The “rule of thirds” is a concept that you’ll find in a lot of Intro to Photography books and guides. The idea is that you imagine a grid that divides your composition into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, like this. (Although some cameras will now overlay a grid for you).
Supposedly, a strong composition is one where the important elements sit as close to the intersection of the thirds, or the third-lines, as possible because that’s where a viewer’s eyes are naturally drawn. Here’s that photo without the lines.
Yeah, it’s a pretty good photo. The skier and the main mountain peak are both on the first vertical third-line, each sitting at an intersection with the second horizontal third-line. The second mountain peak sits nicely on the second vertical third-line close to an intersection. So, is it a good photo because it fits the rule of thirds so well? Let’s find out.
The Problems With the Rule of Thirds
Alright, the answer is no. The rule of thirds is actually a pretty weak compositional guideline. It does more to stop you making bad mistakes than guide you to making strong compositions.
There is a lot more to good composition than just placing the main parts of your image at arbitrary points on a grid. Things like contrast, color, leading lines, and people’s faces—and especially their eyes—all direct where someone will look.
Another big problem is that you can kind of slap a thirds grid over the top of almost any image and find important parts that sit under one of the third lines. Like this image.
And this image.
Could you make a case that the rule of thirds grid fits them? Sure, but the images could also be cropped in a dozen other ways, and you’d still be able to argue that the rule of third fits. As I said at the top of this section, the rule of thirds stops you making some major errors rather than leads to good ones, so, let’s look at those errors.
What the Rule of Thirds Does
The best thing the rule of thirds does is stops you placing your subject too close to the edge of the frame or, worse, cut off by the edge of the frame like this awful composition below.
It also stops you placing your subject too centrally without good reasons. Central compositions can work great if you know what you’re doing but are often a bit flat and boring.
As you can see, the rule of thirds composition is much stronger.
When you’re starting, the rule of thirds is a handy guideline, but you shouldn’t blindly stick to it. Let’s take a look at a better approach.
A Better Approach to Composition
Composition is an incredibly complex subject. There are lots of subtle things that can guide your eyes. For a true masterclass, you need to look no further than the great painters like DaVinci, Van Gogh, and Picasso: they certainly weren’t just using the rule of thirds. This article can’t go anywhere close to that deep, but let’s look at my original composition for the skier photo.
As usual, the rule of thirds sorta kinda fits it, but that’s not what makes it a strong composition.
Three things are going on here that draw your eyes directly to the skier, Will: the leading lines, the subject-background contrast, and the color. It’s also a well-balanced image with the foreground, mountains, and sky all getting roughly the same amount of space.
Here are all the major lines in the image.
As you can see, they all lead your eyes directly to the focus of the image: Will and the main mountain behind him.
Our eyes are drawn to areas of contrast and bright, saturated color. Will sits at the intersection between the bright foreground and the darker mountains and sky. He’s also the only orange thing in another wise monochrome blue scene. It’s impossible to look anywhere else than at him.
Some of these factors are also present in the image that’s cropped to the rule of thirds but what makes this image so much better is the strong diagonal and the extra space in front of Will.
That primary diagonal adds a huge amount to the image. Not only does it guide your eyes straight to Will but it neatly divides the foreground and background and gives you an idea of how steep the slope was. The space in front of Will adds to the sense of speed: he’s moving into the empty space. It also makes him smaller in the frame so emphasizes the sense of being out in the mountains I was going for. While the rule of thirds shot isn’t bad, it’s the stuff like this that makes a great photo.
Going Further With Your Compositions
Hopefully, this article has given you a taste of how much more there is to composition than just drawing an imaginary grid of thirds. We’ve already looked at filling the frame and using limited color palettes here on How-To Geek. You can also play around with some of the techniques above and see how they work with your images. My favorite composition resource is Canon of Design; a lot of their stuff is paid, but there are still some great free articles.