Most photographers encounter the Rule of Thirds at some point in their life, and likely recognize it as more of a theory or suggestion than a hard rule. But what are the origins of the Rule of Thirds? It turns out that its roots can be traced back to the 18th Century.
The Rule of Thirds posits that a visual composition is most pleasing to the eye when its compositional elements conform to an imaginary set of lines that divide the frame into equal thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Furthermore, the “Rule” suggests that the human eye naturally gravitates to the four intersecting points of these lines, and that these points are the ideal spot to place objects in the composition.
Imagine a tic-tac-toe grid incorporated into your viewfinder and you will have an idea of how the rule is realized; if you utilize a landscape photo as an example, the placement of the horizon demonstrates how the Rule of Thirds works. Accordingly, the horizon line should not be in the center of the frame but at the one-third line, with sky taking up the upper two-thirds of the image. This is a simple example of the principle, but many more complicated images can demonstrate the rule, whether intentionally or not.
The idea of a paradigm for a pleasing composition within a frame has been challenged relentlessly and successfully in modern art, but there must be something to this idea, as it has been employed by visual artists for so long. Indeed, theorists, artists, and bloggers have looked everywhere—including to universal mathematical principles—to understand why the eye is satisfied by such a composition, but the first person to cite and name the Rule of Thirds was an 18th-Century painter, engraver, and writer named John Thomas Smith.
Smith lived in London, from 1766 to 1833, and was known to many as “Antiquity Smith,” after his work Antiquities of London and its Environs. He eventually took the position of Keeper of Prints at the British Museum.
In 1797, Smith wrote a short book entitled Remarks on Rural Scenery. It covers “various features and specific beauties in cottage scenery” and, in the chapter “Of Light and Shade,” it discusses a work by Rembrandt called The Cradle, in which “two thirds of the picture are in shadow.” He 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.”
Smith elaborates on the roles of shadow and light by quoting his contemporary, the great portrait painter Joshua Reynolds, and then drops his gem: “Analogous to this ‘Rule of Thirds’ (if I may be allowed to so call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds; or else at about one-third, so that material objects might occupy the other two: again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the other two thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives. This rule would likewise apply in breaking a length of wall, or any other too great continuation of line that it may be found necessary to break by crossing or hiding it with some other object: In short, in applying this invention, generally speaking, to any other case of light, shade, form or color, I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far-extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever.”
There you have it, pretty much the way we describe the “Rule” today. And if you are the type who is disposed to dismissing such dogmatic practices, you’re not alone; the work was also criticized by some of Smith’s contemporaries. However, to be fair to Smith, there certainly is merit to the theory, and while he did call it a rule, a complete reading of his text would indicate that it’s best described as a rule of thumb.