Is The Rule of Thirds Overrated?



“The basic principle behind the rule of thirds is to imagine breaking an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so that you have 9 parts…The theory is that if you place points of interest in the intersections or along the lines that your photo becomes more balanced and will enable a viewer of the image to interact with it more naturally.”

Is “The Rule of Thirds” theory overrated?

Well, if we take into consideration that the word “overrated”, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, simply means,”to value or praise too highly” than I believe that the answer is,”Yes.”

Now, before you start chasing after me with pitch forks let me explain. I’m certainly not saying that it isn’t important, I’m saying that we may place more value on this theory than it deserves. I think it’s an incredibly useful tool in composing a photo, video, or graphic but it’s not an end-all solution to everything you create.

Many phenomenal movies, graphics, photographs, and pieces of artwork break this rule but they’re still considered breathtaking. I want to introduce you to another compositional element that I feel makes a much bigger impact; contrast.



“In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colors, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition [hue] and in the height of their tone [mixture with white or black].”

The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors by Michel-Eugène Chevreul

First of all, Michel-Eugène Chevreul is a pretty awesome dude. He discovered some game changing triglycerides in animal fats, contributed to the understanding of the psychological phenomenon known as the ideomotor reflex, as well as identifying principles for how the human brain perceives color. His classifications of colors and chromatic diagram are still used today to explain color theory and his work had a major impact on Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and Orphism.

While Chevruel was working as a dye chemist for Gobelins Manufactory in Paris, he received complaints about the dye process of yarn. Many were saying the black yarn appeared differently when used alongside blue yarn as opposed to when it is used alone. This is when he developed the concept of Simultaneous Contrast.

He theorized that the eye will naturally create as much contrast between two colors as possible. This could be a contrast of color, light, or tone. This theory has been proven many times throughout the years in various optical illusions. So, if the mind prefers contrast so much that it will create it even when it isn’t there, why not cater to that in order to draw attention to a subject? I want to show you how implementing  contrast can be just as effective and allow you much more creativity with your composition than The Rule of Thirds.

I want to show you two identical images; one setup using The Rule of Thirds and the other centered.



I believe in the context of both photography and video, either setup is fine. I prefer the centered version but I think it would ultimately come down to what the video or image was being used for. However, if you’re going to add graphics and text to a portion of the image or video, setting the subject off center may be the ideal setup to accommodate the additional information.

What I want to point out is the very distinct contrast in both images. The background is out of focus and the colors are muted in comparison to the dark color of her hat and the bright pattern on her shirt. These various forms of contrast would draw your eye to the subject no matter where she was positioned on the screen.

Let’s take a look at another example. 


This image is absolutely beautiful. The composition skirts on The Rule of Thirds but the appeal of this scene is primarily anchored in contrast. What captures your interest is the variation in light and color from the sun.

When it comes to design, photography, and videography it’s crucial to have a strong foundation in the fundamentals but you should never allow those rules to limit your creativity. 

In fact, there are plenty of reasons why creating less contrast might actually be a better option for a specific project. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in rules and guidelines that we completely forget about how we actually feel about the piece.

In conclusion, I want to answer a few question many of you may have at this point.

When should I use The Rule of Thirds?

Whenever you want.

When should I use contrast?

Whenever you want.

When should I follow design rules?

Whenever you want.

When should I break design rules?

Whenever you want.

If the end result creates the feeling you’re going for, do it. No matter how many rules it follows or how many it breaks. I hope that clears things up.

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