In a nutshell
- The rule of thirds is a composition guideline that divides a frame into nine parts using two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines
- According to the rule, you should place the subject on these lines or at their intersections to create visual interest
- The rule of thirds applies to whatever aspect ratio your video is
The rule of thirds is one of the many compositional guidelines videographers follow to help compose their shots. Though it’s one of many compositional guidelines, it’s an incredibly important one.
The rule of thirds is a universal principle applied across various art mediums, from painting and photography to film and video. This article defines the rule and explains how to follow it in video work. It also discusses when it may be appropriate to deviate from the rule.
Let’s start with its definition.
The rule of thirds defined
The rule of thirds is a composition guideline that divides a frame into nine parts using two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines. According to the rule, you should place the subject on these lines or at their intersections. This guideline is a calculated technique that provides structure to composition to create visual interest.
For instance, when shooting a landscape, the rule of thirds suggests that the sky should occupy either one-third or two-thirds of the image. The horizon line shouldn’tshouldn’t sit in the middle of the frame.
When shooting a portrait, the rule of thirds encourages placing the subject’ssubject’s eyes on the horizontal line one-third down from the top of the frame.
The rule of thirds emphasizes the intersections of the grid as points of interest. It suggests placing the most significant elements in the frame on one or more of these intersections as they naturally draw the audience’s attention.
Does the rule of thirds apply to different aspect ratios?
The aspect ratio of a clip doesn’t impact the rule of thirds. Whether using a 4:3 Academy ratio or a full 2.39:1 widescreen ratio, the grid operates the same.
The rule of thirds’ purpose
A common mistake beginner filmmakers make is to place the subject directly in the center of the frame. This creates several problems, such as static framing, weak visual interest and a low emotional connection with the viewer.
Placing the subject off-center creates visual interest and makes sequences instantly more dynamic. This is because the rest of the composed frame draws the viewers to the subject.
The rule of thirds also provides a structured way to compose shots. For example, it works well when composing a two-person conversation. By positioning one subject away from the center of the frame on one grid intersection, you can place another subject on the opposite side of the grid at another intersection.
How do filmmakers use it?
Although the rule of thirds operates similarly in both photography and videography, there are some differences. Photography is a still medium, while videography almost always has some movement. Although the rule of thirds still suggests following its grid, it’s important to remember that you need to consider factors such as movement when filming video.
When setting up a static shot, you can align the grid on your camera with the natural lines within the frame. However, in film, there’s a greater challenge. You must consider the grid throughout the entire sequence. For example, if you’re following a person walking and panning to the right, you need to adjust your framing as the sequence progresses. Many cameras today have a built-in rule of thirds grid, which you can view using their viewfinder or rear screen, allowing you to utilize these grids on set.
Is it okay to break the rule of thirds?
As with any creative medium, you should view rules as guidelines, not as a one-size-fits-all solution. This applies to the rule of thirds as well. It’s a tried-and-true way of framing shots appealingly. However, it is not the only way, and there may be instances where breaking the rule of thirds is more appropriate than following it. Here are a few cases where you would want to break the rule of thirds.
When shooting a close-up, you want to center the subject in the frame to emphasize their reactions and feelings. In this instance, think of the camera as a spotlight. The camera focuses dead-center on the subject. Placing the subject off-center would widen the spotlight to other elements, relaxing the focus on the subject.
Expression of strength or weakness
One way to make a character appear strong or large is to use a low-angle shot with the subject centered in the frame. Conversely, to make a character appear weak or small, use a high-angle shot with the subject centered in the frame. Both techniques are effective and work best when centering the subject in the frame.
The rule in thirds in practice
While following the rule of thirds is a common practice in cinema, several exceptional examples demonstrate its effectiveness. Let’s examine two films that utilized the rule of thirds effectively.
In the closing sequence of “Skyfall,” James Bond stands over the London city skyline, contemplating it. As the frame pans down to Bond, he is in the left third of the frame. The film’s cinematographer, Roger Deakins, balances the composition by placing a domed-roof building in the right third of the frame. This sequence effectively portrays Bond as imposing and strong, as if he is part of the cityscape.
This sequence from “Skyfall” demonstrates how the rule of thirds can enhance a composition’scomposition’s depth. Bond is in the right third of the frame, and the focus shifts to Moneypenny as she moves to the left third. Incorporating depth in your frame can add a cinematic feel to your videos, increasing their complexity and aesthetic appeal.
“Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018)
In the rooftop chase sequence from “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” cinematographer Rob Hardy demonstrates how the rule of thirds can be both broken and followed in one sequence. The scene starts with Ethan Hunt running toward the camera, centered in the frame, breaking the rule’s guideline to place the subject off-center. However, Hardy puts the horizon in the upper third of the frame, following the rule of thirds.
The camera frames Hunt in the left third of the frame once he comes alongside the camera and it pans with him.
Next, the camera moves behind Hunt, centering him in the middle of the frame. The horizon is on the upper third again as well.
The sequence ends as Hunt jumps to another building and the camera moves to a top-down position. In this shot, Hardy frames Hunt on the top-left intersection of the grid.
A guideline — not a rule
Remember, although the rule of thirds is a crucial guideline in cinema, it’s sometimes best to break it. However, adhering to the guideline will enhance your video’s composition in most situations.
So, if you feel your shots look uninteresting or look off somehow, examine if you’re following the rule of thirds. As you become more experienced in using the rule of thirds, you will develop a natural eye for it. You will intuitively know what looks good and what doesn’t without needing the grid. Still, many, even seasoned professionals, use the grid to ensure that their shots look the best they can or achieve a certain aesthetic.
Regardless of the situation, make sure you consider the intention of your framing. There’s nothing wrong with trying different compositions. As with all techniques, it’s best to practice it yourself.
Contributing editors to this article: Pete Tomkies and Kyle Cassidy