How To Break the Rule of Thirds

Gerry van der Walt All Authors Leave a Comment

Ask any photographer, or check any photography book, and I am sure that the Rule of Thirds will pop up at some stage.


This much revered compositional rule has been around for a very long time with some sources saying that various forms of it has been used as far back as the ancient Greeks and Romans in their architecture and art.


So, what is the rule of thirds?


Simply put, it is a rule that states that an image will be more pleasing when it’s elements are placed on certain points or lines in the frame.  By dividing your frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, four power points are created on the grid which, according to the Rule of Thirds, will be the best place to position your subjects or focal area of your image.




According to this rule, if you were to place the important elements on the these intersection point, shown by the green blocks above, you will end up with a much more dynamic image. 


The theory extends further by saying that if you did not necessarily have a single focal point but rather interesting lines you can also use the four lines when composing your images. 


Let’s have a look at a few examples.



In this image the focal point of the image is the young lion’s face which has been placed on one of the power points.  This makes for a much stronger image than if the cat’s face were placed dead centre in the image. 


We can also take it a step further and say that the line created by the lions head, shoulders and feet makes for an interesting horizontal aspect to this image.




In this image the main focal point is the single wildebeest, on the left, jumping into the water.  More than that, the line that runs through this wildebeest and through the herd on the right is also powerful as it falls onto the bottom part of the Rule of Thirds grid.




In this image there is no single focal point, such as a single animal or a face, but the images has still been composed using the Rule of Thirds.  The two interesting lines created by the herd of elephants drinking at the water and the powerful clouds in the background have been placed on the two horizontal grids making for a good example of the Rule of Thirds.


Not too difficult right?


The catch however is that, as in life, some rules are meant to broken.


You see, even though it is based on good, solid art principles the Rule of Thirds receives so much attention that we start ending up with images that all look the same.  The content of these images might be the same but underneath that the composition, and by extension the story being told, seems to feel like it has been created through a basic cookie cutter approach. 


They’re all the same.


My approach to the Rule of Thirds, and this is the approach I take in our photography courses, is that when you are starting out in photography it is most definitely worth sticking to the Rule of Thirds.  But, and this is a big but, as soon as you understand the rule you need to start breaking it. 


That being said, breaking the Rule of Thirds just for the sake of breaking it is kinda pointless and you will more than likely end up with images that feel a but schizophrenic – subjects all over the place with no story behind it.


When I say you need to start breaking the rule what I mean is that you need to ‘feel’ when to break it.  When the story you want to tell does not comply to the Rule of Thirds, your story needs to take preference. 


When an image just feels right, even though it does not comply to the rule – go with it!


Here are a few examples of images I created by breaking the rules!





Theoretically I had to place the horizon on the bottom line of the grid. 


By doing this I would filled the image with a whole lot of black but, more importantly, I would not have been able to show how big the sky felt when you watch a sunset in the Masai Mara. 


You see, my reason for taking this image was to show my viewer, and hopefully make them feel, how big the skies are in Africa and the Rule of Thirds just did not allow me to do that. 




If I were to have complied to the Rule of Thirds this spotlit lion would have found himself on the bottom-right power point with the beam of light running along the bottom horizontal grid.


This would have still made for quite a striking image but it did not allow me to show what I saw and felt when photographing the scene.  The single beam of light that cut through the darkness made the entire scene feel almost magical as there was no sign or point of reference as to where the horizon starts. 


When you stared at the lion for a while it almost looked as if he was hanging in mid air and that is what I wanted show my viewer.  An almost mystical image.


I also decided to not place the large cat to far to right hand side as the little bit of details in the grass behind him is just strong enough to draw your eye before you look back at the lion.  This creates a great side to side movement in the frame without an distractions on top of, or below, the lion. 



If I followed the Rule of Thirds I would have placed the hyena on either the top-left or bottom-right power points.  In the one instance it would have shown where the animal is going to walk and in the other where is has come from.


It is quite obvious where the animal has come from, and where he is going to, so by placing the hyena dead centre in the frame I am almost asking my viewer’s gaze to follow the subtle S-curve, created by the road, up and down. 


Yes, an image with the hyena placed in one of the corners might have made for a more dynamic image but it would have been just another hyena-walking-down-the-road image. 


Since the majority of people don’t quite understand hyenas, and feel quite unsure about them, I could probably also say that by placing the animal in the middle the image has a certain stress to it and I like that as it means the image is slightly different!


At the end of the day the Rule of Thirds is a great tool for learning composition in photography and to keep in mind when looking for your viewfinder.



Do not get stuck on it. 


If the story you want to tell does not work with the Rule of Thirds – break the rule! 


Tell your story and rather shoot what feels right!


If you have anything to add or have any questions – comments are open!


Until next time.


Gerry van der Walt


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Comments 0

  1. Daniel Markus Lehmann

     Great article. Another point I’d like to make (although have basically already covered it in different words, is that sometimes the rule of thirds causes you to exclude an important aspect of the story or the environment. This is very much like what you mentioned in the sunset image.
    For example, sometimes when cropping images taken while fireblowing or fire dancing I begin to crop it according to the rule of thirds, but then not enough black is left in the image and it loses its dynamism. In order to show the darkness surrounding the subject, I often end up placing him just below centre, and this maintains the feeling of a comfortably-balanced image with more calming open space surrounding all the activity of the subject. To clarify, I do not consider myself a photographer although as a designer I do have an understanding of image composition. These are just my observations.

    1. Gerry van der Walt

      Thanks for your comment Daniel. Greatly appreciated.

      Agreed. Often it is not about what we crop out of an image but what we keep in – our vice versa.

      Know the rules and then break the rules to create images or compositions that work!

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