How to Use the Rule of Thirds in Digital Filmmaking

By Nick Willoughby

Framing shots for your digital film is not just about pointing a camera at a subject and pressing a button. You should take time to consider the best way to frame your shot — every shot — because doing so will always pay off in the final edit.

The rule of thirds is one of the most basic and important rules to remember when shooting your film. It’s not really a “rule” in the strict sense, and you won’t be arrested for not using it, but it does make your shots look better.

The rule of thirds was first used in paintings and photography and then later in film and TV. Instead of placing subjects in the middle of the frame, artists, photographers, and filmmakers use the rule of thirds to position their subjects and actors to make the shot look more interesting. Here’s how it works.

Each of the images below is an identical shot of one of our actors. The second frame has been divided into thirds, horizontally and vertically: three sections across and three sections down. This is where you get rule of thirds from.

Using the rule of thirds.

Using the rule of thirds.

The goal in this shot was to draw attention to the actor’s eyes, so the shot was framed with the eyes two‐thirds of the way up the frame and two‐thirds of the way across the frame.

This leaves the actor positioned more to the right of the frame. You could move her more to the left instead, but because the actor is already looking to the left of the frame, positioning to the right is the preferred choice. It’s better to leave some open space for the actor to look into. As you can see, moving the actor over to the left of the frame looks odd and crowded, and may distract the audience.

Bad framing can distract your audience.

Bad framing can distract your audience.

Using the rule of thirds is like riding a bike: It takes practice. If you use the rule often enough, framing shots this way will become natural to you, and you’ll be able to do it without thinking about it.

Next time you watch a movie, look out for the ways the director uses the rule of thirds. Sometimes you can spot moments in films where the director intentionally breaks the rule of thirds to make the shot feel awkward. (Just make sure you spot these moments quietly. Constantly pointing out awkward shots may annoy your family or friends.)