The First Rule Of Photography You Should Learn Is the Rule Of Thirds And Here’s Why


It is no joke, I believe the first of photography that you should learn is the rule of thirds. It is the very first thing that you need to know, even before the exposure triangle, and I’ll tell you why.

Photo by Kevin Noble on Unsplash

My first encounter with the rule of thirds wasn't exactly delivered to me by a photographer, but my mother; and it wasn't exactly told to me in a nice way. I think I was like 14 years old when this happened.

We were at a family dinner, and the “family picture” moment arrived. I jumped up and went to take a photograph with my dad's digital camera, but my mom said to me to leave the camera alone and to give it to my cousin – because he works as a photographer and he knows about composition.

Later that night I asked her about this “composition” thing, and she told me “yes, because most people shoot things centered and they don't look good, he takes better photos so must know more about composition than you”.

At that time neither my mom nor I knew that she was talking about the first rule of photography…the rule of thirds.

After that moment, I tried to always do some creative framings with any camera whenever I got the chance. Six years after that, when I began studying photography, I learned about the famous Rule of Thirds, and all made sense to me.

Eventually, anyone learns to expose by correctly mixing aperture, shutter speed and ISO, but few learn to see creatively, that's why I believe you should start with composition. 

An Example Of The First Rule Of Photography

It is very likely that you have already heard about this “rule”. It is even possible that, as a new photographer, you've been encouraged to break this rule. However, I still consider the rule of thirds to be the most elegant rule there is in composition.

Let's take my most important photograph to date as an example of composing with the Rule of Thirds in mind

Photo by Federico Alegría

After composing the shot, I remember talking to myself at that moment, because it was a strong thing to watch indeed, and all I was telling myself was “f/5.6, 1/250, don't mess it up, this is the photo of your life”.

No matter how technically good a photograph is, if it doesn't have a good composition, it won't have meaning at all.

The strength of this photo relies on the rule of thirds.

The Rule of Thirds is a basic yet useful technique for achieving balance in your photographs.

This is achieved simply by subdividing your frame into thirds with two vertical and two horizontal imaginary lines (pretty much like a tic-tac-toe board).

Some cameras have an incorporated grid that helps people figuring them out. Even Adobe's Lightroom has a thirds grid when cropping images.

Where the horizontal and vertical lines meet is your focal point

The four sections where the lines cross are interest points, and if you want to enhance a subject's presence and interest in a photograph, you should place it at any or several of them (not randomly of course, with aesthetical purpose).

You'll rarely use all four points of interest at once, so don't worry about that.

Some people on the internet encourage young photographers to break this first rule of photography. And I do agree that the rule needs to be broken in order to achieve interesting results, but before breaking a rule, it should be mastered with practice.

This rule is simple to learn, and it can take a number of years to master.

And as pretty much everything that relates to composition, understanding it requires both theoretical knowledge, and tons of practice hours.

Do you agree or disagree that the rule of thirds is the first rule of photography? Let's get your thoughts in the comments below!

Further Resources

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

I object to teaching this “rule” like this, without context, understanding or mentioning other techniques and tools from the composition toolbox. This “rule” has great uses but should be used when understanding WHY it works and WHEN it works. In some cases using the “rule of thirds” destroys the composition and gets the total opposite effect to the one desired.

I recently saw a long video that slammed the rule of thirds. It was a shameless plug for a book, but it misrepresented what the rule of thirds stand for in any possible way. If you teach the rule of thirds like this, you only give fuel to the people who think it is the worst possible advice to give to anyone. So please don’t!

The rule of thirds is one simple but useful tool out of many. It should have no special status among the tools available to a photographer, just one among many that should be used when appropriate. A simpler version of the rule of thirds is to not always center your subject(s). Try to place them a bit off-center and see what happens. Both horizontally and vertically. Then try to place them a lot off-center. The rule of thirds, golden ratio, intersecting diagonals or whatever you want to use is nothing magic, just a compromise between a static feeling, a dynamic feeling and unbalanced feeling. What do you want in your picture. Use the tool that evokes that feeling. Not every composition will do this for you, and thus not every tool is appropriate.

Oversimplifying just hurts the learning photograper. Especially broad and generic statements like the ones in this article. So again, please don’t!

Everyone says this to me, but honestly I don’t know…i became a professional artist and found out I have a talent for it. I think it depends on where you need to begin. I already did most of the methods before I knew anything about photography, so when I started the college classes what I really needed to do was look at shadows and lighting. Honestly everyone has a different important thing they need to learn to me.

The rules of thirds is critical, and like all rules, needs to be known, understood and followed. ONLY when this ‘rule of thirds’ has been properly mastered, can the photographer then branch out and bend it, or break it, or manipulate it.

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