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If you’ve ever read about photography techniques, you’ll no doubt have come across a reference to the ‘rule of thirds’. But what is this ‘rule’, why is it important, how can you integrate it in to your photographs and should you actually adhere to it?

Photography Rule of Thirds

Here the girl’s eye (the main focal point in the image) falls directly on the intersection of two lines. This is the ideal composition when adhering to the ‘rule of thirds’.

The ‘rule of thirds’ relates to composition i.e. where objects are placed within your photo or other visual image. Followers of this rule argue that an image should be divided into nine equal-sized sections by means of two horizontal and two vertical lines. These four lines will naturally divide the image in to horizontal and vertical thirds. It is claimed that the key zones within your image should be aligned with one or more of these four lines and that the key focal point in your shot should be positioned where two of these lines intersect. Adhering to these guidelines theoretically adds more drama, impact and visual appeal to your images compared to if these objects were placed centrally, for example.

Photography Rule of Thirds

The main object in the image (the guitarist) is positioned on the right-hand ‘third’. Furthermore, his eye falls directly on the intersection of two lines. Again, this is the ideal composition when adhering to the ‘rule of thirds’.

Adopting the ‘rule of thirds’ with moving objects, such the racing bike in the following image, proves successful as it places space in front of the direction of travel. Placing the bike in the centre of the image (or incorrectly over on the right-hand third) would simply spoil the theatre of the shot.

Photography Rule of Thirds

With moving objects, ensure there is space in front of the object in the direction of travel. Note that it’s not always vital to have the intersecting lines align with a specific point on the image.

The rule is based upon a theory by Sir Joshua Reynolds in 1797 which discusses the balance between light and dark in a painting. Later adapted by John Thomas Smith in 1783 and named ‘the rule of thirds’, Smith refers to proportioning an image in to one third and two thirds sections, thus creating “more harmonizing proportions”.

There are exceptions to this rule, however. There will likely be times when your image simply cannot implement this rule, at least without adversely altering its composition. Furthermore, many artists believe that adopting this rule as a general law will lead to monotonous results.

Photography Rule of Thirds

Here, the boat’s number (FE269) happens to fall directly on the intersection of two lines. This was unintentional. My goal with this image was simply to ensure the boat was positioned off-centre.

The ‘rule of thirds’ dictates that the horizon should lie directly on one of the horizontal guidelines. Similarly, it’s suggested that objects should always face inwards, towards the empty space created by the ‘rule of thirds’ composition. Neither of these are true for this image. But, does that make this a bad photo? Is it always important to follow these rules to the letter? Not in my opinion it isn’t. Deviating from these rules adds individuality and creativity. Who wants every photo to look the same anyway?

For this reason it’s best not to think of it as a rule, but more of a guide. I’ve never felt pressured in aligning eyes and focal points directly on to the intersecting points of these imaginary lines. When people talk photography to me and refer to the ‘rule of thirds’, I always shrug it off. Not because I don’t follow it, but because I’ve always used my own eye to judge composition. As luck would have it, upon laying the ‘rule of thirds’ grid over my images above for the purpose of this article, it appears my photos adopt this composition fairly accurately. Albeit by pure chance.

And that right there is my point. Don’t always follow these ‘rules’ when developing your skills as a photographer. Doing so will suppress the artist in you. Instead, learn what works and what doesn’t by using your eyes and your own judgement. If your images end up adhering to some 200 year old rule, good for you! If they don’t…. well, you know the rest.

Author – Oliver Pohlmann

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