An Intro to the Rule of Thirds in Photography

Learn photography rules, learn to apply them, learn their advantages and limitations. Finally, learn to bend them, break them and explore beyond them.

Rules are prison cell walls for the creative mind so beware of them — don’t let them take over your life.

It’s better to consider them as “guidelines” only.

With this out of the way, let us begin.

If you are reading this, it is likely you own a camera. In that case, and even on a camera phone, you will possibly have seen the option/setting to display the rule of thirds grid on your screen or in your viewfinder.

Something along those lines:

This is a useful tool, if only at first, to train your eye to look at a scene in a fragmented way, in a more balanced way perhaps as it shows you where the thirds are within your shot. To be fair it doesn’t really require this tool for anyone to be able to visualize their frame divided into three or nine sections.

The rule of thirds can be applied in many ways.

For example, focusing on the horizontal division. When shooting landscape photography you may decide to line-up your clouds with the top horizontal line while the horizon lines-up with the bottom one.

In such way:

And here, I have used the rule of thirds to frame the taxi in the middle of the shot:

Alternatively, you may find yourself shooting street photography, let’s say a fairly minimal scene with a single subject in the scene (as is usually my preference).

You could align the person with the vertical line on the right-hand side, such as in the example below.

However, notice how I divided the shot in two horizontally, the bottom of the colorful arty lines is bang-on in the middle of the shot?

In the following night-time photo I have purposely positioned myself so the streetlight pole hits the first vertical line on the left to balance with the person walking in the rain on the right:

In the next black and white shot, I made the decision to have the left wall, the window, and the wall on the right each using a third of the frame while the hips of the subject are dead in the center of the photo:

Whichever way you choose to do it, and there are many, there is a natural tendency for our brain and our eyes to look for balance in a shot. The rule of thirds more often than not provides that balance.

When this is achieved, it helps the viewer have a more pleasurable experience when looking at your work.

Also, try another method by positioning your subject at the intersection or crosshair of lines from that imaginary rule of thirds grid.

Such as in these two street photos shot in London:

People often think they do not follow the rule of thirds, when in fact they do… albeit unknowingly.

If you superimposed a grid on top of their shot you’d often find it matching, it’s something that comes naturally to humans and is reflected and amplified in nature.

This leads us to the golden spiral or golden ratio which are directly related to the rule of thirds. I am an avid plant lover / amateur botanist and (as you know) photography lover. When I observe plants, patterns become obvious and one soon realizes that our entire world follows the same sort of pattern and as humans, we look for them and project them into things we create, photography is an example.

Enjoy falling down that rabbit hole!

I hope this article was useful to some of you wanting to learn more about the rule of thirds in photography.

But remember: What matters most is to have fun, fun is the only way to unlock your true creativity and strengthen your creativity.

So if you find yourself stressing about rules and not enjoying photography because of it, then fudge the rules and just have fun.

P.S. Be sure to check out Captured London, my new conceptual photographic series for 2020/2021. The series features glowing triangular shapes have taken over London’s skyline, streets and underground. Follow me on Instagram and Twitter for updates.

About the author: Nicholas Goodden is a professional urban photographer and photography tutor based in London. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Goodden’s work on his website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. This article was also published here.