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Why The Rule of Thirds For Composition Just Works


Jo Plumridge

This article is an extract from Issue 76 of Photography Masterclass Magazine
Girl in field of yellow flowers
Photo by: Katya Photography
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The Rule of Thirds is one of the simplest composition rules out there, but it can make a real difference to your shots. It’s the basis for well-balanced shots and is a great starting point for photographers to learn about how to effectively compose their shots. It’s important to know when to use the rule of thirds and also when to break it!The basic idea of the rule of thirds is to break down a photograph into thirds both horizontally and vertically, like so:

rule of thirds grid

As you can see from the diagram on the left, the nine rectangles also give you four intersection points. These are where you should place your points of interest in your photo. Some cameras have a rule of thirds grid that you can overlay on your LCD screen to make things easier but, if not, you should be able to visualise the grid whilst you’re shooting.

Let’s look at these lines in more detail. If you’re shooting a landscape, the horizontal grid helps to balance out your shot. Shoot with a third of foreground; a third of horizon and a third of sky and you will immediately start to see a balanced landscape. You can add in points of interest (for example, a tree) at one of your intersection points.

tarred road leading into the mountains
Photo by: Pixabay

Alternatively, if you’re shooting a portrait you’ll want to place your subject on one of the vertical lines. Try and balance your subject’s eyes over an intersection point to create a strong image. This also keeps your subject out of the direct centre of the image, which helps to lead a viewer’s eyes into a shot.

Leading Lines and Negative Space

When you’re working with the rule of thirds, it’s vital to take both leading lines and negative space into account. Leading lines can be particularly useful when you’re photographing landscapes, as they help direct a viewer into and through your image. Look for lines in the horizon and sky – particularly if you’ve placed a focal point at one of the intersections. You can then use leading lines to draw your viewer’s eye to your focal point.

asian woman in hat with blurred mountain behind
Photo by: Qamera Photography

Negative space is another factor to consider, particularly if you’re shooting a portrait. Put very simplistically, negative space is the space around your image’s subject matter (i.e. the positive space). By its very nature, negative space requires breathing room around the positive space. Negative space doesn’t have to be a blank white canvas – the sky or water can be very conducive as well, as can using a small depth of field to create a blurred background.

Used in conjunction with the rule of thirds, both leading lines and negative space can really help to strengthen a shot.

Breaking the Rules!

The rule of thirds is more often than not the first composition rule that photographers learn and, whilst it’s basic, it’s also fundamental to composition. So it’s important to fully understand it and to master it before you think about breaking it. However, the rule of thirds is made to be broken!

The most likely scenario for breaking the rule of thirds is if you’re shooting a sunrise or sunset. The dramatic colours of the sky are going to be your focus for shots like this, so you obviously wouldn’t want to waste two-thirds of your image on the horizon and foreground; particularly as these are going to be in shadow.

At times like this, you will want the sky to take up around two-thirds of your image. You should also look for points of interest to break up the sky. Trees and lighthouses work particularly well in these images!

Similarly, I have shot plenty of portraits where my subject is centred in an image, rather than off to one side on an intersection point. Why is this? Well, essentially whilst composition is very important it’s the concept and ‘feel’ of an image that should take precedence. If your photograph is telling a strong story that in itself adds to the composition of a shot.

Rule of Thirds – Post Production

girl in white dress sitting on green leaves
Photo by: Chentu Photography

You can also use the rule of thirds in post-production to correct or crop your images to a more visually pleasing composition. If you work with Lightroom, you can simply press ‘R’ on your keyboard, which will show the rule of thirds grid that’s built into the programme. Alternatively, you can click on the crop tool to activate the grid. Photoshop doesn’t have a rule of thirds grid but you can easily construct one by going to View > New Guide.

VIDEO: The Rule of Thirds – Improve Your Photography Composition

The Rule of Thirds is one of the most fundamental concepts in photo composition. And if you understand what it really means then you’ll know when to use it….and when to break it.

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