Why Does the Rule of Thirds Work? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Why Does the Rule of Thirds Work?

by David Peterson 13 comments

Rules. They started in school and seem to follow us through life. They're made to give guidance. They're made to keep peace in the valley. And, some would say they're made to be broken.

If there's one place rules are meant to be broken, it's in anything creative. The catch is, if you're going to break them, you have to know them in the first place. Photography's Rule of Thirds is the perfect example of this. A lot of beginning photographers break this rule because they simply and innocently don't know it exists. But, a seasoned photographer, one who knows better, not only abides by the rule, but knows best how to bend or break it.

The question is, why does the Rule of Thirds work in the first place? People tend to like things in threes… whether it's ABC, 123, the Three Blind Mice, the Three Stooges, and so on. But, the Rule of Thirds is more of a visual concept.

A Quick History Lesson

Since we're on the topic of school and rules, I thought I'd share the history of the Rule of Thirds. It wasn't developed by photographers. In fact, it was the creation of painters in the Renaissance period. Their aim of this style of composition was to provide a bit of background in their paintings to allow it to tell a story. It was the Renaissance painters who found that the eye doesn't rest on the center of a painting. Instead, the eye wants to roam with the subject.

How it Works

With this bit of history in mind, here's some more in depth reasons as to why the rule works and how it applies to modern day photography.

You may have noticed your camera has an option to show its grid. When shown on your display, it breaks the horizontal screen down into 9 even squares. This makes three horizontal and three vertical spaces. The idea is to place your subject in either the top, bottom, left or the right third of the screen. The middle is the known "no no" placement. The idea is that you want to split the image into a 1:2 ratio (one third and two thirds), instead of in half.

Why it Works

Both photographers and artists use the Rule of Thirds when creating works of art because it's timeless theory has been proven. One way to explain why it works is to think of it like this: if your subject is in the middle of the image, it's considered static. Your eye is drawn to it then has nowhere to go from there because the object is equal distance from all sides. Therefore when your subject is positioned closer to one of the edges, it forces your eye to follow it…to find it. This allows the viewer to linger on your image longer. It makes for a more captivating photo because it's almost interactive. Like a conversation going on between the photo and you.

Take this photo of the kayaker as an example. He's on the right third of the image and as a viewer; you naturally follow his lean into the water, almost as though you're in the kayak yourself. Had he been placed in the middle of the image, your eye would have nowhere to go. It would "bump" into the left edge and leave you feeling odd in looking at it. With him on the right, there's room for eye movement.


Counterpoint gets a little tricky, but bear with me. You'll get it. What it means, is that by placing the image's primary focal point at the thirds position, you can place a secondary focal point at the diagonally opposite thirds position. Say what? In looking at the grid up above, imagine it over an image and you'll see the intersection points of the lines. These are the focal points. Again, in the image of the kayaker, his eye and his paddle follow the counterpoint in an upper right and lower left slide. See, not so tricky.

When to Break the Rule

If balance is what you are trying to express, then central placement of your subject may be just the way to go! It takes learning a rule before you can effectively break it, especially you’re your viewers know you broke it, but understand and appreciate why. Rules that are broken for a good reason often make the best works of art. It shows that the creator took time to understand their craft in such a way that they can bend the rule. That's a true artist. If you can create a better image by bending the rules then by all means, capture it.

One example of when to break the rule might include a portrait where the person is close up and in the middle of the shot. In this example of the happy couple, depth of field compensates for the middle placement of the subjects. Why? Because the eye is drawn to the shallow depth of field, which creates interest. Had the background been sharp, the couple would have gotten lost in the foliage behind them. (Another good argument for shallow depth of field in portraits.) So, even though they are in the middle of the shot, the depth of field keeps the viewer interested.

Another reason this image works is that the couple tell a story. In other words, the image isn't boring. We see a man and a woman playfully enjoying the fall weather and outdoors. There's plenty of emotion and creativity going on in the scene.

One last point: the man and woman are not looking at the camera. They are looking off to the side, which makes you wonder what they're seeing. In some ways, you might follow their eyes to see if you can see what's off camera.

This image is a great example of bending the rules. It has great depth of field. It tells a story. And the couple, in an enticing way, isn't looking directly at the camera. All of these result in keeping the viewer engaged with the image. Perfect example of successfully breaking the rules.

If you're a rule breaker by nature, have at it! If you're looking to expand your creativity, experiment with the Rules of Thirds and see what you come up with. Let me know how it goes!

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  1. Shutterbug says:

    Hi, David.

    Thank you for this discussion about "ROT" : ). II have been using the Rule of Thirds for years but am interested in learning more about the Golden Triangle and Golden Spiral or Golden Ratio. Do you have a publication that discusses the complete array of options one can use in composition?


    • Jim says:

      Actually what you should study is Dynamic Symmetry. It is the golden section system of design. It's the same system that Henri Cartier-Bresson was taught by Andre Lhote and he used throughout his career and applied to all of his photographs. Thats why his photographs look more like paintings than photographs. It's because he was using the same system of design that master painters used. While most people in photography forums talk about the golden section rectangle, there are actually many golden section rectangles in formal design. You can find a free book online called "The Art of Composition: A Simple Application of Dynamic Symmetry" by Michel Jacobs.

    • David Peterson says:


      I explain a little about the other composition rules here: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/tip/3372/18-composition-rules-for-photos-that-shine/

      And go into a lot more details on the Golden Spiral and Golden Ratio in my course here: http://www.digital-photo-secrets.com/video/

      I hope that helps.


  2. Tsebo says:

    Thanks Dave, very insightful. I appreciate the history lesson especially it's good to know the origin of one of the key things in this discipline.

  3. Akeredolu Olusola says:

    Its good to work your sight viewing through your viewfinder and getting wonderful results

  4. Phil Walker says:

    Thanks for interesting articles. Don't know why so many photographers fail to use the 'Rule of Thirds'...makes such a difference. Keep up the good work.

    • Nicholas says:

      As stated above there are reasons to forgo, and those reasons may be unknown to the viewer. In some places it is acceptable.

  5. giles love says:

    This explains the rule of the third real simple and easy to remember, for me anyhow//////I am a beginner and to old to do anything else but hunt & play with my s3300 nikon coolpix

  6. Gerald Young says:

    Hi David,
    Thanks for your invaluable tips.
    I have found it necessary to move in two different spheres when it comes to photography especially when it comes to the rule of two thirds. As a photo journalist for a community newspaper, the concept of two thirds is totally lost on the editors. This frustrates me terribly. Because space in the newspaper is limited, almost all our photos get cropped into oblivion. "Telling the story" is relegated if you will, to writing the story. So we go to a scene, centre the subject and click away because two thirds will be cropped out anyway.
    However... for my private photography I apply the two thirds rule and my photos tell just as much of a story, in many cases even more!
    PS. I was sent on a photography course by my newspaper recently and I learned zilch, nothing, zippo! Everything the guy said or tried to explain, I had already read about in your tips! Take a bow Sir!

  7. anne mcdonnell says:

    hi peter,
    i have signed up to you tips and now reciving your emails daily and you book is top of my christmas list. i taking up photograghpy serious since i bought a slrl 3yrs ago so i am very much a novice so much to learn. so thanks to you hopfully will learn thank you so much, hope you dont mind me asking how long have you been@photography? i am storing your emails in a folder like you avised as it takes me nearly a week taking one in with all the links.
    Reargs Anne mcDonnell

  8. Keith says:

    Have a look on Youtube, at "Better Photographic Composition - Beyond the Rule of Thirds"

    It is 2 hours long and is an excellent discourse on photographic composition

  9. Shobhit Deep says:

    This is a very nice article David...

    One more thing I wanted to check with you... I generally try to fill the canvas by tilting the shot to 45 deg or 135 degrees... How best to do that? I can post some of the pictures which you can review... An article on that would be really helpful...


  10. Debi SP says:

    This is excellent information. Thank you for all you do. I'm looking forward to more experimenting. Outstanding!

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.