John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

rule of thirds grid

The Rule of Thirds

rule of thirdsOne of the most basic and effective strategies for composition is the well-known Rule of Thirds. In a tic-tac-toe fashion, you mentally divide the shot into nine rectangular areas by visualizing two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines. The result will give you three horizontal and vertical layers of the same size, with four points where the lines intersect. You then place the elements of the shot according to this grid. The strategies for using the Rule of Thirds fall into four general categories.

1. Place the subject at a power point

One simple method is to place the main subject at one the intersection points, what some people call the power points. The photo of the Watch Children road sign illustrates this straightforward technique. Placing the subject exactly on that spot might seem a bit obvious in some cases, so feel free to position it near the power point for a more loose interpretation of the Rule of Thirds. For a more sophisticated composition, place another, perhaps secondary subject at one of the other powerpoints, preferable one on the opposite side of the image. This will create a balance or tension between these two elements of the shot, both by the fact that you are using not one but two powerpoints, and by the fact that you are activating a diagonal line connection between those two elements of the shot. In the photo of the two cousins, their heads fall near the top left and bottom right power points, resulting in a digaonal line that adds energetic fun to their body language antics.

2. Place subjects along the vertical or horizontal lines

Another relatiavely straightforward strategy is to place a subject along one of the lines of the rule of thirds grid, as in the street shot of the lamp post. Notice also how the lamp itself is also very close to a power point. For landscape shots, put the horizon on or near the bottom line to emphasize the sky, as in the photo of the palm trees. Put the horizon on or near the top line to emphasize the landscape.

3. Place subjects within the horizontal and/or vertical layers

For this strategy, you are creating three horizontal or vertical layers within the image - and in more sophisticated images, both. As with using power points, it's often more interesting and less obvious to loosely interpret the positioning of the subjects according to the grid. In the photo of the lamp post, the street falls roughly into the bottom layer, the sky and top of the trees in the top layer, and the lamp post along with the main body of the trees in the middle layer.

Keep in mind that "negative space" might be an element of the image that you place in one of the three zones, as in the sky appearing in the top third of the lamp post photo. In the shot of the palm trees, negative space plays an even bigger role. Notice how the trees fall in the right side of the grid (with the tree on the left lying along one of the vertical grid lines), while the sky takes up the remaining two thirds. On closer inspection, you'll notice that the left third of the image contains clouds, with the comparatively slim middle third being mostly empty sky. In addition to the horizontal division into thirds, the image also contains a vertical division as well: ground, trees with clouds, and open sky at the top.


4. Combine these strategies in interesting ways.

Find ways to combine these three strategies for an image that offers overlapping, subtle, and pershaps even a subliminal feeling of "thirds." As we've seen, you can create an image with three layers vertically as well as horizontally, with negative space playing a role as a subject and two or more of the main features of the image near the power points. If possible, you might also introduce the idea of "three" elsewere in the image, as in the three palm trees.

Seeing the Grid

When we're shooting or editing a photo, how exactly do we “place” elements of the image according to the Rule of Thirds grid? While shooting, try to see a scene through the viewfinder according to the grid. That visual skill might come naturally for some people. Others might have to work at it. In the past some photographers tried placing over the viewfinder of their camera a piece of glass or clear plastic containing the grid, so they could see the shot through it. Fortunately, in our more modern age, some cameras have this feature built right into the LCD screen.

If you take shots that roughly approximate the Rule of Thirds, you might later fine-tune the proportions by cropping. Some photo editing programs, like Photoshop, offer a feature in the crop tool where a rule-of-thirds grid will appear on the image, to serve as a guideline for cropping.


Why we love it

Why is the Rule of Thirds so important in visual design? The human mind doesn’t particularly like disorder and chaos. It naturally seeks out patterns and quickly detects their presence, sometimes on an involuntary, subconscious level. The three part geometry of the Rule of Thirds is particularly catchy to the eye. It feels interesting, dynamic. It conveys tension and energy, especially at the power points. As I mentioned in the essay on diagonal lines, the number 3 is psychologically compelling, sometimes even mystical. Think of mother/father/child, the love triangle, the Pyramids, the Holy Trinity. Think of the Three Stooges and the Three Little Pigs.


The dimensions of the grid

Here’s a more subtle aspect of the Rule of Thirds grid. Hopefully, the dimensions of the nine rectangular areas are aesthetically pleasing, as in the “golden ratio” of 8:5. The frame of the typical SLR camera is very close to this ratio, which results in nine areas that also approach those dimensions. With the exception of the crazy cousins picture and the tic-tac-toe design, all of the images on this page approximate that shape. Applying the rule of thirds to images of unusually long or high dimensions may result in divisions with proportions that are not as aesthetically pleasing as the 8:5 ratio.

Square format images using the Rule of Thirds will consist of nine boxes within one big box, all possessing the same square dimensions, as in the tic-tac-toe design. All those boxes might result in a very boxy feeling, but if you square-crop an image for a more loose interpretation of the rule of thirds, as in the shot of the hand holding a camera, the hint of many boxes is more subtle.

Once again, it's not really a "rule"

Taking the Rule of Thirds as a rigid rule is a mistake. Every experienced photographer and artist will tell you that it's best to consider it a guideline. As I've mentioned before, strict placement of elements according to the grid might be too predictable or obviously geometric - unless, of course, a feeling of tripartite precision is exactly what you intend. A more subtle and loose interpretation satisfies our minds need for order, even though the effect might be subconscious. So place elements near the lines or power points, but not right on them. Organize fields of colors, shapes, or textures so they slightly overlap the three horizontal and vertical layers, but are not squarely within those layers. Place a prominent subject at a power point and other elements more loosely around the grid in ways that keeps the eye guessing.

In the shot of the playful cousins, they appear to be enmeshed in a rather disorderly intertwining of arms, heads, and hands. And yet, the mind’s eye perceives a subtle underlying organization based on the Rule of Thirds. Near each of the power points is a hand, elbow, or face, and both horizontally and vertically the image roughly divides into three layers: head, arms and hands, and another head.


Thirds of Negative Space

In an image with a single subject and lots of background or negative space, we might apply the Rule of Thirds by creating twice as much background or negative space as the area occupied by the subject. Even though the negative space feels vast and perhap even endless, it is nevertheless tamed by the Rule of Thirds.

Usually, we would place the subject in the right third. Based on how people read in many cultures, the eye moves more naturally from left to right, so the viewer will feel more secure entering the background or space on the left and moving naturally to the subject on the right. The position of the subject will look more grounded.

In some shots, we might instead place the subject on the left to create a sense of uneasiness and tension. The eye lands on the subject, trails off into the empty space on the right, and then tries to jump back to the subject, resulting in a “shifting” feeling. The photograph entitled "Suspicion” to the right illustrates this uneasy shiftyness.


Rules of Halves, Fourths, and so on

We aren’t limited to Rule of Thirds proportions. We might also apply a Rule of Halves where the grid contains only two lines, two vertical and horizontal halves, four rectangles, and only one intersection point at dead center, as illustrated in the grid on the right. Except for very quadrant-like needs, that composition could easily become too boxy if you take the grid seriously. Placing a subject right on the one and only powerpoint at the dead center of the image will probably result in an overly static, obviously centered result. We also usually try to avoid dividing an image in half, which tends to create the appearance of two separate images and no unity. Nevertheless, in some shots a Rule of Halves geometry might be quite interesting.

It’s also possible to design an image based on a Rule of Fourths or a Rule of Fifths in which we divide the image into horizontal and vertical layers of four or five, as ilustrated in the grids on the right. But can the human mind detect this more complex pattern? A rule of fourths might be a form of visual organization that an average person can detect, consciously or subconsciously - but as you can see in the grid, a rule of fifths gets quite complex. In most cases, our mind might not want to bother with that kind of geometric busyness. We might not sense any kind of underlying geometric order at all.

Of course, we can completely ignore any guidelines based on geometric grid patterns. Breaking the rules can lead to very interesting compositions because they defy the traditions.

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