Breaking the Rules: Ignoring the Rule of Thirds :: Digital Photo Secrets

Breaking the Rules: Ignoring the Rule of Thirds

by David Peterson 6 comments

I'm not going to say, "Rules were meant to be broken", because everyone already knows that. Besides, it's such a cliché. So I'll just say that in photography, the word "rule" doesn't mean the same thing as at means, say, in politics. Not that it means anything there, either.

In photography, rules are like pirate code: they're really more like guidelines. You can break them, but you need to have a good reason. So to help you along in that goal, I'd like to welcome you to my series on breaking photography rules, starting with the grand master of all photography rules, the rule of thirds.

Yes, the rule of thirds. That rule which should not be broken. Or should it?

What we are aiming for is Compositional gold. Like treasure hidden away in a cove somewhere in the Caribbean. Or maybe even in your backyard. Now you might be thinking, OK, compositional gold. But how will I know that I've found it? The answer, as with so much photography, is practice. You need to see examples of successful rule-breaking in order to be able to successfully break the rules yourself.

Let's start by looking at an example:

  • Canon PowerShot S5 IS
  • 100
  • f/4.5
  • 0.005 sec (1/200)
  • 72 mm

Green anole on the hunt ... by Flickr user Vicki's Nature

This is, in fact, a shining example of the rule of thirds. If you divide this scene up into nine equal sized parts, you can see that photographer has placed most of the subject in the left third of the frame. The subject's head and eye are outside of the left third, appearing in the top third instead. In the right third of the frame is an out of focus flower. What's in the center of the frame? Nothing - at least, nothing important to the composition.

So why does this work better than, say, if the photographer had placed the subject in the dead center of the frame?
People like to look at movement. That's why we love to watch dancers and ocean waves and flocks of birds in the sky. A photograph does not move. So often (but not always), in order to enjoy a photograph we need to feel like there is some movement in it, or some potential movement, or at the very least something going on outside of the frame.
When the subject is in the dead center of a photograph, there is no movement. Your viewer's eye goes straight to the subject and then stays there, because there is nowhere else to go.

By contrast, a subject who is in the left or right third or two thirds of the frame seems to be in motion. Your eye wants to follow him/her or it into the opposite third of the frame. Your viewer feels like something is happening, like there is motion in the scene even though, technically, it's a still photograph. That's why the rule of thirds is such a powerful compositional tool.

It isn't just photographers who use this tool. It's been well established for centuries, and can be seen in works of art from the Renaissance, like this one:

Do you see how most of the important elements in this painting are fall into those important thirds and 1/3rd intersections? This gives the viewer's eye the opportunity to move around the painting from one element to another, rather than just landing on a center point and staying there.

So don't take my word for it. The masters knew it, too.

Ah, but this is not an article about using the rule of thirds. This is an article about breaking the rule of thirds. So think of what I just told you as a cautionary warning. Break the rule of thirds, but be aware that you are breaking a rule that is extremely well established and has been around for centuries. So don't break it lightly.

When to Break the Rule of Thirds

As much as humans like to look at movement, we also like to look at symmetry. It is well-established that human beings are more attracted to other human beings who have symmetrical faces and bodies. We find beauty in natural symmetry, too - a butterfly, for example, has perfect symmetry when it opens its wings. Snowflakes, flowers and seashells all have symmetry. The more symmetrical they are, the more beautiful we perceive them to be. Symmetry is balance, and it gives us a feeling of peace and tranquility.

  • Canon PowerShot G10
  • 200
  • f/3.2
  • 0.008 sec (1/125)
  • 10.8 mm

Mundane Love by Flickr user ecstaticist

And you can't suggest balance and symmetry when you're following the rule of thirds. So if you're photographing something with an eye for symmetry, that's an excellent time to break the rule of thirds.

Here's a good example:

    Catedral de Santiago - Bilbao by Flickr user pulguita

    That's a building we all know by sight, even if we don't know it's name. That's the Taj Mahal, and just about everyone who has visited the Taj Mahal has that exact same photograph. Why? Because the Taj Mahal's was designed to be perfectly symmetrical, right down to its symmetrical reflection in that pool of water. Part of the reason why this building is beautiful is because there is perfect balance between its right side and its left side.

    Now imagine a photograph of the Taj Mahal taken using rule of thirds guidelines. Can you picture it? If you can, the mere thought probably makes you uncomfortable. It seems wrong to place the Taj Mahal off center. That's because when you do, it's no longer symmetrical. The most successful photograph of an object with such perfect symmetry is (almost) always going to be the one where the object is placed in the center of the frame.

    • Pentax K-x
    • 200
    • 0.003 sec (1/400)
    • 50 mm

    Center of Attention by Flickr user ecstaticist

    Is that the only reason to break this time-tested king of all photography rules? Nope.

    Scenes that feature a shallow depth of field may also not require rule of thirds placement. That's because a shallow depth of field creates dimension in a photograph, and our eyes are drawn into images that have dimension. You will look into a shallow background even when you can't identify what's there, because your eye automatically wants to move through a scene that seems to have depth and dimension.

    • Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT
    • 400
    • f/5.6
    • 0.01 sec (1/100)
    • 28 mm

    Army Photography Contest - 2007 - FMWRC - Arts and Crafts - Son in the Tub by Flickr user familymwr

    But that's not where your rule breaking must end. There are other exceptions, and I can't spell all of them out for you because, Grasshopper, you will have to find them for yourself. Does your image tell a story? Is there something happening outside the frame that might intrigue your viewer? In many cases you may not even know whether you can successfully break the rule of thirds until you try.

    The good news is, the Photography Rules Police will not descend upon you and haul you off to Photography Rule Breaker Jail as soon as you cross that line. If your attempt to break the rule of thirds fails, the worst thing that will happen is you'll have a bad photo that you'll have to delete, and a wasted frame on that memory card. Ouch.

    Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


    1. says:

      Although in reality you may be breaking the rules out ignorance - because you don t know what they are, but they are beaing broken anyway.

    2. Stefan says:

      Very interesting and useful!

      I like the part when you wrote about how pictures do not move even tho the human eye likes to look around.

    3. Robert Benoit says:

      Breaking the rule of thirds seems to denote tranquility and peace; using it, direction to where the action is. Thanks David.

    4. georges says:

      The other day I unconsciously took a photo of my son head and shoulder, looking slightly up,. I was on a table. To me, it looks fantastic, the look, the symmetry of the shoulders, all looks very nice. I then I realised that I have broken the rule of third for the exact reason you mentioned here but unconsciously. thanks

    5. nici says:

      I have great graditude for your website and everything I have learnt there. Thank You

    6. Leslie Harris says:

      I just took an two images and one I deliberately "broke the rule" of thirds. The second one, I am not sure which way it looks better. Usually I can tell but I am undecided about this.

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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+.