Photography Composition :: Rule of Thirds

Continuing on with our composition series, we’ll move to today’s installment – Rule of Thirds.

The rule of thirds is quite simple. I covered this before in Episode 5, but since its been a while and for the sake of continuity, we’re going to cover it again in this series.

For the rule of thirds, you need to mentally learn how to subdivide your composition into 3 sections (2 lines) vertically and then again horizontally. Mentally this forms a grid of 6 spaces. The Rule of Thirds states that the 4 points where these lines intersect are points of interest. You want to place subjects on these points of interests to create a sense of balance in your composition. Use of these points create a sense of tension, interest and energy in the composition as opposed to placing the subject dead center. It could also be argued that our perception as humans has become accustomed to this technique having seen it in painting, design and other forms of composition. I would personally argue that it creates more balance than it does tension, but either way it is a formal way of creating order in your composition. Learn it well and you can make your own decisions of when or when not to use it.

The term rule of thirds dates back to 1797 in a book by John Thomas Smith titled Remarks on Rural Scenery. Smith used it as a painting concept of balancing dark and light values.

This concept goes back beyond the origins of photography and most of the classical photographers used this concept a great deal in their work. Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Arnold Newman used this placement extensively in their work as you can see in the examples here.

38 Comments

  1. Mxwell Evans on September 23, 2019 at 9:24 pm

    This is great, thank you!

    I’ve always used rule of thirds as a "default," but I’ve never really known when it was appropriate to break that rule. Looks like I gotta go adventure now 🙂

  2. Loopy Juice on September 23, 2019 at 9:24 pm

    Very helpful. Thank you

  3. Pizzalegs on September 23, 2019 at 9:27 pm

    Thanks this was great

  4. Spaghetti Monster on September 23, 2019 at 9:30 pm

    Sorry to intrude. I think it would be hard for portrait, but for landscape you can totally place it in the points of interests. you can find this in the works of Kenna.

  5. machia0705 on September 23, 2019 at 9:34 pm

    Left to right, flow.
    Up and down, natural progression .
    Something like that .
    Reverse it too. Create tension if you like.
    This is like music.
    Just one note can put a completely different feel into something .

  6. Joshua Sexton on September 23, 2019 at 9:35 pm

    You have a point, but Ted does make it clear that it’s more of a guideline. "Rule of Thirds" is just what the concept is called, it would be confusing to use a different title and it’s certainly catchier than "Guideline" or "Suggestion" of thirds would be. 😉 I agree that perhaps it receives a bit too much credit, but it’s useful to know and as people learn more about composition, I think the perceived importance of RoT naturally erodes.

  7. Brian Hudson on September 23, 2019 at 9:37 pm

    Really interesting, thanks.

  8. Philip Paynter on September 23, 2019 at 9:37 pm

    Good stuff. Some of those "off-centre rule of thirds" images almost look like they could be on a rough mirror reflection of a phi grid vertical in the thirds vertical.

  9. Susan Gilbert on September 23, 2019 at 9:37 pm

    Thank You! I enjoy these videos a lot! Interesting that i also enjoy your cadence and rhythm when speaking and teaching. I am learning things i need!

  10. Kenny GM on September 23, 2019 at 9:39 pm

    Thanks for your video – very helpful!

  11. Joseph Byrne on September 23, 2019 at 9:42 pm

    Ted,

    I have two additional uses for the Rule of Thirds:

    * I use it–often in post when cropping–to find unused space in the image. For example, a friend once showed me a candid of his son looking off toward camera right. The son was centered in the image, which wasn’t bad except it left a lot of dead space on the left side of the image behind him. Changing the crop so he was on the left vertical third line eliminated this unused space.

    * I use it to evaluate use of foreground, midrange, and background: I like to define the scene in thirds in the z dimension, too. Although images are 2D, fore, mid, and back often correspond to bottom, middle, and top thirds. Per above, I like having elements at each level of depth. If you have elements that ping-pong from left to right as you traverse them from foreground to background, you can create a powerful sense of depth.

    JB

  12. Manuel Cordero on September 23, 2019 at 9:45 pm

    Thanks again Ted! i like how you contrastes the pictures that followed the rule of thirds and the ones that did not. Unlike many other ones that say "never place the horizon in the middle," you let our minds fly and follow rules freely.

  13. Karlis Libietis on September 23, 2019 at 9:45 pm

    Haven’t you already done an episode in this topic?

  14. Palmstar125 on September 23, 2019 at 9:46 pm

    cool

  15. Alex stevensen on September 23, 2019 at 9:49 pm

    My version would be ‘don’t put it in the middle’, if it’s in the middle then it draws all attention as if the rest doesn’t matter and you don’t really have a photo anymore. Putting the main interest (if there is any) out of the middle creates a kind of dynamic. The thirds are just there because they’re not in the middle and not at the edge either, anyway that’s my take on it at the end you have to kind of ‘feel’ a photo. If the main object of attention is not in the middle then that creates a kind of space the whole picture comes into play if it’s in the middle than that was that although sometimes it works there’s always the exception.

  16. Bill Ryan on September 23, 2019 at 9:50 pm

    It’s cool how you framed yourself in the opening sequence with the shades/window panes. Moreover, the content is very informative and much more highbrow (in a good way) than what one typically encounters on YouTube. Great work, my friend…very edifying. Please keep it up! Thank you.

  17. sergiocmarreiro on September 23, 2019 at 9:50 pm

    Hi Ted. Do you believe that this rule does not apply on square framing? In my square composition i found pretty hard to avoid centered subjects instead of using the rule of thirds.

  18. 李厚隽 on September 23, 2019 at 9:51 pm

    I’m Chinese and I really into this channel. All those videos are very helpful for lovers of photography like me. If it’s possible, I’d like to put Chinese subtitles for those videos and share with my friends.

  19. Ruben Arce on September 23, 2019 at 9:51 pm

    And you still don’t get it? Is not a real rule. Is a suggestion. A way to teach people the basics of composition. You don’t have to repeat 2+2=4 right? it’s natural now. But at the beginning it was a good method to learn. RoT is basic stuff.

  20. Acquavallo on September 23, 2019 at 9:53 pm

    Great episode 🙂

  21. Felix Ayala on September 23, 2019 at 9:53 pm

    Great info as always, tks.

  22. windrides on September 23, 2019 at 9:54 pm

    Excellent episode and photos!

  23. Jorge Ribeiro on September 23, 2019 at 9:58 pm

    i am adicted in this rule

  24. Baos on September 23, 2019 at 9:59 pm

    isn’t composing with diagonals just better?

  25. Manuel Cordero on September 23, 2019 at 9:59 pm

    indeed he has but not with such strenght and not in this series. the Composition Series. 😛

  26. Rafael Morales on September 23, 2019 at 10:03 pm

    This last Sunday I saw an exhibition of HCB’s works at a museum here in Tampa. I wished you were here. It was an impressive collection of 300 images and some of his films. It was amazing and humbling. The man was a master.

  27. geonerd on September 23, 2019 at 10:06 pm

    Kinda wish you wouldn’t have used the word ‘Rule’ in the title. I appreciate that you’re not advocating a literal "Place the bird on the Tic-Tac-Toe board." interpretation, but IMO just using the word, ‘rule’ gives ROT way too much cred. I honestly believe that having ROT in your mind while composing will only distract you from ‘seeing’ the scene through your own eyes, and translating the subject into something that represents *your* sense of visual aesthetic. (IMO, the whole point of p-graphy.)

  28. sergiocmarreiro on September 23, 2019 at 10:07 pm

    I agree. I totally forgot about landscape when I phrase the question. And, yes I think it can be tricky for portraits.

  29. Ric Flo on September 23, 2019 at 10:07 pm

    incredible channel thank you!

  30. trylleklovn on September 23, 2019 at 10:07 pm

    I think rule of thirds should come naturally when composing, not limiting. I think that being aware of rule of thirds especially helps beginners which might not know why a certain shot speaks to them more than another or need a direction to go if they are uncertain about how a shot could be composed.

  31. geoffrey gross on September 23, 2019 at 10:10 pm

    incredibly inarticulate talk, talk, talk,- just keep talking till you think of something to say

  32. Andrew Richter on September 23, 2019 at 10:10 pm

    WHERE DID THE LINES COME FROM???!!!!!!

  33. strangersound on September 23, 2019 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks for these videos and especially the Pinterest boards for further study. As a beginner, but somebody who loves photography, this is great stuff. I did a search and didn’t find anything, but perhaps you could do an episode on Jack Delano. Being a rail fan and a fan of glass negatives, his work is probably among my most favorite. His work for the FSA is worth a look by anyone who enjoys timeless images. Thanks, again. 🙂

  34. JARED on September 23, 2019 at 10:14 pm

    do these rules apply in a porno?

  35. Messner on September 23, 2019 at 10:16 pm

    Another good video once again.
    I’d dare to say that, with this series, your channel is certainly among the very best photography channels in youtube.

  36. Frentis on September 23, 2019 at 10:18 pm

    As always high quality, keep it up Mr. Ted Forbes!

  37. geonerd on September 23, 2019 at 10:19 pm

    I’m a bit surprised that my first comment has been down-voted into oblivion. Fine, you people go ahead; turn on the LCD grid and carry on with placing your subjects where the mighty ‘rule’ tells you to. But do you really think that substituting one mindless action (bulls-eyeing the subject) with another (ROT) is getting you anywhere? If you don’t learn to trust your innate sense of aesthetic, you are not really doing photography. You may as well devolve back to ‘gear-dweeb’ or ‘pixel peeper.’

  38. MariaApp on September 23, 2019 at 10:23 pm

    what an exellent channel!!! Love from Greece!

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