Rules of Thumb - The Rule of Thirds: The ROT in Visual Composition

How To Discover The Priceless Secret To Rock Any Visual Composition

The Rule of Thirds in Visual Images - Designs, Films, Paintings, & Photographs

Before I share this almost priceless little secret to easily rock any visual compostition, I imagine you have three questions for me:

  1. What is it?
  2. What do I do with it?
  3. Why is it worth my time?

The “What Is It? What Do I Do With It? Why Is It Worth My Time?” Section

The Rule of Thirds is a Rule of Thumb that offers a quick and easy, yet powerful trick to level up your visual composition game.
Composition is a major component of visual creativity and visual art.
If you want to develop ninja skills in any visual medium, mastering composition is fundamental.
Having a strong grasp on the ROT will help you improve your drawings, design, photos, videos – all of it. You can level up your creative skills in your hobbies & passions.

It’s simple to learn and easy to put into practice.

In daily life, it will change the way you view a scene and add some artistry to your travel pics and family photos.

This is a rule of thumb, which means you don’t have to use it, but it’s a good one to know and have in your back pocket. Because it’s simple, powerful, and offers variety [versatile].

It’s useful when running through the mental script: “How do I approach and solve this problem”. Like the rule of thumb, “Look both ways before crossing the street.” It’s a good rule to really understand and internalize. Disregard it when you have a different solution or you’re just feeling edgy and want to have fun. But the better you are at recognizing when it’s useful may even get you through old age.

What Is It

The ROT is “a "rule of thumb" for composing visual images such as designs, films, paintings, and photographs. It’s a great way to design balanced and unified images.

The main reason for observing the rule of thirds is to discourage placement of the subject at the center, or prevent a horizon from appearing to divide the picture in half.

{illustrate all this with some sketches and annotated creative commons photos.}
Why It Works

The ROT divides the visual composition, a visual image, into three equal sections.

"Rule of thirds" by fd is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

In case you missed it, the Rule of Thirds works because our brains are pattern processing machines. And it takes three to begin a pattern.

Our brains love it.

It’s an easy way to keep your composition from feeling boring.

Symmetry can be exciting. Symmetry can also be boring as hell. Centering a subject, dividing a picture or composition in half with a horizon can feel static or lack tension. Our eyes may not be encouraged to move around the picture.

{illustrate all this with some sketches and annotated creative commons photos.}

The renaissance painters wanted to develop a way to include a background with a subject and found that the eye often travels towards the edges or frame. Designers realized that the eyes ping pong back and forth with two figures. With three they can rest.

{illustrate all this with some sketches and annotated creative commons photos.}
How It Works

Using two equidistant lines, running vertical or horizontal, divide your composition into three equal sections. That’s all it takes.

Again, our big brains go ape shit for triple.

Top, bottom, center for horizontal (landscape) layouts.

Left, right, center for vertical (portrait) layouts.

The Rule of Thirds is applied by aligning a subject with the guidelines […], placing the horizon on the top or bottom line, or allowing linear features in the image to flow from section to section.

{illustrate all this with some sketches and annotated creative commons photos.}

For Horizontal (Landscape)

If there is a horizon line, (think landscapes or still-lifes) “the horizon in the photograph sits at the horizontal line dividing the lower third of the photo from the upper two-thirds.”

For Vertical (Landscape) / Vertical (Portrait)

When “filming or photographing people, it is common to line the body up to a vertical line and the person's eyes to a horizontal line. If filming a moving subject, the same pattern is often followed, with the majority of the extra room being in front of the person (the way they are moving).[6”]

Likewise, when photographing a still subject who is not directly facing the camera, the majority of the extra room should be in front of the subject with the vertical line running through their perceived center of mass.

{illustrate all this with some sketches and annotated creative commons photos.}

You can also “reverse” this rule and line the horizon at the top two thirds.

For portraits, you can place a subject on the opposite line.

The Rule of Thirds and Intersections

In case you missed it, intersections [link to ROT post, intersection section] make our visual cortex explode with interest.

Remember how we divided our composition into three sections, either vertical or horizontal? 

Now create three sections going the other way.

If your composition is horizontal, draw three horizontal lines.

If vertical, draw three vertical lines.

See where that first set of lines crosses the second set?

That’s an intersection.

Why It Works

“Intersections of the third-lines of the frame are particularly strong or interesting for composition.”

Intersections are power points.

So powerful they're called crash points.

How It Works

Remember how we aligned a subject with the guidelines?

[1] The guideline proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.[2] Proponents [who?] of the technique claim that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject.

When You Should Ignore the ROT

The Rule of Thirds isn't a hard and fast rule and you’re not bound by it. Like any rule of thumb, the ROT is a formula with its own shortcomings. It can feel formulaic, expected, and boring. Sometimes the subject needs to be centered. Sometimes symmetry is more interesting.

But the ROT is a good one to understand, get good at, and keep in your back pocket when you need something reliable to create a successful composition. As always, a rule of thumb is to be understood, practiced, even mastered, and then disregarded as needed. {As I tell my kid and artists,} first you learn the rules, then have fun breaking them.

Practical Application: how to practice / put it into practice:

Maybe you’ve heard that you should develop a "feel" for the composition. => You've practiced it so often that after many reps you feel that the composition "feels" right. Maybe write some lines about this?! => like always skill building = reps, reps, reps.

You can put the ROT to use immediately. And there are a few tricks to practice it in a very practical way.

Use a grid on your photos and videos.

  • do quick point-ROT alignment-shoot exercises with your camera. Goal: that ROT composition becomes hard wired and you do it automatically



iPad sketch.

Create a quick grid on your sketchbook. On the fly or with a ruler.

Graph paper

Use a tracing overlay.

Following the ROT offers a quick and easy alternative to level up your visual composition game.

In daily/family life you can level up your family photos and videos. You can level up your creative skills in your hobbies & passions.

Develop your mindset. Start a creative practice.

Tap your creativity. Become a more creative version of yourself.

If you’re in, click here to get started.

If you want to learn more about the benefits of a creative practice on your health, productivity, and happiness, click here to read more.

About the Author Nona Bird

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