The Rule of Thirds – Gospel or Something To Be Broken?

by planetMitch7 Comments

I confess, I'm a ‘rule of thirds' guy. 

Maybe too much of a ‘rule of thirds' guy, but it is something that I always like to share with noobs and I found an example that, for me, really shows the impact of the gut feeling of the ‘rule' and how it can evoke emotion. And it is a simple image, but to me, it became a great teaching point that I wanted to share with you.

Now before we get too far, this discussion applies to filmmaking/documentaries/wedding/corporate/TV/etc as well as photography. After all, have you ever seen a news show where the reporter is in the center of the TV? Nope.

First, I did get permission to share these images from the photographer.

Second, just what is this ‘rule of thirds' if you don't already know?

Rule of Thirds:

Simply, it is the placement of the ‘subject' in one of the left, right, top, or bottom 1/3 of the image. Maybe a horizon, or a face (or eyes), or even simple graphics.

To me, the goal is to get the viewer's eye to move thru the scene. When the main subject is in the center, your eyes typically don't wander around the image. They're ‘stuck' to the main thing. Sure, if someone looks at ‘centered' image more than a second, their eyes will likely investigate other things in the image, but a quick glance will hardly evoke any eye movement or even many feelings (unless it is a cute cat LOL).

Now, that's an ok example (and I include it because it includes the gridlines showing the ‘thirds' (tho for some reason the animation of the gif isn't working…looking into it)), but I think the images below are much more evocative of the “feeling” of the ‘rule'…

But, before I show you (aren't I a tease?), what is this feeling I'm talking about?

In most cases, images or video where the subject is ‘dead center‘ feel ‘dead‘ (and if there's a human in there I certainly don't mean that they're looking ill or dead). There's no movement, your eye doesn't go anywhere. Dead center images feel static and motionless.

Now, if you want to go really into the depths of analysis on these ‘rules' have a look at the “golden ratio” (or “golden mean”) as it applies to the graphic arts like photography and video. I liked reading this article by Jake Garns where he calls the rule of thirds “lazy.” Or have a look at this video where they compare the rule of thirds to the golden ratio (but I find it funny that at 2:01 they comment about the intersection of the ‘two red lines' but yet, there's virtually nothing there – the subject's eyes are a bit away from there) (source petapixel). But now I'm way off topic… consider the rule of thirds the ‘simple' way to add movement to your images… if you want to learn the golden ratio go to it, but most viewfinders won't help you find it).

When talking about the rule of thirds, we often get distracted in the content of the image or scene without thinking about how it feels like the image above. Pretty, but to me, it just doesn't evoke much feeling like the following images do… and that's why I love these images:


"Late Coffee" Centered, No Shadow by Buick M

“Late Coffee” Centered, No Shadow by Buick M

Doesn't that just feel static?

And there is nothing wrong with static if that's what you're going after!

But most people who are shooting photos of their friends and family center their subject and that's one reason why they quickly feel like ‘snapshots.'

Know what emotion you're after when shooting 😉

Centered but moving

Buick M also posted this:

"Late Coffee" -- Centered With Shadow by Buick M

“Late Coffee” — Centered With Shadow by Buick M

So this adds an interesting feeling of some movement doesn't it? Still centered, but the shadow now adds a sense of motion without moving the coffee cup at all.

Even that (tho arguably probably not totally fulfilling the rule of thirds as the cup is still dead center – tho we sure feel 1/3 happening on the right side as it is clearly broken into 1/3 pieces) simple change has made a big difference in the feeling we have about the image.

And this may be almost perfect for many of you. And that's O.K.! You love what you love.


But when Buick M posted this one. I felt so much more emotion about the image – it was moving; almost alive. And yet, still just a static coffee cup on a table. We didn't get one without the shadow, but it would evoke similar feelings (tho I suspect the shadow really adds a lot to the emotions).

"Late Coffee" -- With Rule of Thirds by Buick M

“Late Coffee” — With Rule of Thirds by Buick M

Now, that is movement

Again, to me (and you may not feel it the way I do), this cup is moving, it has speed. Yes, obviously static on a table, but yet the feeling of motion is there.

That image is fun.

But wait! There's more!

Now Buick M even took it a step further and cropped it very differently… how does this image make you feel?

"Late Coffee" -- Way Different Crop by Buick M

“Late Coffee” — Way Different Crop by Buick M

He even gave it a more static square crop – but yet it has motion and feeling to me.

Some may not like the cup cropped (much like some people don't like photos where a person's face is only 1/2 showing in an image), but I like it (tho if it were me, i'd crop the top and bottom a bit and make it more into a traditional image crop).

Even Buick M followed up with these comments…

I am kinda getting burned out of the rules of 3rd personally, thats why I shot these centered…I kinda wanted some symmetry of sorts.

The second one with the shadow is centered but the shadow weighs the right side down…

I ended up rotating it and using it as my phone BG and it think it works well.

Thanks for all your input guys, it really does help see things differently.

In the end, it is all about personal preference – but knowing the rules gives you the reasoning behind how and when to break them and you'll be a much better photographer or filmmaker when you know how to manipulate the feelings of your viewers 🙂


  1. Take three shots, left third, middle third and right third. Look at the three shots and figure out in your ” head” which one is best for U.

    1. I’ve never paid attention to compositional rules. I go with what “looks right”.

      Given that the visual system is “wired” to recognize a 2:1 ratio as pleasing, this often results in a “rule of thirds” composition. But you’re not obliged to slavishly follow the “rule”.

  2. What about rules of thirds on square crops. Images with larger subjects for example. Lately, with Instagram’s typical square, I’ve been cropping non-landscape images to square. I find that if the subject is a person, it looks best to center them, falling on a more symmetrical feel.

    1. Author

      Great question Chad. I typically still try to follow the ‘rule’ to give some movement, but in a square format it can be more difficult. One reason why I haven’t used instagram much 🙂

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