Rule of Thirds

The famous Rule of Thirds. I use that name here, even though I don’t like it. It has become almost a deep seated religious belief to some. Let’s examine it. It is a good idea, not a rule that can’t be broken.

What is it?

Briefly, the Rule of Thirds says to divide the frame into a 3×3 grid of 9 equal squares, like a tic-tac-toe grid. Important features, like horizons, should be placed on one of the grid lines rather than centered. Also, the grid intersections are “special” and powerful. Place major subjects on one of the intersections.

Theory says that aligning subjects with this grid creates more interest and tension than most other arrangements. This are not really wrong. The Rule of Thirds is generally good advice. The fault is in the application as a prescription rather than just good advice.

The image with this article is faithfully cropped to the Rule of Thirds. The horizon is on the upper line and the gravestone is aligned along the right one. It works for this.


The rule of thirds was first written down by John Thomas Smith in 1797. And he was quoting remarks by the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds from 1783. It goes way back.

Reynolds says:

Analogous to this “Rule of thirds”, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two : Again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives. This rule would likewise apply in breaking a length of wall, or any other too great continuation of line that it may be found necessary to break by crossing or hiding it with some other object : In short, in applying this invention, generally speaking, or to any other case, whether of light, shade, form, or color, I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far-extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever.

They were very wordy back then. But basically, he is describing what we still call the Rule of Thirds.

Even further back

But the basis of what we term the Rule of Thirds goes much further back, probably to around 450 BC. It was known as the Golden Ratio in ancient Greece.

The artists back then worked out a mathematical description of their concept of beauty. The ratio was key to the design their temples, such as the Parthenon. It is surprisingly similar to the ratios of the Rule of Thirds.

I won’t go into depth on it, but the Golden Ratio is about 1.618. It is actually an irrational number, which means it never repeats. Like pi. Sounds weird, but if you use the ratio to divide a frame they way they suggest you get something like

Golden Ratio

As you see, the proportions are roughly 2/3 to 1/3. Like the Rule of Thirds.

To a large degree, beauty is universal.

Why does it work for photography?

It works for photography for the same reason it works for painting or architecture or other media. It creates compositions that are both balanced and dynamic. They are balanced because the 2/3 to 1/3 split creates arrangements that for some reason are pleasing to most people. Having the horizon or major features offset from the center creates more interest and avoids boring, static compositions. Following the grid also helps to introduce a certain dynamic layout that gives interest to an image.

It touches us on a deep psychological level by keeping our images less centered and boring. Having things off center helps emphasize what is important to us, e.g. more sky or more foreground, and it gives our minds some work to do to balance the elements. Viewers like to have to figure things out a little bit.

The Rule of Thirds is very pragmatic. It has proven itself for a long time. All photographers should learn it when they are learning composition.

Learn it, use it, learn to see by it’s pattern. When you are starting you need to learn the normal conventions. This is one of the oldest and most fundamental. Internalize it. Unlike most artistic opinions it is backed by centuries of use.

Is it a rule?

No, at best it is a guideline, a “rule of thumb”. It contains good advice for most compositions. But composing is an art, not a science. Don’t take it too literally. Do what feels right to you as an artist. But know why you are doing it. If you don’t understand the Rule of Thirds then you will not know when it should be broken.

You enter an image in your local camera club competition. It gets down-voted because it was not composed according to the Rule of Thirds. Talk to them. Find out if they have a valid artistic opinion about this or if they are just being legalistic. If they are legalistic, sorry, it is time to leave this group. You have outgrown them.

If you post an image on social media and it gets negative comments because it is not “Rule of Thirds’ compliant, then just ignore the comments. You are the artist and the only one who can decide how to compose your image. If you intentionally broke the rule for a good reason, then good to you.

Break the law

As a guideline, it should be followed when it makes sense and abandoned when it doesn’t. Yes, the Rule of Thirds can make your compositions generally pleasing to most people. That is why you should pay attention to it most of the time. It is time honored and proven.

Maturity and experience will help understand that there are times when the rule should be abandoned. For instance, for a very symmetrical composition, off-centering it to follow the Rule of Thirds would probably look weird and damage the impact of the symmetry.

Or in the case where you have a subject you want to fill the frame with. Do it. That supersedes the rigid rule.

Or let’s say you are a photojournalist who has just captured a unique event that the world needs to see. Didn’t have time to compose according to the Rule of Thirds? No problem. Most people would agree that a strong or important subject overrides the rule.

Basically, if you understand the “rule” but feel you have a good artistic reason to break it, do it. You are the artist.


Ultimately, that is what it comes down to: you are the artist. If you understand composition and believe you have a better idea than the Rule of Thirds feel free. You may be right or you may be wrong. Either way, you made an artistic choice. That is what you need to do.

Composition rules are based on principles of perception and gestalt psychology. They usually make sense and any artist should learn them and internalize their application. But creation sometimes involves taking a new direction, abandoning norms, breaking rules. Do not insult your viewers by being ignorant of the norms. Rather, delight them by occasional creative rule breaking. Be an artist.

Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist. —  Pablo Picasso

There are rules about perception, but not about photography. – Jay Maisel

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