When to follow and when to break the Rule of Thirds

Rules are meant to be broken


The rule of thirds is another of the most basic and fundamental compositional techniques in many forms of visual art. If you took a graphic design or photography class in your junior year of high school, you’ve heard all about the rule of thirds.

That being said, we put the rule of thirds to test in three popular shooting locations in Minneapolis, Minnesota and analyzed some of the benefits and drawbacks. For each location, there’s one where I did a simple point and shoot without giving much thought to composition, one shot that was centered, and one with consideration given to balance and the rule of thirds.

I’ll start with the simplest and most apparent use of the rule of thirds.

The Grain Belt Beer sign framed between the river and sky, with Hennepin Avenue Bridge to the side. Minneapolis, MN.
Point and shoot- A scene that doesn’t really have a main focus, nothing fills the frame, and the bridge leads the eye out of the frame rather than in.

The Grain Belt sign right off the Mississippi River– taken from the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. There wasn’t a lot of thought put into this photo, but the subject of the photo is only apparent because of the sharp color contrast. While the river and the sky, at times, could be used to frame a shot, this one doesn’t illustrate a strong example of that. The bridge leads the eye away from the subject and the surrounding buildings and trees just make for a messy photo.

The Grain Belt Beer sign centered in the shot. Minneapolis, MN.
Centered- The Grain Belt sign is put right into the middle of the photo. Some context is left in, though it may work better if the sign fills the frame even more. While the centering draws the eye directly to the subject, the contrast in colors is an effective method to draw the eye inward also.

This photo centers the Grain Belt sign and mostly fills the frame with the subject. Keeping some of the trees and buildings provides the viewer some environmental context to the shot and frames the subject, which is again due mostly to the sharp contrast in colors. The subject is bright and colorful. This photo may be improved by filling the frame even more with the subject.

Grain Belt Beer sign set at a crash point in the shot, following the rule of thirds.
Rule of thirds- The subject is sitting right on an intersecting line in the grid, making the shot a little bit more dynamic. The trees in the bottom add some context and are a more interesting choice than, say, showing more sky in the shot.

This shot directly follows the rule of thirds. The subject is placed right on the left side crash point, which helps create a more dynamic and interesting shot. Although, it is called a “rule,” rules in design are more of a starting guideline and thirds is just a simple introduction to more complicated dynamic symmetry. While the rule of thirds is a good starting point, it doesn’t always produce the best shot. Experimentation with placement and balance is key.

The Minneapolis skyline with I-35W beneath it and the sky above.
Point and shoot- Nothing really fills the frame in this shot, and the busy freeway makes for a messy photograph.

The 24th Street pedestrian bridge is a popular shooting location for the Minneapolis skyline that works especially well at nighttime. In this shot, there’s just too much happening to provide a clear focus of the subject. Mid afternoon traffic, bright orange pylons, and negative space created by the sky distracts the eye from immediately seeing the skyline, which is the main subject that to be highlighted.

The Minneapolis skyline with I-35W beneath it and the sky above.
Rule of thirds- The top of the photo is mostly sky, the middle is mostly downtown, and the bottom is mostly road. This shot does a good job of showing context, though is pretty busy and might work better at nighttime when a low shutter-speed can be used to blur the traffic beneath.

This photo observes the rule of thirds. The bottom third is mostly taken up by the road, middle third by the skyline, and top third by the sky and tall skyscrapers. With this composition, the viewer is given some context with I-35W below, though it makes the photo more busy and could detract from the highlighted focus.

The Minneapolis skyline filling the frame of the shot.
Centered- The skyline takes up most of the frame, with the two tallest skyscrapers framing the shot and pulling the eye inward.

This shot centers the skyline and might be my favorite out of the three, despite breaking the rule of thirds completely. Most of the noise of the last picture is cut out. The IDS building (tall, wide skyscraper on the left side) and the Capella Tower (skyscraper on the right with the ‘crown’) give a slight framing effect that pull the viewer into the shot.

The Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis, with the Spoon and Cherry in the front, Blue Rooster behind, and Basilica of St. Mary in the more distant background.
Point and shoot- A lot of uninteresting ground is visible and the shot is very center-heavy.

The spoon and cherry at the Walker Art Center Sculpture Gardens, with the Basilica of St. Mary in the background. This shot has way too much ground in it. The shot is centered heavily and most of the visible context is pretty indiscernible. The eye isn’t drawn anywhere specific, maybe in the upper-middle, but there’s nothing that really compels the viewer to look at a location in the shot.

The Walker Art Center Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis, with the Spoon and Cherry in the front, Blue Rooster behind, and Basilica of St. Mary in the more distant background. A more balanced photograph.
Rule of thirds- This photo puts more of an emphasis into the balance of the photo, rather than putting our main subjects onto the intersecting lines of the grid.

Following the rule of thirds wasn’t quite as obvious for this photo. Obtaining a shot with interesting background context– without sacrificing compositional quality– wasn’t as simple as it was with the Grain Belt sign. Rather than place our main subject (the Spoon) and our background subject (Basilica) on the crash points (which would have required zooming out and creating a lot of unnecessary open space), more effort was put into balancing the shot into the thirds. The spoon sits in the bottom right, while the big mass of the church lies slightly higher and to the left side of the photo. The eye is drawn to our main subject, but can also wander slightly to the context in the scene behind.

While the rule of thirds can be a great guide for composing and balancing a dynamic photograph, it can be broken to produce even better results. Feel free to share your experiences with the rule of thirds in the comments and tell us what you love or hate about it.


  1. I now am more informed about rule of thirds. I found this article very knowledgeable. Looking at the photo comparisons and descriptions really helped me understand “rule of thirds”.


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