The rules of composition allow subtle ways to convey a character’s emotion and story. For example, one part of the composition is the Rule of Thirds.

This method is utilized in framing a shot with pictures or filming. The photographer or cinematographer places a subject—person or item—in a position that shows their relation to other scenes’ components. Imagine two lines, two lines running vertical and two running horizontally like a tic-tac-board or a grid to visualize the framing device. What’s interesting enough about this technique is its creation.

18th-Century painter, engraver, and writer John Thomas Smith created the Rule of Thirds in 1797 in his short book, Remarks on Rural Scenery. The book covered different observations and analyses of cottage scenery, but the chapter “Of Light and Shade” captured many people’s attention. In the chapter, Smith examines “The Cradle” by Rembrandt, where two-thirds of the painting is in shadow. The author writes, “Two distinct, equal lights, should never appear in the same picture: One should be principal and the rest sub-ordinate, both in dimension and degree: Unequal parts and gradations lead the attention easily from part to part, while parts of equal appearance hold it awkwardly suspended as if unable to determine which of those parts is to be considered as the subordinate.”

This method has been standard practice in cinema, and understanding the “why and how” of these rules can help create a story within the frame, make a scene aesthetically pleasing, and bring the viewer into the subject’s mindset.

 

Using the Rule of Thirds

When setting up a shot, the most common question is, “what is the main point of interest, and where am I putting it?” There are many options to focus on the point of interest, but thinking of the most desired subtle or not subtle message for the viewer is critical. The viewer should be wholly immersed in what’s happening on the screen and not get tired or bored with what they’re watching.

Correct framing creates a more dynamic communication between the scene and the viewer. The same is applied when filming landscapes. That way, the landscape will have the most coverage and keep the most attention of the observer by filling the frame with the essential part of the scenery. Yet, different camera framing will tell a different story.

Example: Four points intersect on the screen, forming a grid line that can be used to convey an unspoken idea or message—depending on where the person or item is placed in the frame. The essential elements fall on these lines or where the lines intersect. Off-center composition is more acceptable to view because it’s typically where the eyes go first. Framed in the center makes the viewer focus mainly on the subject with little to no regard for the background—sometimes, it can be flat or dull if not used correctly. However, if the person or item is moved to the vertical thirds’ right or left, a significant improvement is created.

Another example is using the background to build a connection with the foreground. The best shots in film are the ones where composition reflects the plot. The emotion or tension of a given scene is enhanced with the purposeful subject and object placement. Placing the subject in the left or right thirds of the frame and looking toward the camera permits the viewer to focus on the shot. It allows them to analyze the subject more intimately while also seeing the background to see if there’s anything connected to the viewer’s facial expression, emotion, or even body movement. Giving the scene an unambiguous flow from one point to the next point. Evening out their eyes on the third top line of the grid is a genuinely comfortable shot and helps translate the desired effect with little to no words.

An individual can learn a lot from someone through their eyes when filming a subject. The eye lines used for the Rule of Thirds are key when showcasing the character or characters’ thoughts without explicitly telling. As a result, the viewer connects more naturally with the person by correctly placing the subject’s eye line. Another Rule of Thirds technique can also be applied when dialogue between individuals is on or off the screen.

On one side of the grid line, the character has enough space opposite them, and the object of their attention is the concept of “leading” or “lead room.” The method is psychological because the viewer’s eyes look at incomplete information and want to fill it to complete it. This method is also used when the subject travels to symbolize the storyline or plot is moving forward.

Suppose two individuals are in the same frame; the dynamic can change depending on their placement. Placing the characters at each intersecting point can telegraph the nature of their relationship. For example, characters closer together show intimacy and trust, or if the characters are further apart, intimacy or trust dwindles.

 

Rules Are Made to be Broken

The Rule of Thirds is practiced often in photography and cinema, but they’re more of a suggestion to capture what you’re looking for in your shot. Breaking or bending the Rule of Thirds can also be a practical approach that jives with your directorial intent. For example, centering your subject in the frame can have a comedic effect—if used correctly—or even makes it a more personal connection with the viewer. Directors like Wes Anderson, Barry Jenkins, and even Stanley Kubrick have been known to break the Rule of Thirds in art and convey a more poignant effect. The key is to remember the rules, understand them, apply this technique, and use a level of creativity to break or elevate the method.

 

Conclusion

The Rule of Thirds offers a reliable guideline for framing your shots and an excellent beginning point for novices looking to try many traditions of composition. This method allows scenes to be naturally pleasing to the eye, creatively utilize negative space, and manifest a conversation between the subject and background. Art is subjective, and that translates into filming as well. It’s not about following the rules but finding balance in what is in the frame in the most impactful way.