What Is the Rule of Thirds in Photography?

Learn about photography's "rule of thirds" from professional photographer Luke Ballard in this Howcast video.

Hi. Today we’re talking about the rule of thirds, when to follow it, and how to break it. As you can see here on the monitor we have got a grid that you’ve probably seen before if you’re playing with your point-and-click or you’re playing with the display settings on your camera. You are able to turn the grid on in your LCD monitor. I’d rather people not get in the habit of using their LCD monitor but start imagining that grid every time their taking a photo. As you can see we’ve divided our frame into nine equal boxes with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines.

That’s leaving us with these four intersecting points along the frame. When we’re photographing we want to put our focal point in one of these four intersecting points. It is important that we do work left to right and top to bottom. So one, two, three, four. By prioritizing our focal point in these areas our image is going to make a little bit more sense. The way I like to describe the rule of thirds is writing on a notepad and using the lines. You don’t write over the lines you write on top of the lines. Where you place the words on the notepad is going to make a lot more sense and it’s the same with, say, letters forming a word, words forming a sentence, and the sentence making sense. For example, if you were reading The Cat in the Hat; “The cat in the hat makes sense,” reading it backwards, “hat the in cat the,” not so much.

If we place our focal point or we don’t use the rule of thirds effectively it’s like mixing those words around or, even worse, reading it completely backwards which would be, “tah eht ni tac eht.” What I like to do is put my horizon on one of the horizontal thirds. So many people I see or so many photographs I see are putting their horizon halfway through their frame. By using the horizontal lines a little bit more effectively we’re nicely spacing out that image. By placing our focal point on one of these intersecting points we’re giving the focal point a little bit more prominence. We’re giving a bit more depth. We’re giving it a bit more relationship with the image. And using the lines, everything else in my image I like to try and have running along the lines wherever possible. I also like to divide my image into two-thirds/one-third, that’s two-thirds of information and one-third of negative space or just a little bit of clarity. And of course, foreground, mid-ground, and background, but that’s a bit more for landscapes. It’s not important to use absolutely every single point in the rule of thirds, however the more you use, generally the more effective your photograph. Let’s have a look at an example. So here’s a photograph I took in Machu Picchu in Peru and, as you can see, I’ve pretty much used as many of those points as possible. We have the llamas in the foreground, we have the ruin in the mid-ground, and we have the mountain and the sky in the background. I’ve got two-thirds of positive space with everything going on and one-third of negative space with the sky. You’ll notice that my two-third line, my top horizontal line is also cutting off accordingly with the mountain coming down one vertical third and the ruin coming down another vertical third. The ruin was my focal point so I used the second of the one, two, three, four focal points, or those intersections, to take this photograph. So that’s how I effectively use the rule of thirds to take a photograph, and let’s just talk a bit about breaking them.

This is a very controversial point with a lot of photographers. Many photographers can’t stand the idea of the rule of thirds being broken. However, like most rules, it’s made to be broken some of the time, but understand why you’re breaking it. If you decide, “oh, I just want to put something in the center or I just want to move a little bit,” it’s going to look sloppy, it’s going to look like a bad photograph. It’s not going to make sense. However if you break it dramatically if you break it with passion and there’s a definite point to how you break the rule of thirds, then it’s going to work really, really, really well. For example let’s look at this next image. So here we’ve got a photograph of the Magic Kingdom at Disney World over the holidays. I love Disney World over the holidays. They make everything bright and colorful and everything’s really beautifully lit, including [inaudible 04:24] Cinderella’s castle. Here I used my horizon in the center of the image. This was a definitive choice because I really wanted to focus on that reflection.

Reflections are one of the main reasons you would break the rule of thirds. When you get that sense of symmetry and you have the top of your image equally reflects the bottom of your image. The other way I would break the rule of thirds is what I call the rule of tens. And that is where you have, say, an extremely dramatic sky and just ten percent of the image being the ground. Or you have, conversely, a really amazing landscape with just a little bit of negative space at the top. So that’s how we’d go about breaking the rule of thirds, but more importantly, that’s how we would go about following it.