Label for rule of thirds challenge
Friendly Friday,  Photographic techniques

Friendly Friday Challenge: the rule of thirds

Rules are made to be broken, they say. Not necessarily true; if the past two years has taught us anything, it’s the importance of following the rules in particular during a time of emergency.

In photography it’s arguably another matter. By breaking the rules we can sometimes create the most impact. But I’m a firm believer that in order to effectively break a photography rule you must first understand it.

So this year for my Friendly Friday ‘theme’ I plan to present a series of photography challenges looking at the various so-called rules of photography. And I’m starting with probably the best known.

The Rule of Thirds

Wikipedia defines this as proposing that:

an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.

Wikipedia

This isn’t a new idea or one limited to photography alone. Back in 1797 an artist called John Thomas Smith was the first to write about a ‘rule of thirds’ attributing its origin to Sir Joshua Reynolds:

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. … I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far-extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever.

John Thomas Smith

The rule of thirds in action

Most modern digital cameras have a setting which imposes this grid on the viewfinder or screen, making this ‘rule’ easy to follow.

Look at this example and the positioning of the elephant’s eye on the intersection of two of the lines:

Close up of elephant's face with grid over it
Example of rule of thirds: elephant’s eye

And this one; the horizon runs roughly along the lower horizontal while the church tower follows the left-hand vertical:

Black wooden church with grid over it
Example of rule of thirds: Budir church, Iceland

In this shot the tree is aligned with the left-hand vertical and the horizontal lines split the landscape roughly in line with the foreground, middle distance and far mountains/sky.

Mountain with tree and grid over it
Example of rule of thirds: inland Santiago, Cape Verde

Of course it isn’t an exact science. We’re talking about a rough placing of key subjects; you don’t have to get a tape measure out! Here are some more examples from my own archives, some more ‘precise’ than others. And as you’ll see, the rule can be applied to portrait format shots too.

Lady in straw hat sitting among ruins

At Wat Phou temple ruins, southern Laos


Rough stone wall with white flower

Also taken at Wat Phou


White bird wading by a rocky lakeshore

On the edge of the lake below Amber Fort, Jaipur, India


Musician by a stone wall

By Gadisar Lake in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan


Lady in blue dress and scarf walking by water

A riverside town in Senegal


Lady in straw hat in a field

Tending young rice plants in Vietnam


Stone steps with bright pink flowers in a pot

Steps in Lucca, Italy


Red and white pagoda surrounded by trees

Pagoda in Kyoto, Japan

Breaking the rules

Sometimes however you can create a greater impact by breaking the rule. Placing the main subject dead centre in your image for a symmetrical effect can create a sense of peace, useful for some buildings and statues, for instance.

Buddhas in Luang Prabang temples, Laos

Allowing the horizon to split it into two equal halves can do the same, while placing it close to the top or bottom edge of the photo can add drama. Here are some more examples from my own archives.

Coastline and blue sky

Te Pito Kura, a sacred site on Rapa Nui


Rolling sand dunes with sun low in the sky

Wahiba Sands, Oman, at sunset; with the horizon right at the top the dunes almost fill the frame and take centre stage in a twist on the classic sunset view


Large sun above a landscape with palms and a horse and cart

Sunrise at Souimanga Lodge, Senegal; the low horizon puts the emphasis on the sky and the rising sun


Single moai statue under blue sky

Ahu Tahai, Rapa Nui; placing the moai low down in the image makes it look more vulnerable – no longer the all-seeing ancestor but one looking rather anxiously at the sky as if unsure of his role in a modern society.

I composed this shot like this to provide contrast with the majority of my moai images where they dominated the scene , as they were intended by their ancient carvers to do.

Over to you

So what do you think? Does this rule matter? Does it help us to take better photos? Or is it an unnecessary constraint, best ignored?

For this first Friendly Friday photo challenge please show me some examples of when you’ve followed this rule, or when you’ve broken it. Or share some of each, as I have done. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts and seeing your photos.

I’ll be sharing more thoughts on photography’s ‘rules’ of composition in future Friendly Friday challenges. Meanwhile next time your host will be Amanda of Something to Ponder About, so look out for her challenge in two weeks’ time!

68 Comments

  • JohnRH

    Great great photos. I’m with John Thomas Smith. I usually do sky either 1/3 or 2/3, but rarely 50-50. It depends on which is more interesting.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much for joining in! I found your deliberations on this very interesting. I’ve answered more fully on your post but yes, basically your version of the church image would certainly work too, it’s all down to individual decisions and opinion. There’s no single right version, just some ‘rules’ to consider while making choices.

  • wetanddustyroads

    I’m definitely not a great photographer like you Sarah … I take a photo without thinking about the “rule of thirds”. But I understand now better after looking at your pictures. I like that “rule of thirds” in your Rajasthan picture – but for me, the winning photo is your desert photo – LOVE it!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Once you understand the rule you can decide whether to follow it, break it deliberately or simply ignore it altogether 😀 Glwd you liked the desert photo, it was a special place!

  • margaret21

    This is interesting, and it’s something I do try to be aware of in my photography. It’s a super-busy week, and I sense I shan’t be joining in, as when I sat down to start it, I realised it was a Project. But I’ll certainly take on your thoughts, and I did enjoy all your examples.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I joined the team part way through last year, leading the ‘Meet’ challenges. We decided I should shake it up this year so I’m doing a series of photography ones 🙂 I loved the examples in your post, all spot on and your very clear explanations will be helpful to anyone just getting to grips with this ‘rule’ 🙂

  • rkrontheroad

    Having been an art student in my younger years, this is one guide I often look for instinctively, or at least the concept of not always centering, leading the eye around a composition. Well illustrated by your photos. I especially like the woman sitting on the rocks and the one in the rice field.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Ruth, it’s interesting to consider the parallels between photography and the other visual arts. I do think this becomes an instinctive practice after a while, but even when I don’t get it right in camera I can sometimes improve the image while editing. The two you point out are examples of each. The woman on the rock I saw immediately in this composition, whereas the one in the rice fields took a bit of cropping before I was happy with the balance 🙂

  • Heyjude

    Some great examples here Sarah. As you discovered with my Seal composition post, I ran a series of challenges around photographic techniques back in 2020 – the rule of thirds was briefly mentioned in the first topic of composition, but back in 2015 I showed how this rule works for the old WP challenge. I think once you understand this ‘rule’ you do start to position your subjects along the imaginary lines (and of course many cameras actually overlay the lines on your screen for you). I particularly like your verticals.
    https://traveltalk.me.uk/2015/02/21/wpc-rule-of-thirds/

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Jude, and yes, I do think it becomes natural to position subjects according to this rule at least some of the time. I know I make a semi-conscious decision with most photos to opt either for symmetry or an off-centre focus, depending on the subject matter and what I want to say with the image 🙂

      I found your 2015 post on the topic very interesting. Your thinking is very much like mine, that it’s helpful to understand these rules even if you want then to break them.

  • Rosalieann Beasley

    I think to a certain extent, whether the rule of thirds applies depends on what you want your photograph to do. If you are taking a photo for a specific purpose, such as to show an item for sale, It is likely that the item will be centered with little excess space. When I am taking photos in a cemetery in order to document the gravestones properly, mu goal is to have the inscriptions readable and I don’t care about the rule of thirds. But for general photography, a certain amount of asymmetry makes the photo more interesting and the rule of thirds can be applied to make the photos better.

    I don’t consciously frame the photos in my camera when I am taking them, mostly because a lot of my photos are taken from trains or cars, and I have only split seconds to get the photo. When I was learning to take photos mostly the rules were things like Don’t take a photo into the sun, and Watch that people don’t have a telephone pole growing out of their head. Now, I can crop my photos and sometimes I can use the rule of thirds. Back in the day when I was taking 35 mm slides, there was almost no ability to edi the photos, so maybe I was better in those days about composing in the viewfinder

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I agree on all counts. Definitely a photo whose prime purpose is informative rather than artistic will need to be composed in such a way that all the information is easily accessible, with visual impact very much a secondary consideration 🙂 And yes, using 35mm slides meant that all composition had to be done in camera, which I would suggest was very good ‘training’ for us!

  • Forestwood

    That visual interest when objects and view are asymmetrical does lead the eye to roam around the picture, taking it all in. But as you alluded, it can be overdone and some things need to be in the centre of focus. Looking forward to checking out the entries, Sarah.

  • rosalieann37

    It is very hard to break the rule of thirds and I don’t think any of your examples except maybe the statue faces really do it. The thirds are not equal, but the photos are asymmetrical in some part. The seashore photo for instance – most of the shore part is in the bottom third. The horizon is closer to the middle but the land is in the bottom third.

    I do think that when I crop photos, thinking about the rule of thirds helps me to crop photos more effectively in some cases. If I am taking a photo of a sign or something like that, for the most part I just want the sign centered and readable. Otherwise I get a more impactful photo cropped in at least one dimension to the rule.

    As for rules in general – rules are made to be broken and there are always exceptions.

    When I was teaching middle school science, I would have a question written on the board and the students were to come in and sit down and write the question in their notebooks. (This was a way of getting them settled and started.) One of the questions I asked them was “What happens if you break a physical law like the law of gravity?”

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment Rosalie. I agree some of my ‘rule-breaking’ photos are off centre but they don’t fit the conventional thirds grid either imho 🙂 It’s certainly something to think about when cropping and I’m totally with you on the impact, much of the time, but I feel it can get a bit samey if you follow the rule religiously!

      • Rosalieann Beasley

        I do not think I ever heard of the rule of thirds until recently and I haven’t had any cameras that used the grid. What I do know is that when I take a photo with an emphatic horizon (like a photo from a boat of the sea) there are two things that drive me crazy – 1) If the photo is tilted. I hate seeing the ocean running downhill. 2) if the horizon is in the middle. It is almost impossible for me to accept a horizon straight across the middle of the photo

        But while sometime asymmetry in the vertical plane is sometimes good, it isn’t as important to me. And when I look at photos that are supposed to demonstrate the rule of thirds or which have broken the rule of thirds, I am not always in agreement with the assessment. I looked it up on wiki and the photo that they say demonstrates it, I don’t really agree with the vertical thirds of that photo. And while I won’t accept a horizon in the middle of the photo, I don’t always have it exactly on one-third.

        Of course I don’ t usually take Art photos. Most of my photos are to show some specific thing and if they turn out artistic that’s serendipity.

        Editing 35 mm slides – we did have one way to edit. If one side of the photo was light struck or had some flaw, we covered it by putting a piece of black (exposed) film over it in the slide holder.

        For a 15 day trip to Belize in 1998, I had 27 rolls of film – some 36 exposure and some 24. But now with a digital camera I can take 300+ in a day

        • Sarah Wilkie

          You may find your cameras do have the grid, if you check all the possible settings 🙂 I find it helpful for making sure my horizon is straight, but the thirds thing I do by instinct as and when it feels right! And yes, we used to use a similar trick with our slides, and take a similar number of shots!

          • rosalieann37

            Most of the time I don’t have time to check the horizon. It is particularly bad when I was taking photos from the boat and I would stick the camera out past the life lines to tale the photo (the life lines are the lines around the outer edge of the deck) This is an example taken when going through a bascule bridge with the life lines in the photo – I was taking the photo with one hand as I was busy on the radio while Bob was steering the boat https://photos.app.goo.gl/6j4KEFxkzHtbHQdA8

  • restlessjo

    It’s not something I’m necessarily conscious of when I take the shot, Sarah, but often in editing I will compensate because the ‘off centre’ look does work well. There are some lovely examples here.

  • mtncorg

    As you state, rule of thirds is just a starting point. In many cases, it is a great starting point, but the scene and what you want from it can easily override. How does the Rule of Thirds apply to 360 photography? 😎😎

  • Tales From My Lens

    It depends on the mood I want brought through with the photograph. The Rule of Thirds does work but the photo is the one to make the final decision 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I completely agree – that’s why I said that it’s also OK to break the rule, depending on the effect you are after 🙂 But I would argue it’s still helpful to understand it, along with the other rules of composition. Even if you then break the lot, as I often do!!

  • maristravels

    I confess to not giving any thought to how my pictures will turn out – I just hope they aren’t blurred or too fuzzy, and sometimes they aren’t. I was once teaching a travel writing course at which a French photographer ran a parallel course, and he said that digital cameras had ruined composition. I remember him getting quite cross with the students who would snap, snap away, and on one afternoon he demanded that they go out on the exercise we’d set (me the writing part, he the illustration part) and give him their SM cards on return, on which there should be no more than ten photographs! Impossible. He did it though and got some beauties including close-ups of ferocious mountain goats!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      It’s very good discipline to try to restrict the number of photos you take (as we all had to in the old days of film!) I confess I’m useless at it, but I hope I’m better at self-editing afterwards and rejecting the less good ones and multiples of similar shots 🙂

      • Heyjude

        Haha… one of my challenges was to only take 12 images in a photo-shoot “Restrict yourself to taking only 12 photos during any photo-shoot this week. Like in the old days of film. How hard was it? Did the knowledge that you were restricted cause you to think more about each shot? Is there a favourite? Was there a common depth of field?” Not so easy as we are all used to just clicking away until we have the perfect shot.

        • Sarah Wilkie

          That’s a really good challenge! I remember when a 36 shot roll of 35mm film lasted me on average two days on holiday (so 18 shots per day), and my husband the same, and people thought we were wildly extravagant!! It was a significant factor in the cost of our trips 😆

  • Alison

    Good interpretation Sarah. I normally centre my photos but will think carefully about the rule of thirds from now on. It does make the photo more interesting I must say

  • Monkey's Tale

    Thanks for the description and examples Sarah. I’ve read of this rule but not seen its application. I don’t take pictures often but sometimes Richard (the photographer) and I take a picture from the same spot of the same subject and end up with completely different results. Now I understand why a little more. Maggie

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Ah yes, sometimes my husband and I do the same! It’s not so much down to understanding the rules (we both have the same level of understanding I think) but how we either interpret them or decide to go against them. Also we have different interests so that influences how we look at a scene 🙂

  • gaiainaction

    Such absolutely beautiful photos Sarah. I was not aware of the rule of three but I get the picture so to say. That was nicely explained and illustrated by you. The photos where you broke the rule are equally beautiful and tell or show us something more, like the one where you composed the photo to share a message and to provide a contrast with the rest of your Moai images in which they dominated the scene, the way they were intended to do by their ancient carvers. I love how construction of a photo, how it can give us a message or show us something more than is immediately seen by the eye. I have been reading a book about being creative in our taking photos, so interesting.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you, I’m so glad you found this informative 🙂 Even if you don’t know the rule of three you may find that you often follow it, as this sort of arrangement looks most harmonious to the eye.

  • Oh, the Places We See

    Love, love, love your photography and now we have an idea of what you strive to do, at least occasionally. Thanks for the information as well as the beautiful captures. We, too, have a photo of someone harvesting rice in Vietnam — a case of being lucky enough to see real life unfolding.

Do let me know what you think - I'd love to hear from you

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