The rule of thirds is often considered the first and most basic compositional rule to learn. However, I strongly disagree with this, as following this rule might end up both destroying your compositions and contaminating your thinking for years to come.
The rule of thirds proposes that an image should be divided into nine equally large parts divided by two equally spaced horizontal and two equally spaced vertical lines, just as the photo below shows.
The traditional way to think about the rule of thirds is to place your subject or focal point at the intersection points of the lines, and you are home free with an interesting composition. Proponents of the rule of thirds argue that this creates more tension, energy, and interest to the photo than just placing your subject in the center.
I would argue that following this “rule,” which is just a “rule of thumb,” you risk making an unbalanced and confusing photo, and by learning to follow this rule first, you risk “contaminating” your photos for the next many years and force a framework onto a scene that might not even work.
This classic photo of Kirkjufell (above) in Iceland does not work because of the rule of thirds. It works because the photo is in balance. The amount of visual tension is approximately equally distributed on either side of the middle of the photo. If you were to put the photo on a scale, it would not fall to either side. The mountain and the waterfall balance each other out.
What if you were to remove the waterfall from the scene and keep the mountain in the upper right intersection point? With a bit of Photoshop magic, you can see the photo falls completely apart. It is highly unbalanced, and the empty space can hardly be argued to work as negative space. It is more like dead space.
The exact same problem appears if we remove the mountain and keep the waterfall. The stream leading from left to right does somewhat make up for the missing mountain, but the photo is still out of balance and very left-heavy.
The use of the rule of thirds and lack of balance can somewhat be made up for by making sure your subject is turned “into” the photo. This means if you place a person in one of the left intersection points, make sure that the person is moving or looking towards the right. In that way, our attention tends to follow the sight of the person or movement of the person towards the right, and the visual balance is somewhat restored. This goes for all kinds of subjects with a perceivable front, back, or sense of movement. In the before-after photo below, you can see how the geese are moving from left to right. Although not placed on the lower left intersection point, they are turned and move towards the right. In the other photo, I have cropped it to place the geese on the right side. I follow the rule of thirds, but the composition is utterly destroyed.
The same is the case for this photo. The windblown tree has an obvious tendency to tip towards the right. In case it was to fall over, it would be towards the right. That is why I placed it off-center, not because of the rule of thirds. If I crop it for the rule of thirds and place it on the right, you can see how it falls apart. You can see more examples of this tree in the video above.
The photo below is one of my older photos and a great example of the misuse of the rule of thirds I did at the beginning of my landscape photography career. The fishing boat is on the right and turned out of the frame. This throws the photo out of balance. Had I placed the boat on the left having it point "into the photo," it would have made more sense.
As you can see, you will have to have a good sense of both balance and direction before applying the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds should not be the first “rule” to learn about composition.
The rule of thirds can also be used to place the horizon line in your photos. Just place the horizon line on either of the horizontal lines of the grid, and you are home free with an interesting composition. Yes, I sometimes place the horizon line along with one of the horizontal lines of the grid, but I also place it in the middle of the image, I place it along a lower 1/4 line of the frame, I place it along with the golden ratio, etc. Can we even talk about it as a “rule of thumb” when it seems to just be a mere suggestion and several other factors need to be in place for it to actually work?
How It Can Be Used
There is one aspect where I find the rule of thirds to be useful (for the most part), and that is to secure some breathing room on the edges of your photo. What I mean is: if you keep your subject along the lines of the inner rectangle (more or less), then you make sure your composition does not feel claustrophobic.
Even as a rule of thumb, there are too many “buts” for the rule of thirds to work as a basic rule or tool. It has taken me a long time to move away from it, and even today, it haunts me. In many ways, I would wish I had learned another approach to composition than trying to force a compositional framework down upon my photos. Compositional frameworks like the rule of thirds and the golden ratio can work, but only if certain other criteria are met first. If those criteria are met for the rule of thirds, the rule does not work because of some inherent value, it works because of something else, and it is hard to argue that it can be considered a rule of thumb in the first place.
Be sure to check out the video above. Here, I show several photos where it looks like the rule of thirds has been used, but there are several other thoughts that go into composing these simple scenes. Also, let me know below what your thoughts are on the rule of thirds.