There are a lot of “ideas” on the topic of composition—leading lines, converging lines, frames within frames—but only one has achieved actual “rule” status. That rule, of course, is the rule of thirds.
The so-called rule of thirds isn’t so much a rule cinematographers and photographers must, or should, always obey; rest assured there are plenty of reasons to part from it. However, it is a bit of a rule where our brains are concerned, as we’re more or less hardwired to perceive a quality of interest and tension from appropriately balanced images.
The groundwork for this balance goes way, way back to 1783, when English painter Sir Joshua Reynolds put down his ideas on the “grand style” of the imperfect. Essentially, the knighted painter believed that perfectly centering the subjects of paintings was rather dull. Doing so granted everything equal importance and gave the eye no suggestion of movement, transition, or force. The result, he wrote, was an “awkward suspension” of the subject.
Yet if you divided the width of the same canvas into thirds rather than halves, he found, you led the viewer more easily from one distinct area to another. To Sir Reynolds, composition and color grading went hand in hand; just as contrasting levels of lightness and darkness created dynamic range, contrasting ratios created dynamic energy.
In the still frame below, the cheetah’s placement more toward the left gives the footage a far greater sense of movement. Quite literally, we see the trail the animal is leaving behind, and the cheetah is free to roam as opposed to being boxed in.
Taking the concept further, you can see the cinematographer behind this footage divided the camera sensor into not just three areas, but nine (divided by three vertical lines and three horizontals lines). This ensures maximum interest across every axis, also known as “the rule of thirds.”
Rather than splitting the frame into half foreground and half background, the trail, water, and reflection are broken up into proportional thirds.
Further, you might also notice that the reflection of the sunset aligns perfectly with the intersection of the dividing grid. That’s no coincidence. Scrutinize your favorite film sequences and stock footage downloads, and you’ll discover that a great deal of subjects are placed on these so-called “power points” of intersection.
Whether you’re shooting footage of sun rays shining through water, broken mirrors shattering, or wine glasses and slow-motion merlot, you’ll often find that the most compelling shots come from placing subjects on one of the four points where the thirds come together on a grid.
This doesn’t mean symmetry can’t be beautiful, but it should be used intentionally. Rules are meant to be broken, and directors like Wes Anderson have made symmetry their trademarks.
Still, they’re best broken only after being first mastered—and if you look closely at Wes Anderson’s work, you can see he hasn’t dismissed the rule of thirds completely, but instead uses it to compose areas of interest to the flanks of his great centerpieces.
Matt Siegel writes about film composition, cinematography, and the rule of thirds for VideoBlocks.