Strong compositional skills, especially using the rule of thirds in photography, is essential as you work to become a good photographer. This rule will help you know where to place your subject in an image to create more impact with the viewer. It is photography tips like this one, that helps take your images from so-so, to awesome.
01. What is the rule of thirds in photography?
The rule of thirds is a compositional rule in art that states that an image can be divided into thirds; –both vertically and horizontally, and by placing your subject on one of the lines, your image will become more visually appealing to the viewer.
Think of a tic-tac-toe board laid over top of a picture. By placing the subject on one of the lines, you automatically create an image that is of more interest.
How can something so simple make our images better? The answer is rooted in how our human brains work, and in something called visual tension.
Visual tension is an interesting idea and one where our brains work subconsciously to try to understand an image.
In figure 1, there is no visual tension. Everything is in harmony and at peace.
There is equal space around the dot which has created equilibrium. This space surrounding the dot is considered passive space, as it is not creating tension.
Because of this, your brain focuses only on the dot, understands it, and moves on.
In figure 2, the space around the dot has become active, the space to the left of the dot seemingly stronger than the space to the right of it.
This added strength is pushing the dot to the right and is creating visual tension. This tension therefore, immediately creates visual interest in the image as our brains decide whether the dot will fight its way back to center, or be pushed off the page.
With figure 1, the white area doesn’t really enhance the image, nor does it distract from it. It’s just there.
In figure 2, the white area is active, which means it does enhance the image, hence it creates interest and even drama.
Because you know this, you now have a secret weapon that will allow you to draw people subconsciously into your images. A secret weapon, so to speak. Boo-yah.
Now that I’ve let you in on this little secret, let me ask you a question. The girl in the image below, is she centered or does her placement follow the rule of thirds?
She is not.
What?!?!?! How is she not centered?
The answer lies in where our eyes go first in an image, and as we look at a person, we first look at their eyes.
Her eyes fall on a rule of thirds line, and therefore she is not centered and is currently creating visual tension in our brains.
This should tell you there is more to learn, so keep reading!
Using visual tension to create interest.
In figure 3 below, can feel the visual tension (I have said the word, ‘feel’ on purpose)? Look at it. Stare at it, and tell me if you can FEEL the tension.
Not only is the dot being pushed to the right by the space on the left, it is also sinking – descending below the line. Both of these facts combine for added tension in this image.
This figure depicts a familiar scene, one we have all looked at. Can you guess what it is?
A sunset is a perfect example of visual tension. Sunsets are already beautiful, but add some tension to the image and it gets even more incredible.
Below, you will find two versions of the same image. A basic image of a father and son cross country skiing.
Take a look at them both.
Which do you prefer, the top or the bottom version?
Like the dots, in the first image I have centered the subject. The brain easily understands the image and moves on.
In the second image, I have placed the skiers on a rule of thirds line and thereby have created more visual tension and interest in the image.
Can you see it?
Subtle, but the image is enhanced by not placing the skiers in the center of the image.
02. Create visual tension with the rule of thirds.
Now that we you know what the rule of thirds is, and how it creates interest in an image, let’s get more in-depth.
In the image below the horizon and the subject follow the rule of thirds.
Double whammy of goodness.
How many images have you taken that are composed like the images below?
I know that when I teach photography classes a million hands go up. I think we’ve all shot images like this, right?
Subject dead-center with nothing really of interest around. It’s natural to shoot like this.
As you work to become a better photographer, you will need to overcome the desire to place the subject of the image in the center.
It will take practice, but you can do it!
The girl in the sky, let’s work to create more visual tension in the image. By simply placing her eyes on a rule of thirds line, we create more visual interest in this image.
Did we really create visual interest by simply raising her up in the image? Yes, but not very much. See them both together below.
The background in this image really isn’t doing anything to enhance the image, so getting rid of it will increase the visual interest of the image. Take a look at the crops below.
All three add more visual interest to the image. Which one do you prefer?
All of these images follow the rule of thirds. As a photographer, you get to decide which one you prefer, and begin to shoot that way.
Isn’t interesting though, that there are so many options to create a visually interesting version of this image of a girl standing in front of a blue sky.
In the top-left image she is set off to the left, causing an imbalance that creates visual tension and energy. If there was something of interest on the right side of the frame, this would definitely be the way to shoot this image. Because nothing is there, it seems a little lacking.
In the bottom-left image, she fills the frame while her eyes are placed on the top line. I like this one. Some people struggle to crop out a portion of someone’s head. I don’t mind, in fact to me, it gives the image more interest.
In the vertical image on the right, the excess space is removed, bringing the focus to her. This is also a good crop and becomes a picture of her, not an image of her and the background.
As the artist, you get to decide which is best and how you want the image to look. Such power!
Referring back to the image above where she is placed on the left rule of thirds line, with nothing but blue sky to the right, I have added a background where it now feels OK to put her on the left rule of thirds line.
The girl is still the subject, but as your eye wanders the scene, the image begins to tell a story, rather than simply being just a picture of her.
03. Power points
When talking about the rule of thirds, it is important that we discuss power points. Power points are the points where the vertical and horizontal rule of thirds lines intersect.
The tic-tac-toe board to the right demonstrates these points, and by placing your subject directly on one of these points, the image gains even more visual interest.
What is the subject of the image below? It can be hard tell.
Is it the light, is it the brick wall, or is the windows? Any of those could be the subject.
The subject could also be the entire scene. Whatever it is to you, the placement of the light and the window were deliberate.
When photographing people, eyes are perfect to place on a power point.
Have you ever been taking pictures and thought, “where should I place my subject?” This rule really can help you worry less and just shoot. Place the eyes of your subject in a power position and just shoot.
04. Horizon line and the rule of thirds.
A question I get quite often is, “Where should I put the horizon line?” It’s a great question, but a question that that really depends on the image itself.
A good rule-of-thumb is: unless you decide differently for a very specific reason, place the horizon line in one of three locations.
The first location would be the bottom rule of thirds line. This is how we see the world with our eyes and creates a very natural look.
By placing the horizon on the bottom rule of thirds line it conveys a feeling of being there and helps the viewer establish ground and sky in their minds.
This is the spot if you plan to show a beautiful mountain range, or home, or anything that sits on the ground in a natural, everyday view.
The second location would be the top rule of thirds line.
This is a great choice if you are wanting to add foreground to your image or taking portraits of people.
The third and less often used location is in the center. When selecting the center, make sure you have symmetry and balance in your image. If you don’t, pick another place.
05. Breaking the rule of thirds in photography.
All of these compositional rules are here as a guide to help you become a better photographer.
However, there will be times when you’ll want to break a compositional rule in your image.
And I say, go for it!
BUT! You need to know why you broke it which compositional rule you’ll use instead. Take a look at the two images below. The rule of thirds has been broken and replaced with a different compositional rule. The rule was broken, but there was a reason why.
In the image of the Jeep above, the rule of thirds is broken for the rule of balance. The image still has impact because another compositional rule has been used to replace the rule of thirds.
In this landscape image, the rule of thirds is broken for the rule of symmetry.
I would recommend that you become well versed in the rule of thirds before you venture out and try to break it. Once you feel completely comfortable with the rule of thirds, then begin to replace it with other compositional rules.
As you learn photography, the rule of thirds can be a powerful tool that helps you create visually interesting images.
Following this rule will help you think less about where to place your subject in the image, and more about capturing the subject in a beautiful artistic way.
Remember, as with anything, practice makes perfect, so spend time practicing this rule. You can practice anytime by just pulling out your cell phone camera, picking a random subject, placing it in a power position and taking the image.
Center the subject in an image as well so you can see the difference.
Once practiced, next comes learning when and why to break the rule. This will happen when you use a different rule of composition to create visual interest.
As you begin deciding between multiple compositional rules, you’re creativity will sky rocket as will the quality of your images.