Create Better Compositions with the Rule of Thirds

About Design, Principle 7: The Rule of Thirds

One of the easiest principles of design to learn is the Rule of Thirds. To create dynamic and interesting compositions, be it design or photography, divide the work area into thirds. Just put two lines horizontally and two vertically for a 3×3 grid. Then place the main subject or design element on one of those lines, and position the secondary element along the opposite 1/3 third line or point of intersection. This will create balance and a space in which the elements can interact. In the example below left, the secondary element is the sky and the space itself. The “centered” version lacks the feeling of the original. The original has perspective, a product of the Rule of Thirds.

What is the Rule of Thirds
The Rule of Thirds as a general aesthetic rule can be traced to the Renaissance and has been part of layout design and visual composition since. An object placed on a 1/3 line draws immediate visual contrast to the 2/3 of space next to the object. This ratio 2/3, .666, is similar to the Golden Ratio, .618, and a lot easier to compute when shooting a photograph or designing a brochure.

We’ve looked at the effect space has on perspective, now take a look at how it affects movement.

The photo on the left, the Porsche is dead center in the frame. It looks like it’s sitting still. There’s no room for it to go anywhere, there’s no space it came from. It’s just there. Contrast that with the Porsche on the right. The front wheel is on the right 1/3 line, with space in front for this car to speed into. That space is the secondary design element.

We use the Rule of Thirds in the sense that it is part of our training and understanding of how design works. It helps us create compositions that are well-balanced and engaging. In the example below from Dr. Mark Jewell’s REVENEZ 1, the model’s right eye is at an intersection point and instantly engaging. On the right 1/3 line you find the name of the practice and the tagline.

Dr. Mark Jewell's REVENEZ 1 Home Screen

In Dr. Evan Sorokin’s REVENEZ 1, the design moves from the upper left third through the intersection points to the lower right third. For balance, the logo is in the right upper third. Notice the internal consistency: the line of the figure drawing, from right shoulder through left arm, is parallel to the line of the model’s body.

Dr. Evan Sorokin's REVENEZ 1 Homescreen
What can you do with the Rule of Thirds?
You can use the Rule of Thirds to take better photographs. And if you love movies, it can help you understand cinematography.

In movies, a lot of the story is told through the frame composed by the cinematographer.  Here’s Roger Ebert from his blog to explain movement in the frame:

In simplistic terms: Right is more positive, left more negative. Movement to the right seems more favorable; to the left, less so. The future seems to live on the right, the past on the left. The top is dominant over the bottom. The foreground is stronger than the background. Symmetrical compositions seem at rest. Diagonals in a composition seem to “move” in the direction of the sharpest angle they form, even though of course they may not move at all. Therefore, a composition could lead us into a background that becomes dominant over a foreground. Tilt shots of course put everything on a diagonal, implying the world is out of balance. I have the impression that more tilts are down to the right than to the left, perhaps suggesting the characters are sliding perilously into their futures. Left tilts to me suggest helplessness, sadness, resignation. Few tilts feel positive.

The same principles can be applied to the photographs you take. Even in a quick snap shot you can subtly change the expression and sentiment by simply switching the gaze from left to right.

If you want to learn to take better pictures, change the way you see composition by changing the viewfinder. Most point-and-shoot cameras, and even some DSLRs, have a menu option called “Grid,” which when activated will put in the 3×3 grid lines. The lines serve as a reminder to think in terms of thirds and will really help line up shots.

Photos are used with the creative commons license. Rothmans Porsche 2 taken by Brian Snelson via, Roock Porsche 18 taken by Tony Harrison via

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