Notice in the original image on the left, the tree in the background gets almost an entire third. But the tree isn’t really important to the shot and it takes away from what we’re really supposed to see: the food. On the right, the tree has been cropped out completely and the left two thirds of the image belong to the main subject. Now that extra third on the right is dedicated to negative space that works with the composition instead of distracting from it.
There is more than one way to crop an image to comply with the rule of thirds. Once you select the Crop Tool in Photoshop, a grid will pop up over your image, showing you the lines breaking the photo up into thirds. You can just drag the edges or corners of the image to resize the photo however you like, but, for the sake of cropping to a clear and defined aspect ratio using the rule of thirds grid, here’s a simple step-by-step method:
- Select the Crop Tool.
- You’ll see a grid pop up over the image.
- Click on the Ratio dropdown menu at the top of the screen and choose the size of the photo you’d like to end up with.
- A box representing your newly set crop area and containing the rule of thirds grid will appear over the photo.
- Now, when you click on and drag an edge or a corner, the aspect ratio will remain the same.
- If needed, you can change the grid’s orientation by clicking on the ‘Swap height and width’ arrows button in the top options bar. Or, just grab one of the grid’s corners and move up for a portrait layout, or sideways for a landscape layout.
- Move the box so that your subjects are in line with the horizontal or vertical grid lines, or on the intersecting points.
- Uncheck ‘Delete Cropped Pixels’ in the Crop Tool options bar – that way you can get your original image back if you decide to rearrange the crop later.
- When you’re satisfied with your new image, click on the check mark icon to commit to the crop.
Remember, this is only one version of how you can crop your photos to conform to the rule of thirds. See PHLEARN’s own guide to Photoshop cropping for more information on improving your composition in post-processing.
Post-processing won’t solve every problem. For example, there may not be enough room around your subject to crop properly. Always try to apply your technique in-camera and use Photoshop as your secret weapon.
Breaking the Rule
Breaking the rule of thirds is a lot like breaking rules in any artistic discipline – you must know the rule first in order to be able to break it properly. In fact, some go so far as to say that the rule is only helpful to photographers in the learning stages. As photographers grow in skill, they argue, they can think less about whether they’re conforming to a rule or breaking it.
In truth, it’s a matter of developing good photographic instincts and going with your gut. There’s no definitive sign that the rule of thirds is unnecessary, but there are a few occasions where we can easily identify when it might work in our favor to break the rule:
1. When you’re capturing symmetry:
We talked a lot in this guide about finding asymmetrical balance, but traditional symmetry still has a place in photography. If you’re working on an image that embraces symmetry, the rule of thirds will likely only get in your way.
2. When your subject is already intriguing enough on its own:
Feel free to abandon the rule if using it would detract from your subject. For example, a portrait of a person with an interesting expression or facial features may be more engaging and dramatic when placed in the center of your frame.
3. When you want to produce a calming effect:
Using the rule can create tension between your subject and the negative space in your photo. If you don’t want that tension for a particular image, skip the rule until next time.
You can also construct a very attractive photograph when you extend an image (or a part of the image) as far as you can, such as an image that reveals mainly sky, and a bit of the earth, like this example:
Now It’s Your Turn
The thing to keep in mind as you contemplate this question and practice this technique in your photography is that the rule is a great starting point, but every shoot is different. If using the rule of thirds results in an awkward image or just doesn’t showcase your subject as you’d envisioned, don’t overthink it. Use your successes and failures with the rule as ways to deepen your knowledge for future photo shoots.
WIth experimentation and practice, you will become familiar with when to use or break the “rule.” If you’re feeling confident enough to both use the rule of thirds and ignore it, and are asking yourself, “What’s next?” why not wade into the wide world of other composition techniques?
What are you waiting for? Get started with a couple of PHLEARN resources:
3 Guides for Great Composition in Your Photos
25 Tips for Perfect Photography Composition