The rule of thirds is perhaps the most well-known “rule” of photographic composition. Use it carefully, and you’ll take some truly stunning images.
But what actually is the rule of thirds? Is it really that helpful? And when can you break the rule for a great result?
In this article, you’ll discover everything you need to know about the rule of thirds. And by the time you leave, you’ll know how to use it like a pro.
Let’s dive right in.
What is the rule of thirds?
The rule of thirds is a compositional guideline that breaks an image down into thirds (both horizontally and vertically) so you have nine pieces and four gridlines. According to the rule, by positioning key elements along the gridlines, you’ll end up with better compositions.
Here is a visualization of the rule of thirds:
And to follow the rule, simply use the gridlines to position essential compositional elements.
So when shooting a flower, you would place its stem along the right or left vertical gridline:
And when shooting a sunset, you would place the horizon line along the top or bottom horizontal gridline.
(Note that your camera may actually offer a grid overlay, which you can activate in the menu; that way, you don’t have to imagine the rule of thirds. Instead, you can see it as you look through the viewfinder!)
The rule of thirds also identifies four power points at the center of each gridline intersection:
Here, you can position points of interest, such as a head (when shooting a portrait), a flower (when shooting a still life), or the eye of a pet, as shown in the image below:
As you can see, using the rule of thirds isn’t actually complicated. That’s what makes it so powerful – it’s a simple way to improve your compositions, and it requires literally zero art training or photographic experience.
I will say right up front, though:
Rules are meant to be broken, and just because you ignore the rule of thirds doesn’t mean that your composition is uninteresting or bland or otherwise bad. Despite its name, the rule of thirds is a guideline, not a hard-and-fast rule. You can absolutely create beautiful compositions without using the rule of thirds.
Also keep in mind that it’s just one composition technique among many. There are plenty other “rules” and guidelines worth considering, such as symmetry, the rule of odds, triangular compositions, and more.
At the same time, the rule of thirds is an excellent way to get started with composition. It consistently produces great results, and even professional photographers use it all the time in their work. Plus, as a wise person once told me: if you intend to break a rule, you should always learn it first. That way, you can make sure you break it as effectively as possible.
Why is the rule of thirds useful?
Now that you know how to follow the rule of thirds, it’s important to understand why it matters and what exactly it can do for your photos.
Really, the rule of thirds is about two things:
- Dynamism (movement)
First, by positioning key elements at rule of thirds intersections or gridlines, your photo becomes more balanced. Your key elements create visual interest in a third of the composition, while also balancing out the empty space in the remaining two-thirds. This looks great and feels right to the viewer.
Second, compositions that include key elements smack-dab in the center of the frame often feel very static and boring. There’s nowhere for the viewer’s eye to wander; instead, the viewer looks at the shot, sees the subject at its center, then leaves.
But the rule of thirds encourages dynamism, where the viewer sees a key element off to the side, then takes a visual journey throughout the rest of the image.
In other words:
A rule of thirds composition provides a more engaging photographic experience.
Also, the rule of thirds draws on the way humans naturally view images. Studies show that people’s eyes usually go to one of the intersection points rather than the center of the shot – so the rule of thirds works with this natural way of viewing an image.
When to use the rule (with examples)
By now, you should know that the rule of thirds is useful pretty much all of the time. As long as you have distinct compositional elements to work with, you should consider applying the rule.
For instance, in landscape photography, you can position the horizon along the top horizontal gridline:
Also note how another key compositional element – the structure on stilts – is positioned at the upper-right power point of the frame. Thanks to this, the whole shot feels balanced and dynamic.
In portrait photography, you generally want to position the subject’s body along a rule of thirds gridline:
And it’s also a good idea to place the head of your subject at one of the intersection points (and the eyes, which are a natural point of focus for a portrait). In the photo below, the tie and flower also offer a secondary area of interest, and they’re aligned with a second intersection point:
In wildlife photography, you can align the subject’s head (and eye) with a power point:
And in flower photography, subjects look great when the stem follows a rule of thirds gridline and the petals sit atop a power point:
Quick tips for working with the rule of thirds
While it’s easy to use the rule of thirds in your compositions, it may take a little time and practice for the rule to become second nature.
Try to get in the habit of asking two questions for every photo you take:
- What are your points of interest (i.e., the areas of the photo that stand out and that you want to emphasize)?
- Where are you intentionally placing those points?
That way, you can determine your points of interest, then you can immediately place them along a rule of thirds gridline or power point.
And your composition ends up beautifully balanced.
Also, if you fail to use the rule of thirds in a shot, it’s not the end of the world. After all, you can always crop your photos later on! (Just make sure to keep the gridlines in mind when editing.)
By the way, if you want to start practicing the rule of thirds immediately, you can always pull up old photos and do some test cropping. See what impact it has on your photos; you might be impressed by the results.
Breaking the rules: should you do it?
As I explained above, it is possible to break the rule of thirds and end up with beautiful photos.
In fact, sometimes you can end up with an even stronger composition by ignoring the rule. So while I encourage you to learn the rule of thirds, once it’s ingrained, experiment with breaking it.
One of my favorite times to break the rule of thirds is when photographing symmetrical subjects. If you’re photographing a succulent or flower from above, the symmetry looks even more striking when perfectly centered in the frame:
This shot of a corridor is also roughly symmetrical, which increases the composition’s intensity:
And note that an image can both break and follow the rule of thirds at the same time. For instance, while the image above is mostly symmetrical, a key element (the man playing his cello) is positioned at an intersection point.
Learn the rule of thirds. Then break it. And above all, have fun!
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about the rule of thirds, when to use it, and when to think about breaking it.
So start practicing! And watch as your compositions improve.