Rule of Thirds: The Complete Guide to Understanding the Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is a design principle that every designer and artist should know. Every artist has a tool belt of skills that they use through all stages of creating art. From primary colors to rules of proportion, basic design concepts help build a strong foundation for every artist. These key guidelines become so ingrained in the design process for many artists, and they forget they are even using them.

To become a better artist, you must first learn or review fundamental principles. The rule of thirds is a great place to start.

What Is the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds is a compositional guideline that suggests that the most important elements of a visual image should be placed on either the horizontal or vertical lines of thirds. In other words, imagine that there is a grid over the image that divides it into nine equal parts. There are two horizontal lines and two vertical lines that ultimately split the image into nine parts. The most visually important parts of the subject — like the horizon line or the eyes of a person — should then be placed on one of these lines or at an intersection, also known as a crash point.

The purpose of the rule of thirds is to create balance, interest, and tension in images. Many beginners place their subject in the center of the viewfinder, paper, or other chosen medium. It is a common misconception that centering the main subject will make the best image. Instead, the rule of thirds suggests that the subject should actually be moved over to land on the 3:3 grid lines for compositional balance and intrigue. 

The rule of thirds is used for all forms of visual imagery. Photographs, films, paintings, and designs all use this fundamental guideline to improve visual composition.

How To Use the Rule of Thirds

Although the rule of thirds definition may seem overly complicated, the actual implementation of this concept is easy. Just follow this simple process to use the rule of thirds:

  1. Choose your subject.
  2. Pick which parts of the subject are most important. If the image features a person's face, the eyes or lips are usually the most important features. For a landscape image, consider what you are trying to showcase the most, like a unique rock feature or tree. Keep in mind that the horizon line should fall on one of the horizontal thirds. For graphic design, consider the central element that you want the viewer to focus on.
  3. Imagine the 3:3 grid. For many tools, you don't even have to just imagine it. Many cameras and design software have a rule of thirds grid option built-in. All you have to do is turn this feature on.
  4. Line up the determined key subject with the 3:3 grid lines. You can also place these important elements in the grid's intersection points for more visual tension and excitement. Keep in mind that this can be approximate, not exact.

Now, just snap the picture or construct the visual design around that concept for the best composition.

The Rule of Thirds vs. the Golden Ratio

Another common compositional guideline in art is called the golden ratio. The golden number, or divine proportion, in mathematics is 1:1.618. In art, the golden ratio is a pleasing compositional shape that follows the golden number. Used by Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Salvador Dali, and many other famous artists, the spiraling and rectangular shapes that represent the golden ratio is considered the ideal composition.

You could consider the rule of thirds a simplified version of the Golden Ratio. Both the rule of thirds and the golden ratio are compositional guidelines, but the rule of thirds is much easier to visualize and use. 

Do You Have To Follow the Rule of Thirds?

No, of course not. It is only a compositional guideline. Sometimes there are artistic reasons to break the rules. However, it is always important to understand foundational guidelines first before breaking them. You should also consider why you are breaking this rule in order to justify this decision.

Now that you have the rule of thirds in your artistic tool belt, you can experiment with it to create balanced and interesting images.

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