The rule of thirds

How To Take Advantage Of The Rule Of Thirds

Why are we going to discuss the rule of thirds today?

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You recently bought yourself a camera. You felt excited at first but quite helpless after a while. All these buttons are scaring you a bit.

So you decided to stick with the auto settings and experiment with your composition. Yes, but soon you started to feel disappointed with the results.

Compared to the pictures you see on the Internet, yours don’t look that great. In fact, you’re not only disappointed. You’re wondering if you should give up. 

Am I a mind reader? No, but I went through the same learning curve. In fact, I’m sure that nobody creates great photos from the beginning. It takes practice and willingness to learn. 

I can help you with the learning part. You will need to go out and practice. I can assure you that soon, you will start to take better photos. 

And a good way to start your photographic journey is to talk about the rule of thirds. Let’s explain what this is all about.

Definition Of The Rule Of Thirds

So what’s the rule of thirds anyway? Imagine putting two vertical and two horizontal grid lines into your photo. You will end up with 9 squares of equal size.

The rule of thirds tells you to place your subject on one of the grid lines’ intersection. It’s a helpful rule of thumb which artists have used for a long time.

Here Is Another Way To Think About It

It’s helpful to use it to improve the composition of your photographs. I’m not too keen on calling it the “rule” of thirds though. I’d rather call it something like a guideline.

I don’t think you should put your creative thought process into black and white boxes. Composition has its place in art, but I find that the words art and rules don’t get on very well together.

Individual expression goes beyond a set of rules. Some experienced photographers even get annoyed when they hear others speak about the  “rules” of composition”. They say that there are no rules, and that it’s all about balance.

They scoff at beginners using a grid overlay. This kind of attitude is not very helpful or kind. It’s like learning to cook. It’s helpful to think about what goes well with each other before going beyond plain vanilla.

At least, vanilla tastes nice. I like it. And isn’t it better to learn to take vanilla first? Later, you can move on to “haute cuisine” photography.

By any means, experiment and be creative. But also learn about the rules so you can break them later. You have to learn to walk before you can run. OK, I can tell you’re getting fed up with the clichés 😁 let’s move on to the main dish (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

The Originis Of The Rule Of Thirds

Let’s start with the serious stuff. Where did the rule of thirds come from and what is it used for?

Have you ever looked at a picture or a painting and thought? “This looks so harmonious, what’s the secret sauce?” Well, chances are the many different ingredients went into the mix.

But one of them might be the way the artist placed the subjects in the frame’s (imaginary) grid lines. One way to achieve harmony in your photos is to use the rule of thirds. But how do you apply it to your composition?

Ask yourself: What are the most important elements in your frame? Where does your eye dart to straight away? Look for your composition’s main points of interest and decide how to distribute them.

Remember the grid lines creating 9 boxes in your picture? Try to place the elements on the intersecting lines and see how it affect the balance of your pictures.

The Golden Triangle

Are you wondering if the rule of thirds is the same as the golden triangle? Even though they sound similar, they are different concepts.

The rule of thirds relates to the way you distribute the elements in the frame. The golden triangle is another rule of composition. According to it, you should look for triangles in your frame for a harmonious look.

So far, so good. You’re on your path to becoming a photography Jedi master!

Let’s move on to the next level.

Why Is It Effective?

So why does the rule of thirds work?

The rule of thirds creates harmonic proportions, and it’s easy to apply. Elements placled on thirds in the composition tend look balanced with each other. When you look at these kind of photos, you will often feel that they seem to look appealing.

It creates the right tension in the composition. With the rule of thirds, you will often find that there seems to be the right amount of empty space in the photo.

This empty space (the negative space) helps achieve a sense of balance.
In a way, the rule of thirds is a great fix if you feel lost and don’t know how to take good pictures. Sure, it doesn’t always work. But it will nudge you towards more adventurous compositions.

What Alternatives Do I Have?

There are lots of similar proportions you could use. There are all sorts of grid overlays you can use.

The golden ratio is another famous proportion. You may also have heard people mention it as the harmonic proportion or golden section. Some people speak about the rule of thirds and the golden ratio as if they were the same.

Even though this is not the case, you will see that, in practice, it doesn’t make a big difference. 

Using The Golden Ratio

The concept of the golden ratio originated in the research by Pythagoras on the number phi (1,618). This number has had a big influence on artists. Some have even called it the divine number. It is useful when you’re comparing two lines in a composition. 

If you divide the longer line by the shorter line, and if the result is 1,618, you have a golden ratio. If you did the same calculation with the rule of thirds, you would get a ratio of 1,5. 

This is what it means for your landscape photography. Compared to the rule of thirds, the golden section tells you to place your subject a bit closer to the centre.
I often find that I prefer compositions following the golden section. But again, this is quite subjective and will vary from one photographer to the next. 

Don’t let “rules” make you fall into the trap of applying a cookie-cutter approach to your photography. Again, artistic freedom exists. It can be scary because being creative might attract critics. But it’s also an excellent antidote to boring and a great path to uniqueness.

How Do You Take Pictures Using Grid Lines?

So, let’s do a little exercise. The next time you go out and take pictures, try different compositions. 

Many cameras as well as Iphone or Android phones gives you the option to add a grid overlay to your display. Now try to take several different photos of the same subject and move around the main elements in your frame. 

Take some pictures where you put the main centers of interest on one of the thirds grid lines. Take others with the main elements closer to the center. Then compare the photos with each other. Which compositions do you like? Which ones don’t feel right to you? 

Try not to judge your photos in a logical manner. Trust your gut feeling. 

Once you have identified your favourites, ask yourself why you prefer them to the rest. 

Are they the ones where you applied the rule of thirds by using a grid overlay? Does the composition follow the golden section? 

Or do you love a picture which “breaks” these two rules? 

In the end, your approach will also depend on your personal preferences. Some photographers try to make every capture count, so their approach is very slow.
They will spend a long time until they find the perfect composition before taking a photo. 

This approach is often found in film photography. Taking lots of photos would be costly and time-consuming. 

But others prefer to take a chance and take lots of different photos and select the best one later. I used to dislike this approach because it reminds too much of “spray and pray”. I have since realised that it does have its place if you think about your composition. 

How Can You Use The Rule Of Thirds While Editing Your Photos?

You can still apply the rule of thirds even if you didn’t apply it while you were taking your photos. It’s very easy to add a grid overlay when you’re cropping your pictures. 

Cropping your pictures in post-production is acceptable. Some people don’t like it, but I’ve got no problem with it. The only thing you have to be cautious about is the potential loss of image quality.

This depends on your original photo’s resolution. Let’s say for example that you’re working on a photo with a size of 2000 x 3000 pixels. In this case, cropping the photo too much might make it unusable. 

Let’s say that you’re unhappy about the general composition. You might have forgotten to think about the composition. Or you didn’t have the right lens with you. 

Back home, you notice one subject that you wish you had placed on one of the grid lines’ intersection. You can picture how you should have placed that element using the rule of thirds. You think that this would enhance the composition. 

But you didn’t notice this while you were taking pictures. You also didn’t switch to a telephoto lens to zoom into your composition. Now you’re trying to fix this in your editing software by cropping your photo. 

You end up cropping your photo so much that your picture size goes down to 200 x 300 pixels. I know this sounds extreme, but this is exactly what happened to me when I first started editing my photos. 

In fact, I remember that one day, all I had with me was a wide angle lens. I liked the look of a little group of hikers in the distance. It would have looked right on the lower left hand side of the picture.

The only problem was that it was too small, too far away. So I still took the picture and cropped it when I came home. I placed the group of hikers on the intersecting grid lines. And then I wondered why my picture were looking pixelated. 

The photo was too small and, as I magnified it, I could see the individual pixels. If you still cannot see the negative effect the cropping can have on your photo, you’ll get a wake-up call now. 

Because now, if you want to share the photo on social media, you might wonder why it looks so bad. The reason for this is that you haven’t got enough pixels in your photo anymore. 

The smallest number of pixels you will need will vary, but you need to be aware of the risk of too much cropping. A lot of cameras nowadays take pictures with more and more megapixels. But you will still want to be careful not to overdo the cropping. 

This is true especially if you want to print your photos later. Even though print labs can use smaller pictures, you might still see a loss in quality.
So yes, cropping is a way to apply the rule of thirds in post-production, but don’t overdo it.

When Should You Break The Rule Of Thirds?

You won’t always want balanced and harmonious compositions. Don’t use the grid lines as a crutch, but rather as a starting point. Sometimes, you’ll want to convey a different message. 

After all, photography can express emotions and the different aspects of life. And life is not always beautiful, harmonious and happy go lucky. 

Also, it’s dangerous to think of the “rules” of composition as cookie-cutter problem solvers. It’s ok to try them out at the beginning. But I also think it’s important to take chances with your photography. Go beyond the rules!

This is how you’re going to find your own style. I remember in my early days how disappointed I felt with the photos I’d taken. It had started well, I had a strong sense of what kind of picture I was going to take. 

Then I planned how I was going to achieve the end result. But once I was outside taking pictures, nothing seemed to go according to the plan. 

Once for example, I took a picture according to the rule of thirds. It should have looked great, at least according to the rules. But I didn’t like or feel the photo. I found it contrived and artificial. 

It looked like something created by a real beginner, which is exactly what I was at that time. In the end, I went home with a nice enough picture. That’s when I realised how important flexibility is in photography. 

Nowadays, I usually have a plan of what kind of photo I’m looking for. But I’m also aware that, most of the time, I have to adapt to the circumstances. 

So how do you break the rule of thirds in photography? Think of the rule of thirds as a great starting point. Make use of it, but then also try all sorts of different compositions. At some point, you won’t think of the rule of thirds anymore. 

Your picture-taking process will soon become very intuitive. It’ll be a continuous process of trial and error. You’d should see all the bad photos a lot of the famous photographers had to take for each great one. 

So don’t be afraid to take chances, because this will put you on the fast-track to improving your photography.


And that’s it! 

Another important step up on your photographic journey. Soon you’ll be creating great, impactful and memorable photos. Don’t think of the rule of thirds as some kind of magic fix to your creative problems. 

As I mentioned before, it’s a great learning tool. 

We discussed what the rule of thirds is, how you can use it to improve your compositions and when to break it. 

Now it’s time to practice. Grab your camera and apply what you learned. And then come back for more. Show me your photos, and how you applied my tips! 

Together, we will change the way you take photos for the better. If you liked this article, hit the subscribe button underneath the article. 

I will work extra hard to send you the tips you need to create great photographs.
Until then, have a great day! 

Thomas ☺️

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The Rule Of Thirds