March 18, 2016

Is the Rule of Thirds Really All That It's Cracked Up to Be?

One of the first concepts you learn about when studying aesthetic theory is the rule of thirds, but is it really as beneficial to composition as you think?

According to videographer/fine art photographer Tavis Leaf Glover, not really. In this video, he talks about 10 myths about the benefits of the rule of thirds, introducing image makers to different compositional techniques, as well as explaining how the rule of thirds often leads us to eventually come to a creative plateau.

Now, whether or not you agree with Glover's claim that the rule of thirds is detrimental to composition, he does talk about a lot of fantastic advanced techniques that you may have never heard of before, namely those of dynamic symmetry and gestalt psychology.

He breaks down one of famed photographer Annie Leibovitz's photographs in this blog post, explaining how she used several compositional techniques to create a shot of 10 female celebrities.

Credit: IPOX Studios
Here's a list of techniques Glover mentions. (If you want to know more about each of these techniques, check out Glover's blog post here.)

  • Root 4 Rectangle
  • Gamut
  • Rebated Square
  • 90 degree
  • Arabesque
  • Ellipses
  • Enclosures
  • Figure Ground Relationship
  • Coincidences
  • Black and White Blur
  • Greatest Area of Contrast
  • Edge Flicker

Personally, I disagree with Glover's claim that the rule of thirds is a "flawed and lazy tool for composition." I don't think that it must "die a slow and painful death," because I think it's a great place for beginners to start working on their craft. I think it's a great place to start composing your images. Is it the best choice every time? No. Will it lead to stellar images every time? Not necessarily. But the more you learn about composition, including the techniques Glover mentions in his video, the better equipped you'll be when you begin to plan your shots.

The more you learn, the better you'll be. So yeah, learn the rule of thirds. Use it to compose your images. But realize that it's not the only technique out there. Push yourself in your art and find new ways to compose images — I think, in the end, that's the takeaway.

What do you think about the rule of thirds? Do you use it to compose your images or do you use one of the other techniques Glover mentions? (Or do you rely purely on your gut?)      

Your Comment

29 Comments

I believe Tavis is correct on some points, but overstates his argument on several levels. The Rule of Thirds IS in fact a very useful tool of composition for a beginner, and it is only a dead end to those who decide to stop exploring. Simply because Tavis feels he has moved "beyond" this technique in his art does not invalidate the technique's usefulness earlier in his creative learning.

There are more advanced and specialized construction tools than a hammer, but a hammer can still do a lot of things. Just because a tool is basic does not mean it is ineffective or should be abandoned.

March 18, 2016 at 10:20PM

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Samuel Neff
DP / Editor
785

OMG.... i'm pretty sure this cost me IQ points.... sad that I watched the whole thing...(truth be known, March Madness Basketball is on in the background)..... this is why anal technical people are not successful in a creative medium..... yes...there are exceptions as always.... IMHO

March 18, 2016 at 10:44PM

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I agree but there are many things other than composition that draw your eye to your subject. To name a few, Color, Saturation, Contrast, Brightness, and breaking a pattern.

March 18, 2016 at 11:08PM

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Zachary Will
Cinematographer
626

Composition comes first before the second elements are added like color and etc; without the composition everything falls apart. This is why storyboard artists and designer spends years crafting their skills; it is no accident!

March 22, 2016 at 7:14PM, Edited March 22, 7:14PM

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Wayne Lam
Artist Photographer and Filmmaker
81

I'm not a huge fan of all of the negativity in this video, and definitely agree with you, V and some of the other comments here that the rule of thirds is still a very great compositional tool for most standard compositions and for beginners. But I do appreciate the exploration of more advanced compositional tools! All of which are equally valid and have their own time and place to be applied.

March 18, 2016 at 11:24PM

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Oren Soffer
Director of Photography
1974

I hate to say it but Tavis sounds like a person who doesn't understand what he's proposing in terms of compositional design. The whole reason why the evil "rule of thirds" became popular in photography 70 years ago was to avoid static symmetrical compositions that many beginners would gravitate to.

I personally feel that trying to force geometrical lines or shapes upon a composition distracts the viewer from the actual "art" of the composition. There are no magic mathematical formulas to great visual compositions, just as there are no magic formulas to writing a great poem or story.

Beginners need basic rules like "training wheels" to guide them until they have developed the ability to compose without following these rules.

Stop trying to put everything inside of "neat boxes" because these "boxes" have nothing to do with the original artistic creative impulse that birthed the "art" in the first place.

March 19, 2016 at 12:19AM, Edited March 19, 12:22AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32110

Yep. This video is like trying to reverse engineer art into a left-brain, shoot-by-numbers, "how to be an artist for accountants" course. And it doesn't take in to account anything about furthering the story/message (besides the BASIC idea of tension).

March 19, 2016 at 1:18AM

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Anyone having to learn from these so-called compositional tools needs to think about a career choice other than cinematography.

March 19, 2016 at 3:42AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
1183

These videos always seem to reverse engineer their point. You could put up that Root 4 triangle on any photo and somehow prove it matches up.

March 19, 2016 at 7:06AM

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I think he's got it backwards. In my experience, anyone with "an eye" for composition can just SEE a good composition.

It might end up fitting the rule of thirds. Or the golden ratio. Or exact symmetry. Or exact symmetry broken by one thing. Or nearly but not quite fitting the rules of thirds. As a lot of his examples showed- the deer, for example. Its chest is in the rule of thirds intersection, but anyone looking more closely would realise that the focal point is its eyes, which are near but definitely not on the rule of thirds points.

The rule of thirds is like all other rules of composition. Something that people have deduced by measuring art that was created without measurement.

Every time someone shows one of these "rules" I either notice that the rule is broken in most of their own examples when you look in detail, or is so vague as to be meaningless. For example- the rule of thirds for matching dialogue reverses. We NEVER measure the third exactly, because the exact amount of space we want to allocate to the person speaking and the empty space in the frame depends on how tight we are and the emotional context of the scene and many other subtle variations. I very much doubt any working professional would do anything other than eyeball it, because eyeballing it is how you get it right.

Trust your eyes and your own aesthetic sense. If you can't SEE a good composition... in my experience, you never will. If you are blind to it, that's fine, it doesn't make you a bad person. And it certainly shouldn't stop you having fun shooting whatever the hell you like however the hell you want to.

But if you have aspirations to work for money in the visual arts, either you've got an eye for a picture or you haven't. And if you haven't, you're not going to make it as a professional.

To restate the rule of thirds: sometimes, good compositions are off-centre. And that's it. That's a precise a statement as it gets.

March 19, 2016 at 7:22AM, Edited March 19, 7:23AM

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Hywel Phillips
Director / Cinematographer
178

To follow up my own point... there IS something really interesting I've noticed on set. I teach courses and have worked with 50 or so photographers/camera operators for my own films.

I'd divide them into three basic camps- "no eye", "have an eye", "I would never have thought of that in a million years".

The "no eye" types are pretty much blind to composition. They can follow the rule of thirds but have no idea when a central composition would be stronger or more appropriate, and are liable to frame up much wider than they need to, getting all sorts of extraneous crap in shot. I notice them walking closer and closer and using their zoom lenses to zoom out and out, blind to the increasingly horrid perspective they are inflicting on the poor model.

The "have an eye" crowd are interesting, because mostly we share an instinctive idea for how to tune a composition once the basics are set. I very often notice that if I suggest an off-centre composition or a central one, they will frame up within millimetres of where everyone else in the group does when given that same suggestion. The "eyeball it" for reverse dialogue and OTS shots are a case in point... and if I say "I think he should be more lonely", they'll often reframe in a very similar way to the way I would if I was operating.

I think a lot of this comes from a shared visual grammar from watching lots of films.

But it is very interesting to let them go at something without direction - they often come up with ideas that are startling, but totally work, and fit their own visual style. We have "Kate shots" (shot through a bunch of stuff in front of the subject) and "Rich shots" (Dutch tilt) in our company memory as a result.

The rarest ones are the people who find ideas I would literally never have thought of. These people can all do the "got an eye" exercise if you ask them to. But when you give them a camera and a subject and no rules, they find ways to shoot which I don't know that I'd have thought of even if I sat down and tried to think of all physical possibilities to shoot in the space we're in. They are the ones whose ideas you should just plain steal, to expand your own repertoire! :)

March 19, 2016 at 7:36AM

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Hywel Phillips
Director / Cinematographer
178

Very interesting. Thanks for posting that.

March 19, 2016 at 9:23PM

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Karel Bata
Director / DP / Stereographer
430

i think the fact that it's possible to find several of the rules applied/visible in the same image, in several of the examples provided in the video, says that the eye can compose well or see an already well-composed scene inherently.

Did the rules precede good images in history? Or did the rules become rules/got created based on realizing that certain elements pleased the eye and it was possible to repeat them if certain principles were applied?

I really would like to hear Annie Liebovitz comment on this video. Did she really draw those lines in her head and compose the celebrities accordingly? Or did she compose them in a way that pleased her, based on the years of experience her eyes have?
I could draw many other lines in that composition that are not in the dynamic symmetry lines, and I can see many lines in the video that do not have a correspondence in the actual photograph (or likely that I am not at a level to recognize them).

edit:
ROT is just another useful technique that can help us get better ALONG with other techniques used separately or simultaneously.
Overall, I still like how other techniques are studied and their importance to great work is emphasized. I just do not think so much negativity is needed for ROT.

March 19, 2016 at 7:38AM, Edited March 19, 7:49AM

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inca
Photographer | Videographer
81

The ROT is a serving suggestion; it won't suit all palettes. I do so wish people would stop saying that it is a good place from which beginners should start. Rather, suggest that we should aim for a balance. For example, stimulate tension by putting an element out of the frame, then resolve by changing the view to include the missing element.

This video concentrates on still photography, missing the dynamics of film. Oh, yes we should compose each shot using the techniques of stills, but we have the addition of time, movement, development, and a host of tricks to tell the story as well.

I think we would do well to concentrate on controlling the elements we can within a scene. Lighting, set dressing, props, actors, movements (things, people and camera), and the relationships between the elements, all combine to make a composition. Slavishly following a pattern engraved in the viewfinder, or the latest wizz from a book or presentation, is not a substitute for developing an organic view, built in your own mind, translated to the screen.

P.S. Tavis Leaf Glover should learn the rule of apostrophes. That glaring error right at the beginning reduces the viewer's belief in everything that follows.

March 19, 2016 at 8:06AM, Edited March 19, 8:10AM

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Tim Pickford-Jones
Retired
88

"P.S. Tavis Leaf Glover should learn the rule of apostrophes. That glaring error right at the beginning reduces the viewer's belief in everything that follows."

Well said, Mr. Jones.

March 20, 2016 at 9:36PM

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Todd Covelli
Producer | Multimedia Journalist | E.W. Scripps Co.
140

Wow, one of the best group of comments I have read here in a long time, no trolls (so far) attacking people for their opinion and every comment thought provoking and adds to the article. Thank you very much for your insight. My tidbit to add is this. If I eat pancakes every day and for the most part pancakes are made with the same pancake mix. I immerse myself in pancakes and daily as I eat them, I compare them with pancakes of the past and anticipate pancakes of the future. Now I could analyze pancakes for color or texture, but some of them are just right and the presentation with butter and syrup just feel right. I think when we study and look at well composed art, it will rub off on us. Where I am in particular is going from framing a well composed shot, but looking at color, focus and blur, light as means to compose a shot and it has to feel right.

March 19, 2016 at 2:33PM

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Brilliantly explained. I cannot imagine how even the most unilluminated or least knowledgeable of aspiring photographers would find this difficult to grasp.

March 19, 2016 at 7:56PM, Edited March 19, 7:56PM

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Noel Grigalunus
Photographer/Owner/Co-Producer.
74

Out of rules and numbers, Annie Leibovitz's photographs of the 10 celebrities seems extracted from a larger panoramic shot.
Cropping feet on both side and the head of the portrait in the background is going against the overall set up which is mimicking a turgid classical painting or antic fresque.
I personally not see this picture as a reference in term of composition.
Of course, this is just a personal judgement, as I am not producing references myself, but I had enjoyed watching so many master pieces in Musée d'Orsay (Painting/Sculpture museum in Paris).
More than rules and numbers, important is to get a clear concept (story to tell, mood, pace, meaning, feel of balance, harmony or contrast) in mind, prior shooting to get a more interesting composition for both photography or cinematic work.

March 19, 2016 at 10:37PM

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Franc Sanka
Director of Photography / Film and Photography Teacher
125

The rule of thirds surely shouldn't be a "rule" but a very useful guide for beginners and amateurs. I find the concepts in this video highly exxagerated and extreme, but it's true that one shouldn't stick to the rule of thirds "no matter what", or it could be detrimental to his craft. I started doing photography way before than cinematography, and many times I noticed how a photo was far better if composed with the golden ratio or in other ways, often without following any known rule, just your eye.

March 20, 2016 at 9:17AM

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David R. Falzarano
Director / Writer / Editor
1416

Just wanted to add a quick note in support of some other comments mentioning that there really shouldn't be any "rules", and that good/dynamic/interesting compositions, for the most part, can be intuited. I also want to clarify what I mean by saying that the "rule of thirds" is a good tool for beginners to use.

Hywel, I think your breakdown of those who "have an eye" versus those who don't is extremely on point. I teach a beginner's cinematography course at NYU and find that it can be helpful for directors and other individuals who don't have much (or any) experience setting up a camera and composing images, to use the "rule of thirds" grid that can be superimposed over the display on their on-board monitor on the cameras that we use in class, in order to get them used to the general concept of thinking about composition and where to place their subjects/objects. That doesn't mean they have to follow it every single time, but I find it to be a helpful "training wheels"-type tool to move them from "no eye" to "have an eye".

That said, in my own cinematography and photography work, I certainly don't use any type of geometric guidelines to help compose my images - all of my compositions are purely intuitive, and I am sure that this is the case for most other DP's and photographers on here and in the world. To add to something that someone else mentioned, I certainly highly doubt that Liebovitz is actively thinking about geometric shapes when composing her images - she just does what "feels right". And sometimes, what "feels right" tends to fall into certain geometric trends. And sometimes it doesn't.

But the overall point of all of this, for both beginners and professionals, is that we should be aware of where we are placing objects in our frame. It's such an obvious point that it is almost not worth mentioning, but since this video and the whole concept of compositional lines tends to over-complicate it, sometimes it's good to boil a concept down to its essential point So whether you are thinking about rule of thirds, golden ratio, some complex root 4 rectangle or arabesque or simply intuiting something that "feels right"... as long as you are actively thinking about composition, then what does it matter what tool you are using to do so? :)

March 20, 2016 at 11:52AM

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Oren Soffer
Director of Photography
1974

Thanks for sharing. Always great to learn about more ways to achieve balance in a shot. I've read articles about direction and 'weight'-- I think these impact composition as well.

Regarding the rule of thirds... When I began to storyboard movies, I struggled to find thirds in shots. It was usually slightly off, and didn't seem to be useful. But then I started experimenting with other grids, and found there was almost always one that did fit. With a few exceptions (DW Griffith), I could find grid patterns in every shot. In newer works, particularly ones trying to be 'real', there was often an offset, but I could still find them. In widescreen, horizontal lines are weaker, they are usually split frame or thirds I always found the vertical lines to be very strong; wide shots were often 5ths, 7ths, even 9ths, closer shots seem to have smaller divisions, split frame or thirds. 5ths seem to be the most common division, common in Game of Thrones.

March 20, 2016 at 2:54PM, Edited March 20, 2:55PM

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David Barrington
Videographer
220

Here is my 2 cents. Like anything in life these are the Rules passed down by the Master, to this day many great painters still study and follow these great ideas. If they work back in those days, there are no reason they don't work in our digital world? For those embrace New Ideas I honor you, myself is no great painter but a strong composition does separate an average artist than a great artist. Like many great artists in our time, ideas don't come in thin air but does start from a drawing pad and refine the composition before anything is added. Even in my photography I do draw them out and figure how I can get the best composition. I don't know all the rules out there but it is nice to know few more options. Once you studied the great master painters composition, you will see how native we have arrived. I know most people will be shaking their heads, again for those wanting to learn beyond the rule of third this is a great video to start off. I do thank you the author who spent time to explain this important Rules or Ideas! Again if that worked for the Master then it must be good enough for us to learn!
Vancouver Photographer, Filmmaker
Oil Painter, Charcoal drawing and Sculptor

March 21, 2016 at 3:44AM

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Wayne Lam
Artist Photographer and Filmmaker
81

I hate when someone tried to argue a different point to a fault. The fact of the matter is the rule of thirds works. There is a reason why it exist in the first place. But yes it can be broken. The answer to all this is so simple and people like this dude tries to sound smart about it and over complicates it. The secret is this: What does the rule of thirds do? It helps create balance, thats it. Simple as that. So as long as your composition is balanced you can break it. All the rule of thirds is, is a guide to get that, but you can do it in may different ways. Thats why you can put your subject dead center of frame if the shot is balance. Speaking of which you can also unbalance a frame for effect, if you want to convey a feeling or effect. But anything can create the sought after balance, not just the subjects in frame, it could be lines, colors and brightness, even motion. The only thing you need to understand is how to balance a frame, thats what I teach people.

March 21, 2016 at 1:49PM, Edited March 21, 1:50PM

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Let's all it "Tool" of thirds. A tool, you can use, or use another one. Or use your instinct.

March 22, 2016 at 8:15AM

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N. Peter
Community / Filmmaker Website leader
86

Any aspiring cinematographer should start with 'The Five C's of Cinematography' by Joseph Mascelli and the 'American Cinematographer Manual'. Once you know that the rule of thirds is just one of many tools/rules for composition then there shouldn't be a problem.

March 23, 2016 at 3:21AM

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Willie Bouwer
Lecturer / Cinematographer / VFX Artist
181

It's quite deceptive to use that image from Annie Leibovitz as an example. The rule of thirds squarely points to nothing in the image, and for a very good reason. If I remember correctly, that image was used as the cover of the magazine, and judging by the proportions of the image, it was folded twice to make the standard issue cover. Therefore It needed to serve both as a 1/3 of an image, 2/3 of an image and the entire panorama. Meaning if anything important were to be placed on the rule of thirds, they would have been cut off on the fold line. While it does go to demonstrate other compositional measures, I feel an image without a physical need for other compositional tools would have been a better example.

March 23, 2016 at 8:20PM

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Exactly...the interesting thing here, is that because it's a triptych, since it folds out...it's exactly precisely three thirds...following the rule of thirds! You have three groupings of people, each completely balanced and weighted. This is actually a perfect example of the rule of thirds.

May 26, 2016 at 1:25PM, Edited May 26, 1:28PM

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Daniel Mimura
DP, cam op, steadicam op
2200

As an amateur, I find the Rule (Guideline?) of Thirds to be useful for situations where there is one subject of a scene, or a few subjects clustered in a localized area of the frame.

With more complex distributions of multiple subjects in a scene, a more creative approach to shot composition needs to applied.

Not all approaches will work for different situations of lighting, color, surface textures. lens induced perspective distortion effects, bokeh or contours. Some of these situations may be present in varying degrees.

Sometimes a compromise may need to be reached, keeping the interests of effectively conveying the atmosphere of the story to the audience as the focus (no pun intended).

March 28, 2016 at 4:50PM, Edited March 28, 4:50PM

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Neil Ruedlinger
Amateur Videographer
81

Amazing little video, thanks so much for the intro. Like many on this article, I'm sitting on the fence with my opinion. Yes, after this video I do believe that ROT is best left for beginners or easy snap-shots. It's opened my eyes to other better methods which I did not really pick up on prior. ROT does create a lot of unused or negative space, which was a characteristic I never really liked. However, the techniques described in the video are complex and would require a very long time to learn. If composure is paramount to the artist, it would be best to start learning early. But if your a weekend warrier with P&S - one may never master it. Ergo, rule of thirds could still be a visually pleasing option.

March 29, 2016 at 7:38AM, Edited March 29, 7:39AM

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I didn't even read the post. I'm here to say that the Rule of Thirds sucks all the way. Cheers.

March 31, 2016 at 1:45PM, Edited March 31, 1:45PM

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The rule of thirds depends on how good the food is and how hungry you are. If it's ok then it's the rule of firsts, good means the rule of seconds and great usually means thirds. If the food is the most amazing thing you have tasted in a long time, it moves into the rule of fourths and beyond.

April 11, 2016 at 2:51AM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
268