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Going Off the Grid: Breaking the Rule of Thirds

I won’t start with the cliché that “rules are meant to be broken”, but I’m pretty sure that more than a few photography enthusiasts would agree with me when I say that the well-known Rule of Thirds doesn’t really work all the time.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Rule of Thirds is a popular composition guideline for photography and design, where you’re asked to visualize your image as divided into nine equal parts, pretty much like the one shown below:


The Rule says that the prominent elements of your picture must be placed along the lines, or intersections in the grid. Below is an image that more or less follows the said rule:


Image credits: https://www.flickr.com/photos/emiljaranilla

Works pretty well in the photo above, right? The prominent element is placed on the lower left intersection while the horizon is aligned with the upper-horizontal line of the imaginary grid. However, more experienced photographers may actually consider the Rule of Thirds as more of a guideline than an actual rule. There are some instances when shots would look better (and actually make more sense) when this composition guideline isn’t followed.

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Image credits: https://unsplash.com/@chne_

As seen in the example above, portrait shots show more emphasis and simplicity to the subject when it’s positioned at the dead center of the image. Much more when there are a lot of things going on in the background and you want to set the subject as the center of focus of the viewer.

Prominent Horizontal Lines


Image credits: https://www.flickr.com/photos/emiljaranilla

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Horizontal lines in pictures (like horizons, for example), are easiest to position to follow the Rule of Thirds. Doing so adds more depth and dimension to an image.

However, positioning the horizontal line at the dead center of the image also creates an effect of balance, and gives equal emphasis on both upper and lower halves of the picture. Check out the image below, where positioning the horizon at the center of the image equally shows the beauty of the sky above and the body of water under.

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Image credits: https://www.flickr.com/photos/emiljaranilla


Sometimes you get shots that are beautifully symmetrical on both right and left sides, that it just feels wrong if you’re going to ruin the balance. Take for example the image below:


Image credits: https://www.flickr.com/photos/emiljaranilla

 Seeing that the lines in the image are balanced well on both left and right sides, it wouldn’t feel right to place the subject off-center. When you can see that your subject is in almost perfect symmetry, it may create more impact when the object of interest is placed at the center of the frame.

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Night Sky and Star Trail Shots

Let’s say you have this really awesome shot of the Milky Way – you’d definitely want to feature more the sky and less of the landscape in the frame, right?


Image credits: https://www.flickr.com/photos/emiljaranilla

In star trail and night sky shots like the one above, it only makes sense for you to move the horizon even lower to feature more of the sky. It also creates the impression of vastness of the night sky.

Under the right circumstances (and with enough skill), breaking the Rule of Thirds may actually make your shot more interesting and less predictable. But this doesn’t mean that you go ditch the Rule altogether and breaki it every chance that you get. Experimenting with composition is nice, but it’s a double-edged sword that can either make or break your shot.

Avatar for Geoff Ledesma

Geoff is a cinephile and a foodie who now works in the digital advertising industry. Know him in bite-size by following @geoffreview and checking out geoffreview.com.

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6 years ago

When breaking the rule actually follows it. RoT is just a guideline, it also doesnt mean just to use the intersections for composition. You can compose using RoT by also putting subjects along the lines, or middle of the squares, these still follow the rule. If you just followed to put subjects in the intersection, then you have been practising a limited RoT. Just my 0.2

6 years ago

Place your subject off center especially when doing portrait photography.

6 years ago

Informative article. Keep it up!

Abed Maghari
6 years ago

Very nice article. Kudos! ^^

chief gato
chief gato
6 years ago

ganda ng article na ito.

ilang taon na ang nakalipas, meron akong natanggap na hand-me-down entry level dslr camera kaya lang wala talaga akong alam sa photography.
minsan may mga ibon na nasa pader namin. kuha agad ako ng pics.
ang resulta: mga maliliit na shots ng ibon na hindi ayon sa aking nais makuha…
hindi ko kasi alam kung paano mag-magnify ng shots o baka rin kulang sa power yung lenses ko… ;)

Yugatech 728x90 Reno7 Series
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