Rule of Thirds in Photography: A Complete Guide

The Rule of Thirds is widely regarded as one of the most important early techniques you can learn to create better compositions and help you move from “taking pictures” to “taking photographs.”

Don’t let the name throw you off, though. It’s not really a rule. It’s a compositional guideline or principle that artists have used for a very, very long time. It works for landscapes, portraits, wildlife, and any other type of image, even abstract ones. Not all images should use the rule of thirds, however, but it’s a great starting point when you’re looking through your viewfinder and wondering what to do next.

What is the rule of thirds?

So what exactly is the rule of thirds?

Imagine two evenly spaced vertical lines and two equally spaced horizontal lines drawn across your sight like a tic-tac-toe. The lines divide the screen into a set of nine rectangles. Where the vertical and horizontal lines intersect are “rule of thirds” points.

The four points of intersection (indicated by blue circles) in a rule of thirds grid. Illustration via Wikimedia Commons and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

According to the rule of thirds, you must place your main subject on one of these points (or along one of the lines).

The Rule of Thirds is a composition guideline that suggests that you should put a main point of interest on one of the four points of the “Rule of Thirds”.

In general (everything is “in general” because there are always exceptions), using the rule of thirds will help you create a pleasant and well-balanced image. It’s a way to emphasize your main point of interest, marking it as important. It looks natural and harmonious, whereas placing the main subject right in the middle of the image can look unbalanced and boring.

A composition in which the subject is placed in the center can look boring (left), while placing the subject on a rule of thirds can create a more open and interesting composition (right). Photo by Ozy Dozzy.

A subject placed on one of the points or lines of the rule of thirds will catch the viewer’s eye, drawing their attention into and through the image. Of course, the rule of thirds is not the only way to grab the viewer’s attention. The brightness, color, contrast, and size of an object in an image can also make an element stand out, but the rule of thirds gives it a special place of honor.

How to use the rule of thirds

It’s quite simple, really. Simply place your subject – whether it’s a person, flower, animal, building, etc. – on one of the points or lines of the rule of thirds. It works for horizontals and verticals.

The Rule of Thirds works with both horizontal and vertical compositions.

When photographing faces, flowers, cars, and anything else that can point, it helps to have them look into the frame and bring the viewer into the picture rather than pointing out. Again, this is a general principle and there are many successful images that do the opposite. For portraits, place the eyes on the top line.

For portraits, try placing the eyes on the top line of the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds often goes hand in hand with the concept of negative space. For example, when photographing a subject looking left or right, it’s usually a good idea to place the subject on a point of intersection of the rule of thirds that allows them to look into the open side of the frame. This gives the photo a “breathing room” and negative space that allows the viewer to follow the subject’s gaze.

The head of this subject is on a point of the rule of thirds on the side where it is not looking at. It’s often a good idea to place subjects on a rule of thirds point that allows the subject to look into negative space. Photo by Anthony Delanoix.
The head of this subject is placed on a point of the rule of thirds on the side where it is looking at. This type of composition can create a sense of tension and mystery, which may or may not be what you are aiming for. Photo by Anthony Delanoix.

When shooting landscapes or other outdoor landscapes, beginners often place the horizon right in the middle of the frame, which tends to cut the image in half and look boring because nothing is emphasized. Instead, try placing the horizon line on the upper or lower “third” line.

When framing your composition, you have to decide which is more important: the upper part of the scene or the lower part. If it is the top, the horizon line is placed lower in the frame. If it is the lowest, then the horizon is placed higher in the frame. Try one of each and see which one you like best.

If there’s no clear horizon, look for a leading line or something or things that may imply one, and have it lead to a rule of thirds point with some kind of dominating element like a rock, a tree, a mountain top or even just a point of light.

You don’t have to be a fanatic to place your subject on the rule of thirds with absolute precision. Just enter the general area. Remember that this is a guideline and not a rule.

For landscape photos, avoid placing the horizon in the middle. Instead, place it on one of the lines of the rule of thirds.

Rule of thirds overlays in cameras

Most cameras and phones have a setting to enable grid lines to help you compose using the rule of thirds. This makes it easier to move your camera around until one of these points is on your subject.

To learn how to enable the grid for your camera or phone, read your user manual or search online.

The iPhone’s Rule of Thirds overlay can be enabled in Settings > Camera > Composition > Grid.

In editing programs, most cropping tools have an overlapping rule of thirds. Use it to fine-tune your composition and position elements on a point or line of the rule of thirds.

The Crop tool in Lightroom Classic overlays the Rule of Thirds guidelines over your photo to help you create a pleasing composition. Screenshot by Adobe.

This is especially useful in action or wildlife photography when you may not have time to create an optimal composition. It’s also useful to go back to old images and see if you can use the crop tool to improve compositions.

Breaking the rule of thirds

As mentioned earlier, the rule of thirds is really just a guideline and there are many exceptions.

Symmetrical subjects, such as round or square objects, often look best in the middle of the frame.

Photo by Foto Pettine.

Or sometimes you want to use symmetry to create a sense of balance by having two elements opposite each other in the picture.

Photo by Tom Barrett.

Some photographers even believe that the rule of thirds is a poor foundation for learning photographic composition, as it can hamper your creativity and make photos as boring and stereotypical as compositions in which the subject is in the center of the frame.

So once you have a solid understanding of the rule of thirds and understand why it can improve comps, it might be a good idea to try breaking the “rule” next to further develop your ability to create compelling compositions based on each scene and subject.

There’s a lot more to photo composition

There are many different guidelines and principles besides the rule of thirds that can help with composition. Leading lines, shapes such as pyramids, symmetry and the golden ratio are some examples. However, part of the power of the rule of thirds is that it is easy to understand and use, and it works. We seem wired to like images that use it.

If you’re new to photography, using the rule of thirds can help you think more about the composition of an image instead of just “photographing” a subject. The word “shoot” is an unfortunate term in photography. It suggests that we are supposed to focus on something and shoot. Sure, sometimes it might work, but usually (there’s that term again) using the rule of thirds will just be better. Try it. You might like.

About the Author: John Tunney is a fine art photographer and instructor living in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her work has been featured in a solo exhibition at the Griffin Museum of Photography and numerous solo and group exhibitions at galleries and other exhibition centers. His book, The Four Seasons of Cape Cod, was published in 2016. He teaches programs in Cape Cod, Maine and Iceland.

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