What is the Rule of Thirds and How to Use it in Photography?

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the rule of thirds

What is the Rule of Thirds in Photography?

The rule of thirds is a composition technique. It divides the frame into a grid with two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines. The method is to align the subject or main elements of your image on the 4 intersecting points, or along the vertical or horizontal lines.

If you’re new to art or photography, the Rule of Thirds is a helpful basic composition technique so you can create compelling images. Even though it is called the Rule of Thirds, it is better to consider it as more of a guide than a hard rule you must follow. There are no fixed rules as to what will make a perfect composition, because this is subjective.

Composition in photography has so many variables, so it is helpful to have guidelines to follow. The better you know and understand these guides, the more intuitively you’ll use them. Study them. learn them well. You will find that you begin to apply them subconsciously when they are most suited to the subject matter you are photographing. We also have videos on our YouTube channel teaching composition in photography.

The Rule of Thirds is one of the most widely used techniques in photography and is often referred to as the basis for artistic composition. 

YouTube video

The Imaginary Rule of Thirds Grid

Start by visualizing an imaginary grid that divides the image area into nine equal horizontal and vertical quadrants. The grid lines over the image are like a tic-tac-toe board. Place your subject and important elements of your image along the grid lines or intersection points. 

Whatever format your sensor is, 

  • Full-frame 36X24m
  • APS-C
  • Micro 4/3
  • Square
  • Or any other dimension

An evenly spaced grid of horizontal and vertical lines can divide it and guide the placement of your subject. Often cameras have a grid overlay that can be turned on or off for the viewfinder and monitor. These can be helpful when you first begin to experiment with the rule of thirds. This is because you can see the location of the four intersections of the grid.

rule of thirds grid.

You do not need to apply the rule of thirds, or any other composition rule, rigidly. These are meant to help guide you. If you can get the subject of your image framed so it’s close to one of the intersections, but not right on it, this will not matter. Don’t stress over it.

Beginning to work with this composition technique, use the grid as a guide. Practice placing your subject so it is exactly on one of the grid intersections. Then move your camera a little so your subject is not quite on the intersection. Does this improve your composition? Then move your camera back slightly in the other direction so your subject now appears on the other side of the intersecting lines. Which composition is more pleasing to you?

Key Point

When you are learning the method of the rule of thirds it’s good to experiment with it. Try placing your subject on each intersection, or near them, and taking photos of each. Then compare these images on your computer and decide which one you like most. 

Using the Rule of Thirds in Portraiture

In the first image below we have a beautiful model who is centered right smack in the middle of the frame. So what’s wrong with the picture? The model is beautiful, the image is in focus, and the exposure is just right.

woman shading her eyes from the sun framed in the center.
Center crop © Kevin Landwer-Johan

The problem with this image is your eye has no place to go other than dead center. Now, move the person to the right and zoom in a little. Notice how your attention is initially focused on the model’s eyes and where she is looking?

Woman standing in a field on the one third line.
Subject on the right hand third line. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Applying the rule of thirds to portraits can be done in many creative ways. You can align the person’s eyes along the top or bottom horizontal lines with their nose on the vertical. This works well for a close portrait. For a half or full body portrait, you can place them on the left or right vertical line. Have the person face into the two-thirds portion of the photo. In images like this their gaze points to the empty space or some other elements that may be in your composition.

For outdoor portraits, you might use a tree or another person on the other vertical third line to bring balance to your composition. You can use many things to position on the other thirds line to bring balance to your photos.

Key Point

Training your eye to see which intersections will be most suitable to place your portrait subjects takes practice. Experiment by placing them in various parts of your composition. Use the grid as a starting point. Find the best way to frame your subjects by moving your camera around so they are at each of the intersections of the thirds. Which makes the best picture? What position that you place them in is more pleasing to the eye?

The Rule of Thirds and the Horizon

When including a horizon in your composition, avoid splitting your image in two. Place the horizon either in the top or bottom third of the image. Your photos will look much better if the horizon is positioned above or below the middle of the compositions.

While you design compositions that include a horizon, keep in mind other elements that will be included in your photograph. How can you use these points of interest and include them in your rule of thirds compositions? Placing the horizon on one of the thirds lines is a good starting point. If you can also include something else in the scene so it’s along one of the third lines or one of the points of the rule of thirds grid, do so. This will be a strong focal point of your landscape and create a stronger design in your composition.

Using this concept well will help hold a viewer’s interest in your images. It is common for landscape photographers to use this guideline as a rule of thumb when composing their photographs.

Beach scene with the horizon at one third of the frame from the bottom.
The horizon on the lower third line. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Key Point

As with any type of photography, use the rule of thirds to help create more interest in your landscape photos. But don’t fixate on this idea. The rule of thirds will not always be the best way to frame a scene. It’s a good idea to use the rule only when it helps create the mood you want for your photos.

Use the Rule of Thirds with a Moving Subject

When you photograph something moving, like a cyclist, place it so two-thirds of the frame is in the direction your it’s moving towards. Doing this will give your viewer the perception that your subject has room to move.

rule of thirds looking space.

What you are taking a photograph of will appear to be moving into the empty area of the two thirds. This helps make the illusion of movement stronger.

Again, don’t be conformed to use the rule of thirds like this. Sometimes you can place a moving subject on one intersection point so it appears to be moving out of the photo. This invokes a whole different image in people’s minds about the photo. 

Photographing moving things that are repetitive or predictable, you can plan how to compose these. Compose your photo based on the static elements and where you want the moving thing to be in the photo. Then wait until it’s there. You have to imagine how to use the rule of thirds in this manner because your subject will only be in the correct position briefly.

Remember, The Rule of Thirds is a Technique

As I have mentioned, the rule of thirds is a technique that best used as a guide, rather than a strict rule. It is simply a tool to help you compose your photographs. Look at each scene you want to photograph. Think about how best to compose all the elements before you. Maybe there is only one thing you want to take a photo of. This will be easy to use the rule of thirds to compose, but that may not result in the most creative composition.

The Rule of Thirds is really about balancing the proportion of subjects and interesting elements in your image. It’s drawing the viewer’s attention to your subject. If the rule of thirds does not do this, think of composition rules or techniques that could help you take a more interesting photograph.

balancing the proportion in landscape images.
The horizon on the upper third line. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Key Point

As with any art, photography is subjective. It is what you make of it without having to stick to the rule of thirds or any other rules. Use the rule of thirds as a guide to help compose your photos. It’s been around a long time and is tried and true. Painters have used the rule of thirds since long before photography was even invented. Next time you are looking at a painting, think about whether the artist used the rule of thirds.

Use the method flexibly. Think about how you want your image to look. What’s the main focal point? Is the rule of thirds the best way to compose the image? Try it and see for yourself. Bring your camera up to your eye or use live view mode with the overlay grid turned on. Position it so the center of interest is on one of the intersection points. Now decide if it’s best to use the rule of thirds.

Move your camera from side to side or up and down, only a little. See if taking your focal point of the image off the third lines or intersection will make a more interesting photo.

donkey framed using the rule of thirds.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Be Flexible with the Rule of Thirds

Learning the Rule of Thirds and gaining an understanding the principles behind the rule will enable you to know when to use it, and when to break it. Sometimes photographs will work better without applying the rule of thirds.

portrait of a woman beside a lake using the rule of thirds.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Key Point

Study this rule. Practice applying the rule of thirds. Do this with most of the photos you take for a month, or a year. Even if you are not sure that you like what you see on live view or through your viewfinder. Experiment with it. Then analyze your photos and consider how well it works.

portrait of a woman using the rule of thirds.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Once you have taken a lot of photographs using the rule of thirds you will develop a feel for when to use it. You will also learn when to apply one of the other rules of composition. Practice is key. Take your time and take a lot of photographs. Not randomly, but with purpose.

Don’t only use the rule of thirds on every photo, but try other composition rules. Compare the images and decide which of the guidelines you prefer for each photo. 

Photographers are often not so disciplined as to practice using an approach over and over until they perfect it. Musicians and other artists have to practice to become competent. And then practice more to become expert. The same applies to photographers. Not only with the rule of thirds, but every aspect of this craft.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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  1. I found this to be one of the best explinations for understanding the “Rule of Thirds”. Just seeing the examples and suggestions used, especially for landscapes, was very helpful. I can see where this will become my go to site in the future for knowledge as well as inspiration!

    1. That’s great Debra. I am so pleased to know that I have explained this topic well for you. Please do keep checking back.

  2. I read more about the rule thirds in photography as a technique that i should try to photograph keeping it in mind and see my effort.. i am really enjoying.. if you have photography WhatsApp group please add me 0676861984

    1. The more you practice this composition technique the more naturally you will recognize when it’s best to use.

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