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 achieve a more attractive image. I think we often use the rule of thirds the wrong way.
The rule of thirds is probably the most common rule in photography. If you’re taking photos and diving into the world of compositing, this will be the first thing you come across. It’s easy to view when shooting, and many cameras can project the rule of thirds onto the LCD in live view or into 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 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 1/3 from the sides, preferably 1/3 from the right because you see through the photo from left to right. People who read right to left might prefer it on the other side.
When a subject is placed 1/3 of the frame, combined with a 1/3 horizon, it often looks like an L composition, one of the nine basic shapes in composition theory. While this may seem like a good way to fill out the frame, it’s not necessarily a good composition. The rule of thirds is a pretty easy way to get compositional in the right direction, but you’re not guaranteed to get there in the end, at least not always.
This is not about breaking the rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is one of the most important rules of composition for some, while others feel they should completely break with it sometimes just for that reason alone. These photographers are convinced that this seems too limited and hinders a creative approach to photography.
Abandoning the rule of thirds altogether can lead to another problem. Chances are you’ll go to great lengths to avoid anything remotely related to the rule of thirds. You will always avoid a horizon at 1/3 of the frame, even if it is the best choice. Or you will refuse to place a subject somewhere near 1/3 of the sides, and so on. I’ve seen photographers make weird and sometimes ridiculous compositional choices just to avoid anything that might have to do with this rule.
How the rule of thirds should be used
I believe the rule of thirds is almost always used the wrong way. It’s not about placing objects on any of the 1/3 lines, but it’s a useful way to do a good area division. By simply dividing the frame into nine equal parts, it becomes much easier to place objects within the frame. It’s a way to achieve a certain balance in your composition by distributing each important element in the frame as well as possible. It is not necessary to place a horizon or subject on any of the 1/3 lines unless there is a good reason for it.
It’s not just about the 1/3 lines when it comes to the ruler or thirds. There are also the points of attention where the lines intersect. These attention points are indeed a place where a subject will receive the most attention. But placing a subject in one of these places is often not enough. There is a risk that the picture looks unbalanced. In this case, another element in the frame is needed for the counterweight.
Diagonals and curves can be important for a good composition. These help you guide the viewer through the frame, often to the main subject. In an ideal situation, these lines will guide the eye across the entire frame to prevent areas from being redundant. Dividing the frame by the rule of thirds can help you with this.
Placing elements in the frame, using 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. Dropping these useful lines will not help your creativity at all. The only time the rule of thirds kills creativity is when you blindly adhere to 1/3 item placement.
Use the rule of thirds to your advantage
It is difficult to visualize a composition rule when you are on site. The Fibonacci spiral, the golden ratio or the golden triangle are based on mathematical calculations. While these often make sense, using them while photographing is a challenge.
The rule of thirds is easy to imagine. You can even enable a grid on your camera that will display the rule of thirds. If you have a mirrorless camera, these guidelines are even visible in the electronic viewfinder.
Don’t just use it to place a horizon or a subject on 1/3 of the frame, but let the surface division help you place all the elements in the best possible way. I believe this is 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.