I’m going to be honest here: If you’re like me, when someone starts talking about rules in photography, you’re instantly thrown back to high school—being told what to do by a teacher, forced into “sit down and shut up” mode. Rules: Yawn. I mean, if you’re an artist, your anti-authoritarian streak is definitely one of your greatest weapons, but for a visual artist, having a few compositional rules up your sleeve is an easy way to fast-track your connection with your audience while achieving that consistency that we all desire. And there’s no simpler method to do that than by getting your head around the mighty rule of thirds.
Think of it like an open goal on the field of aesthetics: It’ll help you score fast and easy, every time.
How to Rule It
Before we crack into the details, lets get on the same page about the mechanics of “how things work.” Take food, for example. You honestly don’t need to know the physics behind your frying pan to get crispy edges on an egg, but once you discover the building blocks of frying, and you see how different cultures around the world apply these same principles in different ways to produce a universe of crispy glorious dishes, then it becomes obvious that mastering some principles expands your world rather than limits it.
You can also think of this stuff like the foundations of your favorite building. Concrete and steel anchor an architect’s brilliant expression to the earth. Get the foundations right and you have the freedom to build anything on top that your heart desires.
Right, good meeting, moving on.
The Rule of Thirds: Photography 101
It’s 1200 A.D. Pisa, Italy. Fibonacci comes up with a mathematical formula borrowed from ancient Indian Sanskrit poetry (classic move) that describes patterns observed in nature: the arrangement of petals, cells in a honeycomb, the chromosomal arrangement of our DNA—pretty much everything on the planet that’s pleasing to the eye. And then he realizes that Euclid and Pythagoras beat him to it, literally centuries before, by examining the golden ratio and attempting to quantify how beauty works.
Fast forward to year 1700-ish and an English portrait painter coins the phrase “rule of thirds” as a simpler version of the mathematics of pleasing aesthetics, gifting the entire 20th century of visual and spatial artists like Le Corbusier, Salvador Dalí, Diane Arbus and Frida Kahlo (amongst thousands of others) something rather consistent to rely on.
Listen, none of that mad history really matters apart from one thing—our visually driven species has been trying to figure out the recipe for beauty for thousands of years, and the more we observe how the world around us works, the more we start to see things unfolding in thirds.
Here’s a photo:
And here’s a grid of thirds drawn over top:
At the most basic level, draw or visualize this grid across an image, or in a viewfinder, or in front of a movie scene, and you’re in the game. You can turn it on in your camera’s viewfinder if you want to go full geek, but visualizing is probably a better habit to form.
Now, tweak that grid to a Hasselblad square, or a 4×5 film holder, or a widescreen movie, or a 6×7 frame, or a Super 8mm box, or a micro-4/3rds viewfinder. Tip it up into portrait mode or lay it flat across a mountain landscape. The measurements might change, but the ratio stays the same.
You know that feeling when you’re crouched down shooting a scene of a couple, or a weird carnival in a small Italian town, and it doesn’t quite feel magic, and then you move over just a touch and suddenly everything lines up, and it all gets very, very right? That’s the beauty of ratios, and that’s the magic of thirds.
Rule of Thirds: How to Use It
If you only remember one thing here, it’s this: Mastering the rule of thirds is not about you; it’s about your audience.
As artists and makers and creators, we underestimate our photography audience at our absolute peril. Remember, the people whose eyes are on your work have been visually calibrated over and over again by the greatest cinema, TV and advertising masters in the history of the world. One day’s casual viewing for an average American will consist of a visual feast conjured up by Academy award-winning, Emmy toting, Cannes Lion-holding maestros who’ve plumbed the depths of our eyeballs and come up with gold time and time again. In short, your audience has high expectations. Your audience is used to seeing the work of Roger Deakins on their iPhone. Your audience is a tough crowd of highly calibrated people. Good luck out there.
Like eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant, you don’t need to know the craft of the winemaker or the magic of the chef to understand that what you’re putting in your mouth is magnificent. Likewise, you don’t need to have developed an intimate understanding of story arc and narrative to know where to look in a frame to find the answers. I’m guessing you grew up on the visual cues of everyone from George Lucas to Christopher Nolan. You pored over Erika Larsen’s frames in battered issues of National Geographic, Annie Liebovitz’s work in Rolling Stone, and you watched Spike Jonze conjure visual magic for the Beastie Boys and Arcade Fire.
This rule of thirds is in you because these geniuses have taught you where to look for the answers in a story—how to see with expectation. These masters of photography and composition have learned where the home run button is. They’ve figured out how to turn the stove on, how to break the eggs just so, how to use the same foundations to tell a million different stories.
It all starts with this question: Where does your photography audience find answers in the frame? You don’t have to actually give them any answers, but it’s helpful to know where their eyes are looking. And that’s where our friendly rule of thirds comes in.
Let me show you what I mean:
1. Take a sheet of see-through plastic and a whiteboard marker. Open up a classic photo book, lay that plastic down on top of a great image, and start drawing a grid of thirds over the sheet. Move fast. Cover as many images as you can. You’ll start to see how things line up, how the frame is “weighted,” where the important stuff falls, and how it helps you to decode the image. Make sure you do a good mix of landscape and portrait images, people and stuff.
2. Now, pull up your favorite film, TV show or music video on your device of choice and start to screenshot scenes that you love, scenes that really get you right in the heart. Once you’ve got a good stash, open up a simple editing program and start to draw in the grid. Then add leading lines, horizons, weird disruptions, wedges of color. Look for the first proportions and shapes that catch your eye. Move fast and tune in.
3. Okay, you know where this is going. Line up a handful of your own images, the ones that you come back to again and again as the kind of work you want to make. You know what to do. Grid. Find the shapes. Decode. Now, unless I’m completely whack, I’m pretty sure you’ve found that you’re already using the rule of thirds. The stuff that looks good to both of us obeys the same underlying principles. It turns out you’ve got great foundations already.
It’s easy to think that maybe this is all a bit too much over-theorizing of art, but allowing space for examination has a firm place in every creative practice. Think of this as “studio reflection” in your search for consistency rather than “shooting tools” for when you’re out in the field.
Step 1: Divide the frame up into obvious thirds of any shape. Things’ll start to feel good.
Step 2: Work in a couple of obvious leading lines, and they’ll feel even better.
Step 3: Now try and make your subject live at the intersection of those things as a heroic disruption, and you’re basically Stanley Kubrick.
How to Break It
There’s an old documentary mantra that goes something like, “The better the story, the fewer the tricks,” which sounds a lot like every conversation I’ve ever heard about Italian food, or architecture, or music. You don’t have to go around smashing rules just for the sake of it, but you can view them through a different lens or apply them in a different way, all to surprise your audience, all to get them to take a fresh look at an old thing or to give you that tiny bit more of their attention.
If the rule of thirds is our natural human way of finding important stuff in a scene, then you can start to bend and warp and guide your audience’s eyes in so many different ways. We instinctively look for answers in certain places when we’re trying to “solve” a narrative, especially when we’re in auto-pilot, doom scroll mode. Suddenly shifting the rules can force a second look. But it still has to have a pay-off. Remember, the rule of thirds is how we naturally operate, so if you want to win, don’t stray too far.
Here are a few things to try out as you smash the boundaries of the rule of thirds in your photography:
1. Ditch the grid for bolder shapes. Try a rule of three wedges, or a rule of three circles, or rule of three blobs.
2. Use the rule to govern depth in your frame. Try three different levels of focus as a compositional tool.
3. Force perspective on your frame. Position characters where they shouldn’t be, hide the answers in plain sight, make big things small and small things big.
4. Use an aspect ratio that’s fresh to you. Shoot square, or in 4×5, or 3×4, or 16×9. Don’t let your camera dictate your canvas size.
5. Go out and shoot with a sketchbook rather than a camera and only draw scenes using circles, triangles and squares.
It can be precise or messy, calculated or spontaneous. But either way, our well-formed human sensibilities are built to interpret visual magic in this ratio-driven way. Embrace it and consistent home runs await.
How To Make It in Photography
Ultimately, figuring out how people see and connect and absorb the stories you’re trying to tell with your photography is key to being an artist and creator, and building an understanding of how it all works is worth investing a lot of time and effort. But the moment you pick up that camera, the moment you step into a scene to capture what it felt like to be there, is the very moment all of that knowledge drops away into instinct and understanding.
To quote jazz supremo Charlie Parker, “Master your instrument, master the music, and then forget all that sh*t and just play.”
And remember, sometimes the difference between mediocre and great is just moving two feet to the left.
Si Moore is one half of Bayly & Moore, a wedding and portrait photography duo based in New Zealand. They were named Rangefinder 30 Rising Stars of Wedding Photography in 2014. Moore last wrote about how to build a genuine following on social media.