A Guide to Using the Rule of Thirds in Video Editing

rule of thirds

Table of contents

Visual arts don’t follow any rules. They are groundbreaking and wild…right? While creativity is certainly valued, there are certain photographic composition techniques videographers follow to ensure an image is pleasing to the eye, and one of them is the rule of thirds.

In this post, we’ll show you how to use the rule of thirds when editing a video to create a better viewing experience (and when to break it.)

What is the rule of thirds

When looking at your video screen, imagine it’s overlayed with a grid with nine squares, complete with horizontal lines and vertical lines. When applying the rule, place the most important visual elements of the image along the lines or at the points where the lines intersect. The goal is to draw the viewer’s eye to a focal point that is more interesting than dead center.

Rule of thirds with percentages.

History of the rule of thirds

This rule of thirds grid isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s steeped in history. 

The technique with negative space and intersection points was used by 18th century painters, and John Thomas Smith is credited for the term in his 1979 book ‘Remarks on Rural Scenery.’ In it, he writes how artists should divide their canvas into thirds vertically and horizontally to create balance and interest in compositional elements.

The rule became even more popular due to its effectiveness in drawing the viewer’s eye naturally through the image. Painters, then photographers, and later filmmakers saw how the rule creates visual breathing room and emphasizes the important elements.

How to use the rule of thirds in video creation

First, decide what you are trying to emphasize with your video clip. Are you looking to point out a key detail where you want to draw the viewer’s eye?

The element that’s the most interesting should get more space. For example, if the person is more interesting, then place the surroundings on the bottom third of the grid. If the foreground is more interesting, position the horizon in the top third.

·            Picture the grid – Most cameras and video editors offer this option.

·   Place key elements – Position the most important subject on the lines and intersections of the grid.

·   Balance and use leading lines – Draw the eyes of the audience to different parts of the screen.

·   Maintain proportions – Position the horizon line of your shots either in the top third or the bottom third of the frame. When filming people, keep their eyeline in the top third of the frame, leaving open space in the direction they’re looking.

·   Experiment – Edit in multiple ways to see how to make your film the most interesting.

All of this is made easy with Camtasia, the all-in-one screen recorder and video editing tool. You can capture everything happening on your screen with just a few clicks, then transform your footage into polished videos.

Make stand-out videos with Camtasia

Record your screen, edit, and share your best videos with Camtasia

Download Free Trial
Camtasia icon

With Camtasia, you don’t even have to imagine the grid lines. They’re ready and visible.

While editing, choose View > Show Canvas Ruler. 

Camtasia's show canvas ruler option

Now you’ll see rulers above and to the left of the canvas. To create guides for the rule of thirds, you’ll want to divide the width and height of your video by three to determine where to place your rulers. 

Let’s say your video is 1920px by 1080px. In Camtasia, you’ll see a 0 on each ruler in the middle of the Canvas. So, to figure out where to place your canvas rulers, take the width and height of your video and divide it by two, then divide that amount by three. 

For the horizontal lines: 1080 ÷ 2 = 540, then 540 ÷ 3 = 180

For the vertical lines: 1920 ÷ 2 = 960, then 960 ÷ 3 = 320 

Click on the top ruler, and you can drag the line onto the screen. 

Drag the first horizontal line to 180. Repeat the action and drag the second line to -180 You now have two horizontal lines across the screen, separating your video into three columns.

On the left-hand side of the screen, you can do this again to create vertical lines. Click on the ruler and drag one line to -320 and one to 320. Now you have two vertical lines, dividing your video into three rows.

There – you’ve made it! A box of nine squares, perfect for this frame filling technique.

Canvas rulers in action in Camtasia

For Camtasia, this is particularly helpful as you can also snap media on the canvas to rulers, to make it easy to comply to the measurements. For interviewing subject matter experts and creating training videos, the rule of three is an easy and effective way to draw the viewer’s attention where it’s needed. 

Examples of the rule of thirds

This type of composition has been used successfully in many popular films. 

The opening scene of the classic movie ‘The Godfather’ uses the rule of thirds in its composition. Don Corleone, as the central figure, is seated in the middle third of the frame. Meanwhile, his family surrounds him on either side. The viewer is drawn to his character and the entire scene is visually balanced. 

How can you use it within Camtasia? Easy. In Video Editing Basics – Composition, learn how to get better video composition, from the rule of thirds to headroom, talkspace to foreground/background, and more. (Rule of thirds discussion at 14:11!)

Block quote: “Your eyes should basically be in those places where the lines meet. It just doesn’t look right, having me dead center. It’s not just the face, it’s the eyes. The eyes are where we’re looking.” – Andy Owen, Video Producer, TechSmith -Andy Owen from Visual Lounge

When to break the rule of thirds

Just like all rules, they can be broken. Sometimes, video editors may want to direct the audience’s attention in a different way, increase the dramatic effect, or change up the imagery with a different shot. Then, it’s time for breaking the rule.

For instance, director Wes Anderson breaks the rule of thirds so much, it’s considered his trademark. His technique of photographic composition using symmetry within the frame has even inspired playful TikToks copying his style.

Of course, it’s fine to center if you want to center. YouTube videos are often center-framing, because it is the current style. If you’re not doing news, or using a lot of the space for fly-ins or graphics, center-framing is a common way to format. 

Rule of thirds grid line over Andy Owen

For a video use that might feel even more familiar, this TechSmith tutorial uses the rule of thirds to demonstrate the AI-assisted workflow in Camtasia. In this snippet, you can see how the editor uses an image of the screen and his own image to draw attention to different parts of the video.

Impact of the rule of thirds

By placing elements – the subject, horizon line, or leading lines – at the grid lines or intersection points, you elevate their importance. A character gazing from an intersection point draws the viewer into their emotional state, while a landscape with the horizon on the lower third emphasizes feelings of serenity.

Psychological studies support the idea that off-center placements can invoke stronger emotional responses. In the study Peripheral vision and preferential emotion processing, researchers explore how our peripheral vision plays a role in detecting emotionally charged stimuli. This is a potential reason why off-center placements – which might first enter our peripheral vision – could create more intensity when our focus shifts.

Likewise, in this 2022 study, psychologists explored the connection between the Golden Ratio (the mathematical principle related to the rule of thirds) and perceived pleasantness in landscape images, as placement influences positive emotions.

Peaceful landscape with waterfall and grid lines over it.

Applying the rule of thirds to screen recordings

The rule of thirds doesn’t just apply to feature films and psychological studies. When people use Camtasia to create screen-recorded content, it is an effective way to engage viewers and show them where to focus. 

You can strategically place the focus on the specific tool or menu you’re demonstrating. During recording, you can place a menu along vertical grid lines, keeping it visually distinct from the other images, so viewers can follow instructions without visual clutter. 

When adjusting sliders or using selective tools, position the cursor or adjustment bar along the horizontal grid lines to emphasize the specific changes you’re making.

Time to experiment

The rule of thirds is just a guideline for a scientifically-proven way to help engage people in your videos. With Camtasia’s built-in composition guides and resources, you can easily learn and master this technique – and then start bending the rules for yourself.

Make your best videos today with Camtasia

Camtasia’s built-in guides and resources make it easy to create stand-out videos.

Download Free Trial
Camtasia icon