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Photography Tips: When to Break the Rule of Thirds

Skill Level: Beginner

This photography tip was taken from the curriculum of my online course "Composition for Dramatic Landscapes." It's just a little tidbit taken from Week 1: Compositional Basics.

The rule of thirds is a pretty common compositional tool (notice I said tool, not rule) for creating better compositions in most scenarios. It's covered in beginning books everywhere and is one of the first composition tools you'll learn in photography. The idea is simple: just imagine your frame divided into thirds horizontally and vertically like so...

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

Then, place your main subject on one of the crosshairs and/or divide your landscape into 2/3 foreground and 1/3 background/sky. It will often times result in a better composition, but not always.

It's a great tool no doubt, but I've found that in landscape photography, there is one particular situation where breaking this rule of thirds and doing the dreaded "horizon through the middle" actually works much better. That's when you want to highlight symmetry.  In these instances, it can be most beneficial to put your subject or horizon right in the center of the frame. Doing so highlights the symmetry better than placing it off-center, per the rule of thirds.

For example, all of the following images are about symmetry through reflections. You'll notice I divided the frame into 1/2 foreground (e.g. lake, sand) and 1/2 background (e.g. sky, mountain, rocks) instead of the guidelines laid out by the rule of thirds.

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

This last example is a little less obvious, but I wanted to highlight the symmetry between the texture of the rocks with the textures of the clouds. The clouds seemed to be mimicking those rocks and I wanted to show that in the final image. Breaking the rule of thirds and putting the horizon through the center was just the right recipe for showing that symmetry.

When to Not Use The Rule of Thirds

There you go! So don't be afraid to break the "rules"!