If you’ve read any articles about composition in photography, it’s quite likely that you’ve already heard about the ‘Rule of Thirds’. It’s a relatively easy-to-understand rule which is why it’s commonly used by both beginners and professionals alike.

In fact, it’s not just photographers who follow this technique. It can be seen in several types of visual art dating back to the late 1790s.

But what exactly is the Rule of Thirds? Is it really that important to learn?

Keep reading and we’ll find out!

Does Composition Matter?

Before we get into the specifics of the Rule of Thirds, I want to take a quick look at the importance of composition in landscape photography.

It’s a complex topic but one that’s essential to study if you want to become a better photographer.

You see, learning the fundamental camera settings is important from a technical standpoint. It enables you to capture well-exposed and high-quality images but it doesn’t necessarily have much effect on the visual impact.

That’s where the composition comes into the picture. No pun intended…

It’s with help of the composition that we guide the viewer through the image. It’s our strongest tool to best tell the story we want to tell.

Without a good composition, it’s hard to create powerful images.

With that being said, let’s look closer at the Rule of Thirds.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

First of all, I want to point out that I believe there shouldn’t be any rules in photography. It’s a creative craft where strictly following rules will limit your creativity.

Instead, I choose to look at the Rule of Thirds and other compositional rules as guidelines or techniques that will help you create better images.

So, how does the Rule of Thirds work?

The main principle is to break the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. This leaves you with 9 frames. These frames then serve as guidelines as to where subjects of interest should be placed.

Avoid placing elements in the center of the frames. Instead, the main subject (or point of interest) should be placed where the lines intersect.

Such as this:

The Rule of Thirds

Placing subjects at these areas will create a more visually pleasing image that help guide the viewer’s eye through the image.

It might be difficult to visualize these lines but most cameras have a Grid View in either the Live View or Viewfinder. Most cameras also have an option to reveal a grid in the Image Preview.

Look through your owner’s manual to see exactly how it’s done in your camera.

The Rule of Thirds in Use

I know just reading this can be a little confusing so let’s take a more visual approach and look at some examples where the Rule of Thirds has been applied.

Rule of Thirds Explained

The image above is a perfect example of when the guideline has been followed. As you can see, the dog has been placed at the bottom right intersection. In order to avoid two ‘empty’ boxes, I’ve framed the dog so that parts of its body are included in the middle section.  

In order to achieve a better-balanced image, the lower left box has been left empty. Anything placed there would take attention away from the dog.

There’s one more thing to notice about this image: the horizon is placed along the upper horizontal line (just above the icebergs). Again, this comes back to placing elements along grid.

Generally speaking, you should avoid centering the horizon or the main subject.

Here are a couple more image where the Rule of Thirds has been used:

Using the Rule of Thirds in photography
Rule of Thirds night photography
The Rule of Thirds seascape photography

Can You Break the Rule of Thirds?

I didn’t get into photography to strictly follow a set of rules. You probably didn’t either. That’s why I firmly believe that breaking the rules can be beneficial.

But just because you should break them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know them. There’s a reason why these guidelines are so widely used. They do have the power to make your images better.

That goes for the Rule of Thirds too. Applying it will make a difference. You will see an improvement in your images. Which is why you need to learn and understand it.

By learning and diving deeper into the world of compositions, you’ll better understand when and when not to apply certain techniques.

Some of my personal favorites do have the main subject placed in the center of the frame, or the horizon split in the middle of the image.

Breaking the rule of thirds
Placing the tree dead center goes against the principle of the Rule of Thirds (though the horizon’s placement meets the criteria)

It’s important not to get too fixated on the Rule of Thirds. Strictly following it will limit your photography and will have a negative impact on your creative growth.

But, as I said, know when to use the guidelines and know when to break them. Do it by choice, not by chance.


More About Composition

The Rule of Thirds is just one of many compositional guidelines. It’s an easy-to-apply technique which makes it the most popular amongst photographers of all levels.

But there are more guidelines you need to be aware of. Here are some more articles and guides to further expand your understanding of the topic:

Do you want to learn more about compositions and the fundamentals of landscape photography? Then A Comprehensive Introduction to Landscape Photography is the right place to start.