While there’s no substitute for a good eye, photographers and filmmakers do abide by certain “rules” when it comes to composing images. Among them is the rule of thirds, an invaluable tool for when putting your subject right at the center just won’t do.
The “rule of thirds” is a basic composition technique in photography and filmmaking. To follow it, imagine two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines over your image, creating a grid with nine squares. Then, make sure the most important visual elements of the image—where you want the viewer’s eyes to be drawn—fall along these lines or at the points where they intersect.
These guidelines are especially helpful for novice photographers and filmmakers, who might be tempted to always frame their subjects centrally without using their environment. The rule of thirds creates more pleasing images because it encourages a dynamic, balanced composition. The foreground, background, and negative space work in tandem with the subject to tell a visual story.
In this shot from HBO’s “The White Lotus,” Aubrey Plaza’s character, Harper, is the most important figure, but her off-center positioning draws the audience’s eye—the same way the crowd of men are drawn as well. Because those men occupy the remaining two-thirds of the shot, we also feel the same sense of feeling overcrowded that Harper does.
“The White Lotus” Credit: Fabio Lovino/HBO
“I can’t emphasize enough how the rule of thirds is such a powerful technique in telling a story in a single frame,” says director Michael Weinstein (“If Trees Could Talk,” “White Knuckle”). “It gives filmmakers the ability to tell where the audience should focus their eyes on the screen. Aside from the aesthetics, the background, foreground, and subject placement can foreshadow events to come.”
Writer-director Edward Drake (“Apex,” “Gasoline Alley”) calls the rule of thirds “a pragmatic approach to framing.” He recommends film editor Walter Murch’s book “In the Blink of an Eye” for further reading on the subject. “There is a good reason the rule of thirds is an important concept—it works,” Drake says. “Audiences understand this style of visual language.”
First, decide what you are trying to say with your image. All of the perfectly aligned components in the world will be a waste if your imagery doesn’t tell a story. Is there a key detail within the frame that you want to draw the audience’s eye toward? Do you want to suggest the relationship between two characters through their physical position? Is there an opportunity to create suspense with the amount of negative space compared to your subject?
“When framing a shot, I ask myself how the composition informs the audience’s understanding of the story,” explains Drake. “Is the composition helping reveal new information to the audience? Will the camera be in motion? If we give this character too much headroom, what does it say about their state of mind?”
Place the grid over your shot. (When in doubt, think of a tic-tac-toe board.) You can do this in your head, but the majority of modern cameras—and even most cell phones—come with a setting that actually places a grid on your screen. Position your subject along these grid lines, ideally with key details falling near the point where they intersect.
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” Courtesy A24
The rule of thirds isn’t just for medium shots—you can also use the guidelines to create aesthetically pleasing close-ups. Just place your subject’s eyes along the top line of the grid.
“The Shining” Courtesy Warner Bros.
The rule of thirds is also handy for framing a horizon. If you’re shooting a landscape shot, place the horizon on either the top line or bottom line. (Not putting the horizon right in the middle is famously the advice director John Ford gave a young Steven Spielberg.)
“Barry” Courtesy HBO
Rules are meant to be broken, and it’s no different when applied to filmmaking. Breaking the rule of thirds can be accomplished:
When there’s a lot of movement in the frame
The reason the rule of thirds is brought up more in photography than in filmmaking is that it works best for static shots and still cameras. When your scene calls for a good amount of motion—whether it’s from the subjects or the camera—the process becomes more about properly capturing the action. Action set-pieces, handheld camera-work, and cinéma vérité-style naturalism often eschew the rule of thirds.
When you want the subject dead center
Placing the focal point of your shot in the direct middle of the frame can tell its own story. It can emphasize how important the subject is compared to its surroundings. Or it can give you a chance to play with symmetry, a technique often used by director Wes Anderson.
“Moonrise Kingdom” Courtesy Focus Features
When your subject is small or large
An unconventional but effective way to break the rule of thirds is to capitalize on the extremes of the frame. That can mean making your subject incredibly small compared to its surroundings—like this shot from “Lawrence of Arabia” that emphasizes the vastness of the desert.
“Lawrence of Arabia” Courtesy Columbia Pictures
This can also mean your subject is so large it extends beyond the borders of the frame—like this moment from “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” when the gigantic Death Star is introduced by showing just a portion of its surface.
Whenever you want
Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins told us his best advice for capturing great images is “just use your eyes.” Part of getting better at framing is learning to trust your instincts—if you believe the story of that image is better told without the rule of thirds, give it a try. Always remember that the rule of thirds is an option and a good starting point, but it’s never mandatory.
“The Godfather Part II” (1974)
In Francis Ford Coppola’s brooding crime sequel, there is a scene where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) confronts his brother Fredo (John Cazale) about betraying the family. “Michael is standing on the left side of the frame, whereas Fredo sits back in the chair. This demonstrates Michael’s dominance but also the weakness of Fredo’s character,” says Weinstein. “In the background, we see the lake through the windows. Fredo’s head appears below water level, foreshadowing his ultimate demise out in the water.”
“The Godfather Part II” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
“Rear Window” (1954)
One of the main purposes of the rule of thirds is “leading,” or directing the audience’s eyes. In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Rear Window”—a film about where we direct our gaze—the director often uses the rule of thirds to amplify the theme of voyeurism. In the shot below, our attention is drawn first to L.B. Jefferies’ (Jimmy Stewart) eyes, then down the length of the lens in his hand to the viewfinder. Hitchcock cuts right at the correct moment to put us in the character’s point of view, essentially “leading” us out the window to see what he sees.
“Rear Window” Courtesy Paramount Pictures
In “Joker,” the duo of director Todd Phillips and cinematographer Lawrence Sher create a dark, miserable world that causes Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) to spiral into madness. As the film progresses, Arthur is pushed further and further off center—as in the shot below—to signify the character losing his grip on reality.
“Joker” Courtesy Warner Bros.