The Rule of Thirds: It’s Just a Suggestion

To clear up some confusion, the Rule of Thirds has nothing to do with the minimum number of trips you’re supposed to take through the line at a Las Vegas buffet. Turns out it’s a useful and simple technique for guiding composition!

That said, the word rule can be a little oppressive, so I’m going to write this post about the Suggestion of Thirds. In short, it goes like this: A composition divided into thirds (or fifths) is natural and pleasing to the eye, like a National League pitcher, while a composition divided in half or into an equal number of parts is cumbersome and awkward, like an American League hitter trying to bunt or pull a jersey over his steroid-engorged head. (The Suggestion of Thirds is really just a simplification of the Golden Mean or the Golden Ratio. There’s a good post on that here.)

Some rules are designed to be ignored as soon as you learn them (see speed limits), while others are ignored because some people missed that week of school (see Shea and punctuation). The Suggestion of Thirds is one that you should know, but once you learn it, you may decide it’s not necessary in every occasion.

With all of that as preamble, the Suggestion of Thirds is widely used for good reason. Take the case of the adorable kitty cat souvenir in Greece.

In this original, uncropped version, our adorable kitty cat souvenir is smack-dab in the middle of the photo. It’s not terribly interesting.

Using the Suggestion of Thirds, you might crop it like this.

The lines that occur naturally in the photograph (in this case, the horizon and the wall) fall roughly on the superimposed guidelines that divide the photograph in thirds. The focal point of the photograph (in my opinion, the cat’s eyes) falls on an intersection of one vertical guideline and one horizontal guideline.

This is another possible cropping of the same photo.

This cropping has the advantage that one of the secondary visual elements, the mannequin in the background, falls on one of the vertical guidelines.

The Suggestion of Thirds can be applied to most images. This caterpillar in Malaysia curls around a vertical guideline and a horizontal guideline, with its head landing right at the intersection of two guidelines.

The focal point of this photo is the pillars of Apollo’s temple in Delphi, Greece. The pillars land roughly on an intersection of two guidelines.

And the eyes of this koala outside of Melbourne, Australia, fall right on the first horizontal guideline.

With landscapes, many photographers push the Suggestion of Thirds to the Suggestion of Fifths, as with this photograph of Philadelphia. (Note that the tallest building in the skyline, the Comcast Center, falls on one of the vertical guidelines.)

In instances where the Suggestion of Fifths is employed, the horizon typically falls either on the bottom guideline to show a lot of sky, as with the photo of Twin Lakes, Colorado, above…

…or the horizon falls on the top guideline to show the terrain, as with this other photo of Twin Lakes, Colorado.

The very worst thing you can do with any composition is put a starburst in it. The next worst thing you can do is split it in half, as with the photo of Puerto Rico here. This is one of the reasons we oppose centering things, and it’s one of the reasons we suggest that compositions like interpretive panels and even individual pages be divided into an odd number of columns.

One of your responsibilities as a designer is to edit images that are delivered to you. None of the photos I’ve used as examples in this post arrived perfectly cropped and ready to use. They all had to be cropped in some sort of layout program.

As a designer, you should be thinking about the Suggestion of Thirds at all times, even when you’re watching The Big Bang Theory or combing your goatee. You should use it when laying out compositions, cropping photos, or combing your kid’s hair. It’s easy to remember, simple to implement, and visually pleasing.

But it’s just a suggestion.