Why are certain photos, designs, and layouts so pleasing to the eye? More often than not, the image follows the Rule of Thirds.
Infographic images used throughout by a SK.
The Rule of Thirds is one of the most well-known principles of composition in photography, art, and design. It’s a universally accessible way to frame an image, and it’s incredibly easy to follow. Whether you’re taking a photo, cropping an image, or designing a layout, the Rule of Thirds is a simple way to make anything look instantly more attractive. Let’s check it out.
What Is the Rule of Thirds?
To employ the Rule of Thirds, imagine a 3×3 grid on top of any image. You should align the key elements in the image according to this grid — at the “power points” where the lines intersect, or along and within the vertical and horizontal lines. You can also combine these two arrangements for complex images with layers of subjects.
When you arrange elements against the grid, the image transforms into a holistic composition, creating a hierarchy of subjects and balance between elements of the layout.
Let’s look at an example. In the photo below, where does your eye naturally land?
Although the ocean takes up the largest portion of the photo and has the most striking color, most people will look at the beach hut first, which acts as an anchor to the whole composition. When we apply a 3X3 grid to the photo the beach hut falls at an intersection between two of the grid lines.
If we crop the image for Instagram, we can apply the same grid to the resized image and adjust the position of the beach hut to maintain the proportions.
Why Does the Rule of Thirds Exist?
The Rule of Thirds is mathematical in its makeup, but its real impact on the viewer is psychological. At a basic level, we find centrally positioned images to be very direct, even aggressive. By looking at a portrait of a person who is looking away from the camera, you can more comfortably observe the image and take in their appearance. If the person is looking directly into the camera from a central position, they are inviting you to make direct contact with their eyes. Even though this is essential in daily human interaction, and can make for portraits that are emotional and challenging, it doesn’t necessarily make for comfortable viewing.
In short, the Rule of Thirds makes images more comfortable for a person to look at, which relaxes the eye and creates a more inviting composition. By placing the contents of your image off-center, you are making the person immediately more receptive to your image. This is a fantastic technique if you want the viewer to process your whole image. It is essential whether you want the viewer to read a narrative in a photo or process the product, campaign message, and brand name in an advertisement.
Placing important elements centrally in a composition can look fine in the right context, but the Rule of Thirds has the unique ability to give images a universal appeal, making images appear better by simply positioning elements on the grid.
The specific origin of the Rule of Thirds is not entirely known, but the first time it carried that name was in the late 18th century by the English painter and writer John Thomas Smith. In his book Remarks on Rural Scenery, Smith makes some observations on a Rembrandt painting, The Cradle, remarking how “two thirds of the picture are in shadow.” He also comments on the necessity of having hierarchy and subject balance in an image, arguing how “two distinct, equal lights, should never appear in the same picture.”
While paintings pre-dating the 18th century often observe the Rule of Thirds, it was during the 19th and 20th centuries that artists came to employ the rule more deliberately and commonly in their work. Famous painters like William Turner and Salvador Dalí crafted incredibly beautiful masterpieces using this simple rule of composition as a foundation.
How Can I Apply the Rule to Photos?
The Rule of Thirds is a speedy shortcut to make your photos appear more polished and professional. When you look into the camera, imagine laying out a grid over the top of the view. The Rule of Thirds is a rough guide for creating attractive images—you don’t need elements to align perfectly with the grid lines, only approximately. Then imagine placing the main subject of your image over one of the line intersections. If you have a horizon line in your image, try to place it along either the top or bottom horizontal line of the grid. Shifting key elements off-center is also a simple shortcut for creating the effect.
You can apply the Rule of Thirds to any image, but certain styles of image especially benefit from the rule. Landscape shots are one such example. Placing the horizon along a grid line, and a subject at an intersection has an instant transformative effect on the composition. In this example, the horizon is along the top grid line, and the main subject is at the top-right intersection. This gives the image a sense of depth and magnitude, inviting you to observe the person first before taking in the beautiful skyline and the dramatic ice in the foreground of the picture.
In this shot the horizon line is along the lower grid line, with the main subject (the group of buildings) shifted off-center. The result? A sense of vastness and calm, with the moody sky and serene water creating a peaceful backdrop for the cityscape.
The Rule of Thirds also brings a narrative aspect to photos, which gives a new dynamic to photos of people or wildlife. In this image of gannets and dolphins feeding on sardines, the Rule of Thirds gives the composition a fascinating narrative, which makes the photo appear almost like a Renaissance street painting. The shoals of sardines sit along the top grid line, while the gannets and dolphins sit along the lower line. Most of the elements in the image sit off-center, but the gannet is at the lower-central intersection, making it into the main focal point of the layout.
If you want to include numerous elements in one photo, the Rule of Thirds can help you to assign hierarchy to the elements, inviting the viewer to look at one element first before casting their eye over other parts of the image, building up a whole picture.
This Sardine Run image is also a demonstration of the other style of images the Rule of Thirds can really help to enhance: shots that include action and movement. Because the rule means that parts of an image will get read as white space (not necessarily blank, but areas that act as a calm contrast to more prominent elements), subjects gain a feeling of dynamism, as they have the potential to move into blank areas of the image. Subjects aren’t “boxed in,” which helps images feel more cinematic and brimming with energetic potential. Try applying the Rule of Thirds to subjects that move, such as cars, dancers, or athletes, to really make the most of this added bonus.
Can I Apply the Rule to Other Designs?
You sure can! The Rule of Thirds doesn’t only work for photos; it applies to any layout to create balance and hierarchy. Whether you’re creating a magazine layout, a social media post, or a white paper, you can use the rule to strike the perfect balance between image, typography, and white space.
There are some great examples of the Rule of Thirds in print advertising in particular, where the need to draw the viewer’s attention to a particular product’s feature or brand message is especially pressing. Take a look at this example for a print ad for Vaseline.
The Rule of Thirds applies here to great effect, drawing the eye immediately to the top-right intersection, where the woman in the painting is applying the product to heal the craquelure of her skin. You process this focal point first, before connecting that with the message the rest of the ad is communicating. In this manner, the Rule of Thirds acts like a sort of well-crafted joke — the punchline is the unusual and witty twist on an old painting.
In advertising, crafting a strong but concise narrative is key, enhancing the memorability of the ad and the brand. As with staged photos, the Rule of Thirds can also enhance the layout of digitally edited compositions. This print ad for McDonald’s relies on a series of individual elements in the image to make up a whole narrative, which gets support from the text at the bottom of the page.
Laying the grid over the top reveals how the horizon line is along the top line, with the cow and tires overlapping the intersections of the design.
This brand tweet from Heinz shows how the Rule of Thirds can also apply to social media images. Even with strict restrictions on space, the Rule can help create balance and direct the eye in a simple A-B-C format. Here, the product lies along the left-hand vertical grid line and is the most dominant element, while the tagline lies along the top horizontal line. The pineapples along the lower horizontal line completes the three-part narrative for this simple-yet-memorable tweet.
— Heinz Ketchup (@HeinzKetchup_US) May 23, 2017
Because images tend to be the most dominant element on type-and-image layouts, you can use the rule to help your text headers compete for attention, guiding the reader to view the image, then the header, and finally the body text.
In this magazine layout, the two-page spread has been designed as a whole, with the Rule of Thirds as a guiding principle for the positioning of text and image.
It’s not only the direct eye contact of the model that leads you to look at her first — her eyes are also directly over the top-right intersection of the grid. Your eyes then naturally move to read the text header, which is off-center, lying across two grid lines.
Let’s look at how you can apply the Rule of Thirds to more text-based media, like brochures, brand guidelines, and white papers. Most of these sorts of documents involve two-page facing spreads, and it’s important to remember that you should apply the grid to the whole spread, as this is how the reader will view it. This brand guidelines document for consultancy firm Truth is a lovely example of how the Rule of Thirds can help to bring structure to a text-heavy layout.
On this spread, the infographic chart is the dominant element on the page, positioned at the right-hand grid intersections.
Here, the same technique applies, pushing the most prominent element off-center, and allowing for plenty of white space on the left page of the document.
In this spread, two headers receive equal prominence by moving them to the left and right thirds of the page. The white space at the center of the spread is not only practical, it also has a relaxing effect on the eye.
Try applying a simple Rule of Thirds grid to your text-based layouts to help structure the position of your headers and sub-headings. This is also useful for carrying across if you want to create a balanced, consistent look across multiple pages in a long document.
Feel Like Being a Rule Breaker?
That’s ok! Some rules are made to be broken — you just have to understand that by breaking the Rule of Thirds you’ll need to aim for an equally strong rule of composition in its place. For example, you might want to place a subject in the center of a photo to give it more prominence and impact, a common trait of portrait photography.
By doing this, you’re replacing the Rule of Thirds with a spotlight on the symmetry of the subject instead.
The Rule of Thirds is also only one technique for creating a great composition for your work. Some photographers like to use the Golden Ratio (also known as the Fibonacci Spiral) as a principle for structuring their work instead.
The Rule of Thirds certainly isn’t the only technique for bringing structure and balance to your photos and layouts, but it sure is effective . . . and simple to put into practice too! Once you know a little about the rule, you’ll start to notice just how many photographers, designers, and artists use it in their work. This quiet workhorse often underpins some of the most attractive visual work, and its simple principle will no doubt continue to help visual artists achieve their best for centuries to come.