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The Rule Of Thirds: When To Use It, When To Lose It

The rule of thirds has been around for so long that it’s tough to say who came up with it. Long before the camera was ever invented, artists used it as well as the golden ratio to make their masterpieces as far back as the Renaissance.

Photo by Jeremy X

Photo by Jeremy X

The first time it was written, though, was by an artist and engraver by the name of John Harvey Smith. In his book, Remarks on Rural Scenery, he first wrote the term, Rule of Thirds. He references how a painter might paint a landscape:

“Analogous to this “Rule of thirds”, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two : Again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives.”

His long-winded, highly awkward and ancient-prose version is basically saying… split your composition up into three equal parts, vertically and horizontally. Then put the interesting stuff on the lines or at the intersections of the lines.

Or another way to say it is, when you’re taking a photograph of a friend, put them off to one side and not dead center.

It works because…well, it’s hard to explain.

Because we are talking about a “feeling” and how your eye processes a photograph. Here’s how it works: In general, allowing for individual differences, a person’s eye will be drawn to the most eye catching part of the photograph. When the image is in the center, then the eye is often done. The eye heads to the center first, and if it sees it, then it’s finished. It’s ready to move on (aka bored).

But if it’s off to one side, then the eye will move to it, and it can also move around the frame, although it’s more about a feeling. When you see a good photograph, you feel something.

Maybe you’re the rebellious type, though…”I don’t follow no rules, mannnn. I’m an artist.” Okay, maybe that’s just what my muse says to me. And I hear that and have at times done the same thing.

But this rule works. In fact, if this is new to you, then you can dramatically improve your photographs by using it. Simple photographs like a photograph of a dandelion on a bench or your girlfriend can be improved. In fact, many DSLRs help you out by letting you turn on “Grid View,” so you can see where the lines are as you shoot.

If you don’t believe, do your own experiments. You could try photographing the same subjects, then putting them on Facebook, Instagram or your social network of choice and seeing what people respond more to.

“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” – Pablo Picasso

But there are also times to break the rules, of course, or there wouldn’t be that cliche…

Every rule was meant to be broken.

Here’s when to break the rule of thirds:

1. Emphasize the Symmetry:

Sometimes in a landscape, the symmetry is so beautiful that to show it creates a striking sense in the person. Like the above. Although a perceptive person will also look at the horizontal lines and recognize that, although the vertical channel is right in the center, the photograph also has lines along the rule of thirds horizontally (do you see them?).

You can find this symmetry in other instances.

2. Macro Photography

Snowflakes are beautiful because they are symmetrical, just like the dimensions of a woman’s face. You can also find this symmetry in butteries, flowers and nature in general. When you are taking close-up photography, then you may want to just put it up close and personal. Is there enough detail that it works without using this?

3. Emphasize One Subject

This photograph breaks the rule of thirds in a way that makes the sky seem more. They are deliberately showing more of the sky and creating an emphasis.

4. Your Eye Tells You, Too

Ultimately, your success or failure as a photographer comes from being able to see beautiful things with your “eye.” Which is really your eye connected to your brain and who you are.

“The important thing is not the camera, but the eye.” – Alfred Eisenstaedt

It’s important to learn these rules, use these rules and break these rules, all in an attempt to really SEE.

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” – Ansel Adams

What do you see?

What do you want to share?

When you can see the beauty in the world, use the tools you have. Then, you can make photographs that will delight others.

Do you break the rule of thirds? When and how did it work for you? Please share in the comments below and/or ask a question, and we’ll try to answer it personally. Thanks.

Benjamin Jenks

Benjamin Jenks offers creative strategies to help you live, work, and travel, like an adventurer at AdventureSauce.com.