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If you’ve read many of my composition articles or books you’ll know that I tend to be skeptical of the rule of thirds. The main reason is that composition is complex. To get good at it you have to look beyond simplified rules like the rule of thirds and learn about other, deeper principles of composition.
You can read more about that idea in my article Beyond the Rule of Thirds
But today I thought it would be interesting to look at it from another angle. Let’s start with a recap of the rule itself.
What is the rule of thirds?
The rule of thirds says that placing the main subject a third of the way into the photo creates a better composition.
Diagrams illustrating this idea usually look something like this.
The lines divide the frame into thirds. Position the main subject on a third for a good composition (according to the rule). Place it on one of the four intersection points for added impact.
How does the rule of thirds make you think about composition?
Before we start, I want to make the point that none of these ideas will work if you’re in the habit of using the rule of thirds without thinking about it. That’s easy even for experienced photographers to do.
In other words, you need to be aware of what you’re doing when you’re composing a photo. It needs a degree of self-awareness that some photographers lack.
1. The rule of thirds makes you think about placement
If your photo has a clearly defined main subject, then you need to decide where to place it in the frame. Most of the time, you’ll want to avoid placing it in the center of the frame, or too close to the edge. The rule of thirds is a good reminder of this, and one of the reasons that beginners find it so useful.
For example, look at the photo I made below of a couple posing for wedding photos in Beijing, China.
After I made it I realized that I had placed the couple too close to the edge of the frame. This was a candid photo, so I didn’t get chance to make another photo with the same pose.
If this happens to you one option is to crop the photo in Lightroom Classic so that the couple is closer to the center of the frame. That would give you something like this.
You might even decide to go for a vertical crop, which in this case places the couple slightly off-center.
If you were making a portrait of somebody you know, you could ask them to do the pose again and explore these options by moving around and changing your point of view.
The point is that the rule of thirds makes you think about the placement of your subject in the frame, and whether you could improve the composition by changing it.
2. The rule of thirds makes you think about the background
Another interesting thing about the rule of thirds is that it makes you think about the relationship between your subject and your background. If your subject takes up part of the frame, then what do you fill the rest of it with? The answer to this question is important when it comes to composition.
For example, take a look at the photo below.
The giant cactus is the main subject of the photo, and I placed it close to a third. But to make the composition interesting I had to include more detail in the rest of the frame. I did this by standing in a position that included the doorways in the houses in the dusty street. It helps that two of them are blue, like the sky.
This idea applies to other types of photos as well. Here’s a close-up photo of a flower.
I placed the flower itself off-center in the composition. The background is out of focus, but it still needed to be interesting. So I adjusted my point of view so that the green leaves in the background created a beautiful green wash of color.
3. The rule of thirds forces you to make a decision about dividing the frame
The key here is that the rule of thirds encourages you to think about dividing the frame into uneven sections to make a more interesting composition.
This is something that applies with landscape photography, where you have to decide where to place the horizon line in the frame.
In most cases, the landscape itself is more interesting than the sky. That means the composition is more interesting when the sky takes up less than half the frame. You can see that idea in action in the photo below. The horizon is not on a third, but it still uses the idea of dividing the frame into two uneven spaces.
Here’s another photo of the same island (made on a different day) where I decided to place the horizon low in the frame. That’s because I wanted to show the stars which were starting to appear in the sky (I made the photo at dusk). A shutter speed of 180 seconds blurred the movement of the stars. The light trail was made by a passing plane coming in to land at a nearby airport.
Once again, you can apply this idea across many types of photography. In the photo below, I placed the stone planter in the bottom third of the frame. It creates an interesting division, where roughly a third of the frame is stone, and the rest is greenery.
Hopefully the ideas in this article have shown you why I feel that many photographers place too much faith in the rule of thirds. It’s not so much that the rule itself is wrong. But you need to be aware of the deeper implications that arise when you’re making a decision on where to place the main subject in the frame.
If you found these ideas interesting, you can learn more about them in my composition ebooks.