King of rules


Canyonlands web

Riding the Edge – Canyonlands National Park


The rule of thirds is the king of compositional rules! The basic theory is this: the human eye tends to be more interested in images that are divided into thirds, with the subject falling at or along one of those divisions. Doing so will add intrest and balance to your photo. We refer to the most significant element of our image as the “center of interest.” When we think “central” we think “important.” It then comes as no surprise that we naturally place the subject of our image in the center of the frame. It’s only natural to line up the camera with what we are paying most attention to. The problem is that when we look at photos the eye naturally looks to the center of the image first. By placing the main subject in the center the eye will stay looking in the center and not move around the image. This will cause the image to be “static” instead of giving it movement and depth. If an object is an equal distance from all sides, there is no implied need for the eye to move. The object is balanced, and therefore static or at rest. There’s no tension and no pull in either direction. The eye will stay looking at the center and will soon loose interest. This is where the photography rule of thirds becomes a guideline. If balance is what you are trying to express, then central placement of your subject may be just the way to go!

Many DSLRs will give you a visual grid in your viewfinder that you can use to practice this rule. If yours does not, just use your eye to roughly divide your image with four lines into nine equal-sized parts as shown in the image below, then place your subject at the intersection of those lines.

Delicate Arch web

Delicate Arch – Arches National Park


Using the Rule of Thirds comes naturally to some photographers but for many of us it takes a little time and practice for it to become second nature and as with all photography rules there are times when it is best to break it.

In learning how to use the rule of thirds (and when to break it) the most important questions to be asking of yourself are:

  • What are the main points of interest in this shot?
  • Where am I going to intentionally place them?

When shooting landscapes with horizon lines the horizon should be roughly lined up with the top or bottom third line. The top line if the land is more important or spectacular, or the bottom line if the sky is interesting or more the main focus of the shot. In the two photos above the sky is less important, but in the photo below the sky is most important. Notice how the house is also not centered in the photo below. Also you do not have to be perfectly lined up with the third line, just some where in the vicinity.

Night house

Abandoned house at night – Cisco, Utah


In the shot below the subject needed to be horizontally centered breaking the rules of thirds or the alignment of the structure would have looked off, but the structure is still in the top third of the photo vertically.

LDS Conference Center, SLC, Utah

LDS Conference Center, SLC, Utah

The rule of thirds works in all types of photography. Portraits, landscapes, Architecture and Macro photography all typically look better when following the rule of thirds. In portraits you usually want the head or more importantly the eyes to follow the rule. Once again – remember that breaking the rule of thirds can result in some amazing shots. So once you’ve become proficient at using it, experiment with purposely breaking it to see what you discover. As with all other photography elements, the more you shoot the more natural the element becomes and the less you have to concentrate on using it.

Happy shooting!




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.