The rule of Thirds


What is this rule of thirds thing anyway? Basically, it’s a rule of the thumb designed to help you compose powerful images. As with most rules in photography, it is important to learn it, understand it, and make it your friend, before you start breaking it. The biggest argument is that once you know what conventionally creates a strong photograph, you can make informed decisions as to how you can adapt and bend the rules to create even stronger compositions.

The great thing about the rule of thirds is that you can use it as little or as much as you want: It’s always there, and you use it when you need it.

Well, a long time ago, a Kodak photographer described it as “playing Tic-Tac-Toe” I think that is fairly accurate:


Divide up the view mentally into nine equal segments – two horizontal lines dividing the plane at 1/3rd intervals and two vertical lines dividing the plane at 1/3rd intervals.

At the intersection of these lines you will have four “dots”. These foci are where you would place a point of interest for a subject.

As you compose, you would put major planes on the lines – horizons on the horizontal lines, buildings and trees on the vertical lines. Here’s an example from Yellowstone Lake:

Yellowstone Lake

Notice that the horizon and the trees are close to the lines. Sometimes in your viewfinder you can show guides, I tend to turn them on.

About those guides – when you have something with an edge or a line – like a horizon, you would place the horizon on one of the two horizonal 1/3rd lines. The bottom if you want to concentrate on the sky, and the top one if you want to show more of the ground.

This is not a hard and fast rule, notice that in this next example the foreground, midground, and distance are separated in general by thirds.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison

The intersection of the lines creates a focal point. Some photographs will draw attention to the subject by placing the object on the intersection of these lines.

This windmill in Nebraska is a good example of simple composition on the rule of thirds.

Nebraska Windmill

This next photograph of a tree puts a barbed wire fence and a tree covered by ice on the focal point.

Kansas Ice Storm

It’s all open to discussion — don’t stick to the rules religiously!

The rule of thirds is open to modification. Here is another diagram. The fourths are in blue, and the centers in yellow. I’ve found that you can play with the fourths and thirds, even connecting the edges with hard lines running at diagonals.


Check out this photograph. The peak of the barn is on the center, but the diagonals of the roof run to the upper left one quarter, and the other side down to the lower right corner. Meanwhile, a large negative space is on the thirds. The windows are positioned on focal points.

Miller’s Backpost Ranch

Crop to essentials. Take this flower as an example. The blossoms are on quarters and thirds.

Prairie Spiderwort

There is a second “rule” at work here – if something is symmetric, only show enough information that is unique.

On a flower – only show 1/4 – since the rest will repeat the viewer’s mind will create the rest beyond the edge of the photograph. Pardon this example, this one is lousy, but you may get the point.

Gerbera Daisy

You will see photos on useflim where only half the face is shown. We only need to see half of the face because we humans are symmetric.

Hey – you don’t have to use these rules all the time, nor be exact, but it is good to know why some of the photos you like “work”…

There are some times when you want to center a photograph and keep it centered. Sometimes not.

If you have a reflection, or a symmetric composition, by all means PLEASE put the composition on the center.

In this photograph, the buildings and tower are symmetric. Power of thirds on the horizon, but everything is mirrored down the center.

Liberty Memorial, Kansas City

Another example, a literal reflection.

Big Bend, Texas

Sometimes you can pose objects. Easier to control. I’ll end with this example, because it may lead you to start thinking about depth of field…


Last of all:

you don’t have to be exact on the rule of thirds. It’s a guideline, more than a set of rules, and the most important thing is to try and balance the various elements of the photograph properly. You can put stuff on the 1/4 or the 1/5th or whatever as long as the “weight” of everything balances.

Lower Falls of the Yellowstone

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Michael Kanemoto is a Kansas artist specializing in landscape and outdoor photography. Michael has been taking photographs since 1986, and has a BFA from the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. He is currently working in Research and Innovation at Sprint Nextel.

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