Screw the Rule of Thirds

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I have a secret to tell you.  And you might just hate me for it.

I hate the rule of thirds.

Like, I really hate it.

Which is weird, right?  It’s like, the very first compositional rule that any new photographer learns.  “The rule of thirds is applied by aligning a subject with the guide lines and their intersection points, placing the horizon on the top or bottom line, or allowing linear features in the image to flow from section to section.” (Wikipedia)

Or, in plain English, “divide your picture in thirds and put your subject on the lines.

It looks something like this

And the outcome looks something like this

Or this

Or this

All good pictures, right?  Sharp focus, good clarity, beautiful color, creamy bokah, good editing.  It’s an all-around good picture.  Right?

Right.  How about this one?

It’s a beautiful picture.  Beautiful and meaningful moment.  In fact, this picture even won a contest last summer.

But if I’m being perfectly honest, whenever I look at it, I’m a little bored.  I look at this picture and sometimes think, “anyone could have taken that”.  Or worse, “that’s a picture that my camera made, not me.”

Now, I’m not going to brush off the knowledge necessary in order to make this image.  I could not have gotten that bokah with my iPhone.  I knew how to work my camera.  But there isn’t any of ME in it.  Nothing in this picture that shows who I am as an artist.

Ansel Adams said, “There are always two people in every picture:  the photographer and the viewer.”  I, the photographer, cannot be found anywhere in this picture.

Art cannot thrive without rules

Some of you may not agree with that statement.  But it’s the #truth.  Any composer will tell you that playing the correct notes to an unidentifiable or random rhythm is not music.  Any writer will tell you that words just thrown into a document is not literature.  And any director will tell you that just reading the words on the script is not acting.

Art cannot be just thrown together.  Art requires thought, introspection, deliberateness, emotion, and practice.  Sometimes it’s heartbreaking, other times it’s filled with excitement.  It doesn’t have to take a long time, but art is never just thrown together without a second thought.

A case study in breaking the rules

Lindsey Stirling is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.  This gal is brilliant!  She loves the violin, she loves to dance, and she is carving out her very own niche in the music industry.

Is the best violinist in the world?  She’d be the first to admit that she’s not, but you know what?  It doesn’t matter.  In fact, music forums have blown up in criticism of her technique and style.  But who freaking cares?  She gets the job done and is introducing a new generation to classical music.


And how can she do this?  How can she take a classical instrument, throw in modern music, hip hop dance, and make it work so well?

Because she knows the rules.  Lindsey Stirling was classically trained for ten years.  She knows her stuff.  She knows how to hold her bow, how much pressure to put on the strings and when she’s dancing around, she never drops her form without intention.

Anyone can get lucky, but breaking the rules only “works” on a regular basis if you know exactly which rules to break, when to break them, and why you are doing it.

So, what does this have to do with the rule of 3rds?

It’s pretty simple, actually.  The arbitrary use of the rule of 3rds assumes that you can put art in a pretty little box and tie it up nicely in a bow.

Anyone who has kids knows that most things in life ain’t always easy and it rarely follows the rules.  So why does art have to?

I am not saying that following the rules of composition isn’t necessary most of the time as a photographer.  Composition can make or break your picture.  It’s the difference between art and a snapshot.  But those rules are far more complicated than “just divide your picture in three and crop it like this”.

Show me a great picture that follows the rule of thirds and I’ll show you dozens of reasons why it’s a great picture that has nothing to do with it.

It’s not that simple

There are so many ways to make a good picture.


For example,

Center subject

This is one of my favorite portraits.  And she’s right, smack dab, in the middle of the frame.  And none of the important elements are along the rule of 3rd intersecting grid lines.

And this is my favorite self-portrait.

Now let’s crop it with the rule of 3rds.


Not nearly as powerful.  Just look at all that meaningless dead space.

Negative Space

Speaking of dead space, the difference between negative space and dead space is nothing more than intention.  Does it act as an added element to your picture or is it just there?

Here is an example of negative space.  The rule of 3rds works here because the negative space adds a sense of balance and context to the image.

Separation and Contrast

Let’s talk about this image of a groom getting ready for his wedding.

Why do I think this is a good picture?

First of all, I have filled the frame.  From edge to edge, there is something going on.  No dead space to speak of.

Secondly, there is clear separation between the subjects.  The groom (center) is backlit and the rim light completely separates him from the other layers of the picture.

Thirdly, there is heavy contrast and a well-defined shape.  There aren’t any strange blobs that you aren’t quite sure what it is.  His profile is well-defined, and the dark shadows heavily contrast with the white background of the window.  To top it all off, I toned the picture to enhance those elements.

Framing and Leading Lines 

What about this one?

First, my subject is clearly framed.  We’ve got the guy in the black pants to the right, and another guy in black pants in the left.

Secondly, look at all of the lines in the image that direct the eye towards the subject.  I suppose this does also fall under the rule of thirds, but that’s not what was going through my head when I made this.

So, what is going through my head when I’m making a picture?

Well, to be perfectly honest, a lot of things.  I think of my exposure, positioning of my subject, direction of the light, the horizon line, how to minimize distractions in the frame, how my hand is cramping up, whether I should move on or stay put and wait for a better moment, when I can take my next bathroom break, the Cheetos I finished off the day before, and whether or not my husband will be home in time to make out with me before dinner.

But most of this can be summed up in one thought: “How can I make this a better picture”?

Screw the rule of 3rds

So, I say, screw the rule of thirds.  Time to learn some new rules and add some variety to our pictures.  You don’t have to be a professional and you don’t have to have a rockin’ camera to make awesome pictures that your family will cherish forever.





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