The Rule of Thirds: The Golden Rule for Better Shots?

The Rule of Thirds has been used for hundreds of years in film, photography, and painting, and is probably the most common and well-known rule of composition.

Simply put, it’s based on the principle that the human eye doesn’t like to rest on subjects positioned in the dead center of a frame.

While scientific studies have proven this to be true, no one's really sure why.

But it works, so let’s begin.

Imagine your camera's viewfinder or LCD screen being divided up by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two vertical lines, forming a tic-tac toe grid.

Whatever the reason may be, it’s more natural for our eyes to look at subjects that fall along one of those lines or near one of the four intersecting points. So why is that?

Well, if you think for a second how you normally see things throughout the day, it may start to make some sense.

If you’re having a conversation with someone, you don’t typically line them up dead center in front of you while they’re speaking.

And if you’re crossing the street, you look both ways before doing so; not by turning your head 90 degrees to each side, but by scanning for oncoming traffic in each direction.

I could give more examples, but you kind of get the idea: we’re always using our peripheral vision.

In fact, we see so many things in life that aren't symmetrical, when we do see something in perfect symmetry, it almost appears forced or unnatural.

That’s why it’s best to compose your shots using the grid lines and intersecting points as a guide; it'll instantly make them more visually appealing.

If shooting landscapes, place the horizon line either 1/3 of the way up or 1/3 of the way down in the frame:

If you can’t decide which, just ask yourself what would be more interesting: the sky or the ground?

If you’re shooting a person, avoid placing them in the center box of the grid:

Your subject doesn't have to be perfectly lined up, but should be pretty close to the points of interest on the grid.

And nearly all cameras have a built-in grid overlay option, so these lines can help remind you of the Rule of Thirds as you get used to composing your shots with this principle in mind.

When learning how to use The Rule, the most important questions to be asking of yourself are:

  • What are the points of interest in this shot?
  • Where am I intentionally placing them?

For me, this technique has become second nature, and when I'm out on a shoot I really feel that I'm drawn to it naturally now.

But keep in mind that it won’t work for every shot, and putting too much emphasis on it can be a creativity-suck.

It’s just a simple way to get you thinking about composing shots that are more interesting and natural for our eyes to look at, without being overwhelmed by boring film theory.

Hopefully you found this helpful. Thanks for reading.