The Photography Rule of Thirds

Photography is an art form – pure and simple. And, like many art forms, there are various techniques involved in learning, perfecting and mastering those art forms. Much of the time you won’t even realise you’re already utilising some of the techniques required to excel at your craft but we guarantee that you will be.

In this series of blog entries on the topic of photography tips, we aim to help educate our readers about as many photography techniques we can possibly write about in the hope of assisting your creative process, and we begin with the Photography Rule of Thirds. 

What is the Rule of Thirds Definition?

Of all the basics taught about improving your picture taking capabilities the Photography Rule of Thirds is usually at the forefront of what any budding photographer would learn.

Many professional photographers and those offering photography courses will generally always start with this basic composition technique which instructs you to imagine that the image you are taking is on a grid of nine (9) parts and that the main focus of that image is featured on one of the four intersecting points of that grid.

The supposition is that your final image will tend to be more balanced and therefore more interesting to the viewer especially if they can properly gain the scope of the featured subject in the picture.

History of the Rule of Thirds

The term was first penned by English painter John Thomas Smith in his published work entitled “Remarks on Rural Scenery” in 1797 – and since then the rule of thirds has since become synonymous with the way artists and photographers alike approach their craft.

The technique in both photography, and art, has been studied and researched many times over in the past couple of hundred years. For a very comprehensive and detailed paper on the topic check out the work put forward by the respected scholars in this field such as those over at BRILL. Generally, anyone in academia, art or scholarly publishing who research the subject all draw the same conclusions, that being that the eyes of the viewer inspecting an image will naturally go to one of those intersecting points on the grid rather than to the centre of the shot.

Consider this example taken on a smartphone, where the subject located in the lower left-hand intersection can really convey the scope and size of the cornfield, a scope that wouldn’t have been achieved to such effect if the subject was centred in the shot. Also in this example, the body position of the subject creates a secondary point of interest (the hands), bringing extra complexity and depth to the shot.

When to use the Rule of Thirds

Almost any photo taken adhering to the Photography Rule of Thirds will generally provide better structure to the image because when the subject is grounded within one-third of the shot, the other two-thirds of the shot provides the necessary reason to properly showcase the intended subject.

The Rule of Thirds is seen as being of such essential importance within the craft of photography that these days almost all camera (and phone) manufacturers provide a function that permits a grid to be applied to the viewfinder or screen of your device.

The technique can work equally well with different subject matter such as people, objects, landscapes, animals and just about anything you can view through a lens or on your mobile device.

Whilst there are many different techniques and skills that can overall determine the success of a captured shot such as artistic licence, subject matter, composition, and light to name a few – utilising the Photography Rule of Thirds can generally make an ordinary subject look quite interesting whilst on the flip-side, that very same subject centred in a shot could be perceived to look quite ordinary.

When NOT to use the Rule of Thirds

Is it a Rule? A Technique? A Guideline? Or simply a recommendation? Well, it’s actually all and yet none of these things at the same time. But in reality, it doesn’t actually matter what you refer to the “Rule of Thirds” as there are definitely occasions when it should be completely ignored.

Take this article from Dawn Wayard at Digital Photography School where she outlines 9 Acceptable Ways for Breaking the Rule of Thirds in Photography and she describes various scenarios where the main subject placed in the dead-centre of a photograph actually work.

World-renowned photographer Jim Zuckerman who takes thousands of wildlife photos employs the rule of thirds in a great many of his images to great effect, but also equally, he has thousands of photos where his subject is dead centre.

In the end, everything is relative and photography, like any art form, is usually judged quite differently by different individuals viewing the artistic piece and like in this example below, even though this beetle is located exact centre of the image there is still an element that suggests the Rule of Thirds was followed as your eye is bought to the beetle’s antennae in the first instance anyway.

Photography Rule of Thirds Simply Explained!

YouTuber, Freelance photographer, director and filmmaker James Barber explains the rule of thirds in regards to both photography and videography very simply in this quick tip video tutorial on one of his YouTube Channels.

You should definitely check out James (and all his online photography projects) as he offers some fantastic FREE tips, information and easy to understand tutorials via his creative outlets on YouTube as well as showcasing some amazing photos on his awesome fun Instagram Profile of @barbster360

How To Apply the Rule of Thirds to Photos You’ve Already Taken

Maybe you have a forgotten catalogue of photos squirrelled away somewhere that for one reason or another you’ve yet to showcase. If so then using free photo editing software such as Canva or Fotor, you could easily manipulate and reposition the images contained therein, apply the rule of thirds guidelines, and give those photos completely different aspects bringing new life to the photos. As an example of what we mean please note the following example where the first image of the fox cub is centred and certainly looking very cute but in the second image where the eyes are on an intersection in the image, you get everything you would from the first image but also end up really wondering just what the cub is actually looking at. The subject also has decidedly clearer features in the second image bringing a noticeable and whole new personality to the photograph.

A Final Word About the Rule of Thirds

So let’s be totally honest here, whist John Thomas smith back in the late 18th Century first coined the technique as the “Rule of Thirds” it is, in fact, like all the techniques used in photography art in any pursuit of the arts, just a guideline.

Before venturing deeper into alternate photography techniques in that quest for the perfect shot, you should ensure you are initially very comfortable with the Rule of Thirds, as it is a great foundation on which to build your own personal set of photography skills.

However, we urge you to always keep at the back of your mind, that whilst the Rule of Thirds should be the first of many recommendations that you utilise when starting out as a photographer, ignoring the rule certainly doesn’t mean your shots might be boring or uninteresting and indeed, sometimes just the opposite – but I think we can all agree on one thing – often rules are meant to be broken.

Please stay tuned to this blog for more articles on photography, associated techniques, product reviews, and recommendations and much more from the Photo Croc crew of writers.

For now, take care and happy snapping everyone!

Written by Mark Minehan – Traveller, Digital Marketer, Photographic Enthusiast, Sports Fanatic and doting Father of two wonderful daughters.