The Rule of Thirds: Moving from Snapshots to Art

I once read a blog post from a photographer who insisted that, whatever you do with composition, never place the subject in the center of the frame.  I know what he was getting at – he believed placing the subject off-center makes a photo interesting.  I recently watched a lecture by a successful photographer who insisted that the rule of thirds was made up by Kodak in the 1930s.  He laughed at the concept of the rule of thirds.

What is the “rule of thirds”?  In general, it is an intentional arrangement of the subject of a photograph at the intersection of two imaginary lines running vertically and horizontally along “thirds” of the frame.

Imagine there is a tic-tac-toe board drawn across your viewfinder in your camera (actually, most DSLRs have an option in the setting to activate such a grid on your live-screen; check your user’s manual).

Tic Tac Toe Grid

Arranging the subject according to the rule of thirds means you move your camera around until the subject of the photograph is positioned at the intersection of a vertical and horizontal line.  Here is a good explanation from Digital Photography School.

The idea is that by intentionally placing the subject at one of the intersections makes the photograph more interesting and visually appealing. Some photographers insist that symmetry does not create interest in some photos. The exception is usually applied to portraits. The convention for head shots is to apply tight symmetry within the frame (unless you are Peter Hurley; he does things his own way, which has made him wildly successful).  The rule of thirds really is an effective technique to create interest.

To be honest, the rule of thirds is my go-to compositional technique when I am “spraying-and-praying.” Here is an example from an editorial photo I took at the victory parade and rally for the 2018 MLS Cup Champions, Atlanta United FC [You can see my editorial and commercial portfolio here].  The bus was moving, so I arranged the subject, the MLS Cup at the intersection of the top and right lines.

20181210 Atlanta United MLS Cup Championship Parade and Rally-7399

But simply moving your subject to an off-center, asymmetrical position within the frame is not enough.

Let’s talk about composition for a second.  Composition is simply the decision to intentionally exclude things from the frame that are not relevant for the story and the inclusion and intentional arrangement of what was included in the frame in a visually appealing way to tell the story [wow, that was wordy; sorry…].  The photographers I trust say there are only two types of composition – symmetrical and asymmetrical. The rule of thirds falls into the asymmetrical composition.  There are other asymmetrical compositions, such as “Golden Ratio” and “Golden Spiral,” but those are discussions for another post.

ideally, you are going to arrange three elements of composition in a photograph to tell the story and bring interest to the photograph – subject, background story, and environment. A thoughtful photographer will compose or arrange those three elements in a way that establishes some type of relationship between those three elements. When the photographer decides what to include in the image, the photographer is making an interpretive statement about the subject and its relationship with everything else in the frame.

To use the rule of thirds effectively, the subject needs to be arranged, along with the background elements and environment, in way to establish the relationship of the subject with the other elements.

Let me give you two examples of the rule of thirds and my reaction to each.  First, here is a portrait of our family dog, Tyson.

2018 Candid Family-5541

I am using off-camera flash and a long telephoto lens, which creates a bokeh effect. My issue with this photo is that you really can’t discern the background story, the environment, and Tyson’s relationship with the other two elements.  He is clearly arranged along the the bottom right intersection, but it does not tell a story. I would need a caption to establish the relationship between Tyson, his current situation, and the environment.

Here is, what I feel, is a better photo, which establishes Tyson’s relationship with the background story and environment.

2018 Candid Family-5547

Again, this photo is intentionally arranged in a way to include all three elements:

  • Subject – Tyson the dog
  • Background story – relaxing
  • Environment – in a recliner with a soft light by him – clearly in a home.

The second photograph tells Tyson’s story much better than the first even though, technically, the first is arranged according to the rule of thirds.

Here is the exception to my interpretation of the rule of thirds (because rules are made to be broken!). Negative space is a powerful element of art and photography.  The arrangement of a subject in which negative space is present can bring dramatic attention to the subject.  Take this photo, for example.


This was early in the morning. I have photographed this dock many times, but the lake was fogged-in on this particular day.  The arrangement of this photo, which included at least ½ negative space, gave the sense of quiet and peacefulness.  But, the negative space still contributed as an element to establish the relationship between the dock and the rest of the photo.

So, how do I use the rule of thirds?  In three ways:

  1. My go-to composition when you are capturing a dynamic scene.
  2. To establish a relationship between the subject, the background story, and the environment.
  3. Isolate the mood of the subject by using negative space.


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