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How to use the Rule of Thirds

Updated: Jun 14, 2020

So far in this "how to" series, I have focused on common questions people ask in relation to photography, however in this blog I would like to focus on arguably the most important aspect of photography: composition. More specifically, a simple principle that can easily be utilised to improve your photography known as the rule of thirds.


If you're already sitting there thinking that I'm getting too technical, then don't worry, I'm not assuming you have any prior knowledge or that you have a fancy DSLR or mirrorless camera. The rule of thirds is a technique that can be used by anyone but first let's cover composition. Composition is simply how things are arranged in a photograph and you will have chosen how to arrange the composition of every photograph you have ever taken. No matter what type of camera you have or how much editing you can do in Photoshop, every picture starts out the same way; it's a rectangle. The composition refers to how things are placed in that rectangle and what you can see in that frame. For example, if you look at the picture below of a blossom tree, then there is a really simple composition that can be identified.

So the first and most basic aspect of the composition of this photograph is that it is a portrait one, which means I held the camera on it's side rather than horizontally. After that, there are a few main subjects which make up the rest of the composition. The path and railings on the right side of the image, the grass and tree trunk on the left and the blossom flowers at the top. This is the basic composition of this photograph. If I wanted to change the composition of it, then I could have moved the camera so that the tree was in the centre or tilted upward so that the you couldn't see the path or the grass and it was just the tree trunk and the blossom.


If you're now thinking "well that wasn't so technical", then that is because breaking down the composition if a photograph isn't particularly challenging. The challenging part is that when you take a photograph you need to decide the composition of it. Where do you put the subject, in the middle or off centre? Do you want to capture what's in the background or leave it out? Do you want to have the background appear blurry or do you want everything in focus? These are all questions you might think about when taking a photograph. This is why the composition is such an important part because before you even point the camera you need to think of the composition. It is the foundation of any photograph ever taken and can be the difference between a great one or a bad one. A great way to improve your photographs is to think about the composition rather than just seeing something interesting and taking a quick snap from where you're standing. For example, have you ever seen a great subject, such as a sunset, photographed it and then wondered why the result wasn't as good as you hoped? Well that's probably because you didn't consider the composition and just snapped it. Simply by moving your position, or tilting the camera, can completely change the composition and thus the quality of a photograph.


To help you with the composition, is a simple technique know as the rule of thirds, which provides some guidelines on where to position your subject in a photograph for better results. The idea is to split every photograph into three sections, either from top to bottom or left to right. The image below illustrates this and many viewfinders on cameras have a grid-line function such as this.

The rule of thirds states that you should position your points of interest along these lines, or at interesting points, for a better composition. For example, in the photograph below, I positioned the purple flower on the bottom right intersecting lines.

If you are shooting a landscape photograph, then it also states that you should put the horizon along one of the horizontal lines in order to get the best composition. Whether you put it at the lower one or the higher one is up to you depending on whether you want to show more of the sky or more of the foreground of the shot. For example, in the photograph below of Ben Lomond, I put the horizon of the water roughly at the top third of the photograph so that I could show more of the water.


The main purpose of the rule of thirds is to stop you from placing the subject in the centre of the frame all the time. The rule states that if the subject is in the centre of the photograph, then the composition will not be as interesting, which I have found to be true more often than not. Another principle is placing the subject on the left of the image is better than on the right because of how our eyes naturally read from left to right. If you look at the example below of a statue of Robert the Bruce, then I have cropped the image to show 3 different compositions.

The centre image is the original one and the statue is right in the middle of the shot. In other examples, I have cropped them to put the statue on the left and also on the right. The image on the left is the one, which is following the rule of thirds and, I think, the best composition of this photograph. As I said earlier, most cameras have the ability to add a grid into the viewfinder for you, so you can position your subject using the rule of thirds, without having to crop it afterwards.


As with any rule, there are of course exceptions and the rule of thirds is not there to be taken strictly in every situation. There are plenty of great photographs out there where someone has positioned the subject dead centre producing stunning results. Therefore, don't be taking every single photograph from now on obeying the rule of thirds. I have found it to be a great technique and has worked for me on many occasions, however photography is not an exact science and this is not a calculation for great photographs. The best thing about the rule of thirds is that it gets you thinking about composition and you can experiment to see what works best. Digital cameras allow us to snap away for a long time before having to worry about storage and battery. Therefore, if you find yourself in a situation where you don't know if you should put the tree on the left or right, or the trunk at the top or bottom of the image, then try each combination. If you keep doing that, then you will see patterns of what works best for each situation. In the end, you will be able to identify which composition is the best for that subject without having to take multiple ones to experiment.

I hope this was useful to you and, at the very least, you start thinking more about your composition next time you take a photograph. Let me know, in the comments below, how you get on and if there are any other topics you would like me to cover.

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