What is the rule of thirds? Even if you’re a newbie photographer or filmmaker, you’re probably at least vaguely familiar with one rule of thirds definition or another.
The rule of thirds is an effective way to frame the elements in your scene so that the resulting image is much more visually captivating. Like most other filmmaking “rules,” it’s not really a rule at all—more of a golden guideline. Still, if you don’t know how to define rule of thirds before you break it, the intentionality of your work may be lacking.
It’s also an incredibly easy rule to try out: Any level photographer or cinematographer can use it. First, let’s define it by showing you some rule of thirds examples, then explore how it’s used in film.
Rule of Thirds Definition
Defining the Rule of ThirdsThis compositional rule is perhaps the most well-known and commonly employed photographic and cinematographic technique. The rule provides a reliable guideline for framing your shots and an excellent starting point for beginners who hope to dip their toes into the many rules of composition.
Rule of Thirds Definition
What is the Rule of Thirds?
The Rule of Thirds is the process of dividing an image into thirds, using two horizontal and two vertical lines. This imaginary grid yields nine parts with four intersection points.
When you position the most important elements of your image at these intersection points, you produce a much more natural image. It is also suggested that any horizon is placed on either the top horizontal line or bottom horizontal line.
Off-center composition is pleasing to the eye because it’s typically where the eyes go first. When there is a subject or object off center, it also gives viewers the ability to interact with that space between them. This allows for interpretation and conversation between the subject and the background, as opposed to a fully centered subject.
The Rule of Thirds is a way to:
- Use composition techniques that are in line with what’s naturally pleasing to the eye
- Creatively use negative space
- Create conversation between the subject and background
The imaginary rule of thirds grid can be seen below. Notice the most critical elements fall on the lines or where the lines intersect. Also, notice that the horizon in the rule of thirds grid sits on the top horizontal line. Placing your elements on or near these intersecting points on the rule of thirds grid can create a visual conversation between them.
There is often a richer dynamic between subject and object. In the video below, you’ll find a breakdown of some rule of thirds that can be applied to your work in either film or still photography.
And in this video, you’ll find more Rule of Thirds examples and to learn how to break the rule with purpose:
What is the Rule of Thirds for Filmmakers?
Rule of Thirds Examples in Cinema
So, we’ve unpacked some rule of thirds photography examples. But filmmaking takes rule of thirds composition considerations to a whole other level.
That’s not necessarily because it’s more difficult in one medium or another, but because it’s more time consuming and particular. Of course, films are motion pictures. So, a film camera is especially responsible for engaging audiences and directing their eyes.
The best shots in cinema are the ones whose composition reflects the story they’re telling. And the emotion and tension of any given scene is enhanced with intentional subject and object placement.
In this respect, rule of thirds film techniques have many more factors to consider than rule of thirds photography techniques. Just as actors’ movements are often captured with a static camera, characters who remain still are often captured with a camera that’s constantly in motion. (Often, both of these are happening at once in one sequence.)To explore just what is the rule of thirds’ complex role in filmmaking, watch this video on how such films as Mission Impossible: Fallout, The Avengers, and The Notebook, use it to keep audiences engaged throughout manhunts, love scenes, and everything in between.
When Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) sprints across rooftops in Mission Impossible: Fallout, director Christopher McQuarrie uses and breaks this rule constantly.
While most of the shots do keep the horizon on one of the horizontal lines, Hunt is often seen right in the middle of the frame, breaking the rule effectively to show what surrounds him.
A key piece of clever composition is in the transitions between shots. Right as Ethan jumps off the roof, we’re met with this shot:
Here, we see how the rule of thirds is a way to effectively elicit tension and define the relationship between the character and what’s at stake.
We threw the scene into StudioBinder's shot list and storyboarding software to show you how you might map out each composition like McQuarrie. (Bonus: To fully appreciate how he stitches these transitions together, pretend that the rule of thirds grid is placed over each shot.)
Here’s another example that uses the rule effectively:
This fairly basic example from The Avengers gives us a unique perspective, while providing narrative context and heightening tension.
What is the Rule of Thirds?
Breaking the Rule of Thirds
Breaking the rule of thirds can also be powerful if that approach jives with your directorial intent. Center framing can create tension and comedic relief, as well as help viewers make sense of characters’ surroundings.
No one does center framing better than Stanley Kubrick and Wes Anderson. But both filmmakers make use of the technique in completely different ways.Kubrick’s center framing is often used for dramatic effect. Consider this example from The Shining:
Here, Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) is forced to confront what lies ahead of him in The Overlook Hotel, and center framing allows us to feel the creepiness of that experience with him.
Anderson breaks the rule of thirds almost all the time—so much so that it’s been accepted as one of his trademarks. Audiences are generally OK with him breaking the rule because his visuals mesh perfectly with his eccentric characters and settings as a result.
This video focuses exclusively on Wes Anderson’s center framing:
So, try applying rule of thirds photography and filmmaking techniques in your own work. You can always break the rule, but make sure your choice is determined by a firm grasp of the rule of thirds definition, and by what’s most beneficial to the shot and overall narrative.
Now that you have a deeper understanding of the rule, pay close attention to the films you love and how directors and cinematographers use composition to better tell their stories.
Rules of shot composition
Ready for more rules? (Just kidding, they’re more like considerations... but ones you should absolutely know). Unless you’re writing a novel, composition is how you tell your story. It’s just as important as the writing itself. Next, we’ll explore the Rule of Shot Composition.