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A Better Way To Use the Rule of Thirds To Your Advantage

There is a love-hate relationship when it comes to the rule of thirds. Some love it, others resent it. It is said to kill creativity, but it can help you get a more attractive image. I believe we often use the rule of thirds the wrong way.

The rule of thirds is probably the most common rule for photography. If you take pictures and you dive into the world of composition, it will be the first thing you come across. It’s easy to visualize when you’re taking pictures, and many cameras can project the rule of thirds onto the LCD screen in live view or in the EVF of mirrorless cameras.

The Basics of the Rule of Thirds

The basic use of the rule of thirds is well known. Place the horizon on 1/3 or 2/3 of the frame for the best surface division: a horizon 1/3 from the bottom if the sky is important or 1/3 from the top if the foreground is important.

An object is best placed at 1/3 from the sides, preferably at 1/3 from the right because we see through the photo from left to right. People who read from right to left might prefer it on the other side.

Horizon at 1/3 and the tree at 1/3. This is how the rule of thirds is used most of the time. But it isn't a great composition at all. I believe the rule of thirds shouldn't be used this way. Not always.

When a subject is placed at 1/3 of the frame, combined with a horizon at 1/3, it often resembles a L-composition, one of the nine basic shapes of the composition theory. Although it might seem a good way to fill the frame, it is not necessarily a good composition. The rule of thirds is a rather an easy way of going in the right direction regarding composition, but you're not guaranteed to get there in the end, not always, at least.

If an element is both on the vertical and horizontal 1/3 line, it could work, like in this instance. But in reality, it's an L-composition, one of the nine basic shapes of composition theory. 

It's Not About Breaking the Rule of Thirds

Following the rule of thirds blindly may lead to uninteresting compositions, like this one. This is not how it should be used, I think. There is a better way the rule of thirds can help you in making a good composition.

The rule of thirds is one of the most important composition rules for some, while others feel they should completely break with it, sometimes, just for that reason alone. Those photographers are convinced it feels too constrained and stands in the way of a creative approach in photography.

Abandoning the rule of thirds completely may lead to another problem. Chances are, you will go to great lengths to avoid anything that is remotely linked to the rule of thirds. You'll avoid a horizon at 1/3 of the frame at all times, even if it is the best choice. Or you'll refuse to place a subject somewhere near the 1/3 from the sides, and so on. I have seen photographers making strange and sometimes ridiculous composition choices only to avoid anything that may be linked to that rule.

How the Rule of Thirds Should Be Used

I believe the rule of thirds is almost always used in the wrong way. It’s not about placing objects at one of the 1/3 lines, but it is a helpful way to make a good surface division. Just by dividing the frame into nine equal parts, it becomes much easier to place objects in the frame. It’s a way to achieve a certain balance in your composition by distributing every important element in the best possible way across the frame. It's not needed to place a horizon or a subject onto one of the 1/3 lines, unless there is a good reason for it.

The horizon in the middle, while the trees are placed in the center, just like the sun. It's not the common use of the rule of thirds. But the rule is used as guiding lines to make a great surface division. There is balance in this composition.

It’s not only about the 1/3 lines when it comes down to the rule or thirds. There are also the points of attention where the lines cross each other. These points of attention are indeed a place where a subject will receive the most attention. But placing a subject at one of these locations is often not enough. There is a risk the image feels off-balance. In that case, another element in the frame is necessary for counterbalance. 

I tried to visualize how the elements in this image are divided across the frame. There is a good balance and leading lines. On this occasion, it fits the rule of thirds nicely.

Diagonals and curves can be important for a good composition. These help you guide the viewer through the frame, often towards the principal subject. In an ideal situation, these lines will guide the eye across the entire frame to prevent areas from being redundant. The division of the frame by the rule of thirds can help you in that regard.

The sun behind the sea stack is the point of attention. Every line will bring the attention to this spot. You could say the second sea stack should be on the other crossing point, but I don't believe that's important.

Placing elements in the frame, the use of lines, and finding balance in your composition is a creative process. By dividing the frame into nine equal parts, it becomes much easier to achieve a creative composition. Abandoning these helpful lines won’t help your creativity at all. The only instance when the rule of third kills off creativity is when you adhere blindly to a 1/3 placement of elements.

Diagonal lines in this composition lead in one or another way towards Lofotn Cathedral. The lines of the rule of thirds are just guiding lines that helped me achieve this nice composition.

Use the Rule of Thirds to Your Advantage

It is difficult to visualize a composition rule when you’re on location. The Fibonacci spiral, the golden ratio, or the golden triangle are based on mathematical calculations. Although these often make sense, using these while photographing is a challenge.

The rule of thirds is easy to imagine. You can even activate a grid on your camera that will show the rule of thirds. If you own a mirrorless camera, these guiding lines are even visible in the electronic viewfinder.

Activate the overlay on your LCD screen and EVF. These lines will help you when making a composition.

Don’t use it just to place a horizon or a subject on 1/3 of the frame, but let the division of the surface help you place all elements in the best possible way. I believe that's the best way to use the rule of thirds to your advantage.

Do you use the rule of thirds, or are you a photographer who avoids it at all costs? Please share your opinion and thoughts in the comments below.

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3 Comments
Charles Mercier's picture

I have never used the "rule of threes". I always look at the subject at hand and evaluate every scene based on what's there in front of me and compose accordingly. Every photo is its own composition and I include or eliminate to the best of my ability.

dierk topp's picture

rules or creativity - that is the question!

Charles Mercier's picture

I "use" it so little, I called it the rule of threes! lol