines are where people see things more clearly but also where the brain is at its most sensitive. Those areas will draw your eye in first before going on to look at other parts of a picture, so by putting important elements along with those points, you'll ensure they shine.

Another reason for using this technique is because it allows you to balance a photo perfectly. The spaces between each line have been said to create an invisible weight that produces a well-balanced image that looks and feels right to the viewer.

Lastly, the Rule of Thirds allows for visual creativity and imagination. Your eyes immediately focus on the “Power points” of the image, allowing the brain take a visual journey through the rest of the scene.

Heading West, Max Foster's limited edition photography print of Toroweap from his Grand Canyon gallery collection.

How to Use the Rule of Thirds:

The best way to utilize the Rule Of Thirds is to follow its principles from the very moment of image capture with your camera. To do this, you must first determine what your main points of interest are. What part of the scene do you want to emphasize most?

Next create an imaginary grid (or turn the grid feature on in your camera) that divides the image into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Then align your points of interest with the “power points” or grid intersections. In most cases, this automatically balances an image, drawing a viewers' eyes to the focal points.

If you are just beginning your photography journey and haven’t yet mastered using the Rule of Thirds while in the field, don't worry! In many cases, you can crop an existing photo in post to align the points of interest with the imaginary grid lines.

Tuscan Dream

Tuscan Dream, Max Foster's limited edition photography print of rolling hills of Tuscany in fog from his Italy gallery collection. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50. Photo © copyright by Max Foster

When To Break The Rule Of Thirds:

Even though the Rule of Thirds is the most well-known rule of photographic composition, not every photo can or should follow this rule. Maybe you want the viewer's eyes to travel down the length of two intersecting lines, or perhaps the impact of a perfectly symmetrical image is greater than that of an off centre one.

Whatever the situation may be, the most critical thing to remember is that the Rule of Thirds is just a guideline. There are exceptions to every rule and the key is in the visual impact it holds!

A Dangerous Beauty

A Dangerous Beauty, Max Foster's limited edition photography print of a Desert Agave from his Abstract Nature gallery collection. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50. Photo © copyright by Max Foster

Determination

Determination, Max Foster's limited edition photography print of an evergreen tree in snow in Jasper National Park from his Winter gallery collection. Fine Art Limited Edition of 50. Photo © copyright by Max Foster