The rule of thirds. Can this golden rule be broken?

Hellooooooo Everyone! It’s just about midnight and it’s just about to turn into Tuesday! I am sitting at my stoop with my wife in bed behind me sleeping away. I was about to go to bed myself but had a burst of energy all of the sudden as I am expecting something in my inbox in the next hour that (for me) is pretty exciting! Can’t say what it is just yet but I will when I can. So instead of going to bed I decided to write a short article on one of the most (if not the most) preached rules of photography. The rule of thirds! It’s a great rule  to follow and I use it quite often because it is a simple rule that can really make your images more visually pleasing and exciting. It is OK to break this rule sometimes though. In other words, it’s not against the law 🙂

Yes, rules can be broken. Just ask my wife because I broke my “no more lens buying rule” about 24 times. But I am talking about the rules of photography here and you should not be afraid to break them from time to time as the results can be equally as pleasing (they can also be not so pleasing). But before you can run out and break this rule you should know what it is. Most of you reading this already do but some of you may not so let me give you my simple and easy to understand definition.

RULE OF THIRDS definition: Basically, do not frame your subject in the center of the frame. Move it over! Left or right or up and down a little.

This rule came about due to the fact that your eyeball is naturally drawn to the off center areas of a photograph and not the center. When you spot that amazing scene and you want to get that perfect shot of it, then the rule of thirds may help you do just that. You may notice that I use the rule of thirds quite often in my photos and you also may be wondering why I am telling you it is to break that rule if I always use it! Well, I do not ALWAYS use it and sometimes I frame my subjects smack dab in the middle of my frame. But I admit, most of the time I do indeedy use this rule. After all, as someone once told me the best way to see how these rules affect a photo is to go ahead and break them 🙂

Here is an example of an image where I used  the rule of thirds:

Yep, for this image I was a good boy and I followed the rule of thirds. The image worked fine here but what if f I did NOT follow the most famous composition rule of photography? Well, this next image is lousy and I wonder…Hmm, is it because I put this guy right in the center or is it due to that pissed off look he is giving me?

I remember being in a photo class years ago and the teacher, who was an awesome easy going kind of gal, well, she was discussing the rule of thirds. She said to follow the rules but to also experiment and not to really get stuck on it. Hmmm, there’s a thought. She was 100% right. Photography, when done as a hobby (which the majority of us do) should be fun, exciting, and we should not have to stress over it. Experimentation is actually one of the most powerful learning tools when it comes to photography. How can we know what what works and what doesn’t if we do not try everything?

When I attended that photo class I had a blast. I think it was mainly due to the teacher who was not all uptight, not all crabby,  and a not a “stick to the rules” kind of teacher. She knew that experimenting would help us to learn why these rules were made, and eventually we would know when it may be better to break them.

So I went out and started breaking those rules! Many images were garbage but some were not too shabby! Here is one shot on my old M7 with Fuji Reala. Was out with the family at Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona, AZ. My son and his cousin did not seem to happy when I asked them to let me get their pic. BTW, the lens was a 50 cron.

So what would this have looked like if I followed the rules? Thanks to photoshop and the crop tool, I can find out! Notice how I moved the subjects over to the right side? Our eyes are drawn from left to right naturally, and they really do not like getting stuck in the middle 🙂

This crop also works and to some may be more interesting but I like them both. These days my brain is programmed to be able to see like this when I go out and shoot. I admit, the rule of thirds is something that just comes natural to me. I use it quite often but there are also times when I feel that this rule is better left in the rule books. Sometimes I over use it, sometimes I screw it up and sometimes it can REALLY make an image stand out and turn it in to a masterpiece!

Basically, all I am saying here is what many of you already know  but the bottom line is experiment with framing your images. Next time you go out shooting here is something to try. Find a nice landscape scene and shoot it using the rule of thirds, and  then break the rule. Do the same with a portrait. You will usually get the more pleasing image when following this rule, but other times you may prefer one of those centered subject images. I know the “smack dab center” rule has worked for me in the past on a few occasions.

The key word in this article? EXPERIMENT!

Anyway it is now nearly 3AM and I am once again tired. My inbox now has my goodie in it and I am off to bed. Come back later today for a great guest article on film shooting. It’s not dead! I will leave you with an image or two where I did NOT follow the rule of thirds! Maybe I should break it more often? Thanks for reading!



  1. nice images. As far as the rule being broken, I agree it can be broken. But your images displayed here as having broken the rule, still seem to be following a basic rule of third.

  2. Hey Steve,

    This article inspired me to break free from the tyranny of rules and I bought the Nokton 1.1.

    Yes, the wife is gonna kill me but I’m hoping some cool non-rule-of-thirds-following pics of our soon to be born son will make up for it.

    Keep up the great work and I’m looking forward to your Voigtlander/Zeiss lens recommendation article.

  3. But you are following the rule of thirds in those pictures. The rule of thirds wants you to place an area of interest in one of the thirds of the picture. For example, in the picture of the boys, if you move their eyes (the area of interest) into the center of the frame so they are dead center, the picture loses interest. You have their eyes a third into the picture vertically! The same with Seal and the naked cat. I agree that you should break the rule sometimes and purposefully, but I don’t agree that these are great examples of the rule broken.

    That said, sometimes something smack dab in the middle of a picture is pleasing. Quite often where there is a repeating pattern or a solid color, like the cat, that is broken up by the object in the middle.

  4. Well, RF users don’t know how to compose so well with rule of 3rds, they are locked up in the center RF patch *lol*. Very good focusing most of the time, but if subject is in the center. But they do try to get it by using wide angles at f/8 which can be more forgiving when recomposing, like Gary Winogrand.

    Anyway, in documentary or photojournalism (i.e. news), the rule of third is really not important, it’s the moment. What do non-photographers care about rule of 3rds ? Whether it is in the center, top, etc. as long as the moment is captured in all its glory. Moreover, a picture of Brad Pitt will sell wherever he is in the composition.

    Photographers are so full of such rules (especially in portraiture). I was not a photo enthusiast once, and I didn’t know any rules, but I knew a good picture when I saw one. Non-photographers pay the bills, so who cares if other photographers criticize other’s works ? They can only talk, they won’t buy your work even if it is the best in the world and you’re selling for only $150 instead of $15k.

    Anyway, heaven forbid, I wouldn’t want to be called a photographer. We always thought photographers were just some low occupation. I’d rather be simply Leica owner, or Leica photo enthusiast …

  5. Another great article Steve. I too break that rule on occasion. I suppose my first direction is to explore the other options first and then go to the middle last.

    The cat scared me at first. I’m not a cat person myself 🙂
    And just when I thought there were no rules here….go figure. Grats on the inspiration.

  6. A very well articulated write up Steve !…I personally believe on knowing the rules. And then break them. The most important thing one can do is to experiment and never loose curiosity.

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