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Rule of Thirds in Photography: The Essential Guide

rule of thirds the essential guide

The rule of thirds is perhaps the most well-known “rule” of composition. And as one of the fundamental principles of photography, understanding and harnessing the power of the rule of thirds can transform your images from ordinary snapshots to visually captivating works of art.

But what actually is the rule of thirds? Is it really that helpful? And is it ever okay to break the rule?

Throughout this essential guide, I delve into the intricacies of this popular compositional guildeline. I explain:

  • What makes the rule of thirds so effective
  • How you can use the rule for amazing results
  • How to apply the rule of thirds in a variety of genres

I also share valuable tips and tricks to elevate your rule of thirds compositions to the next level, such as incorporating leading lines and analyzing the work of renowned photographers who employ this technique.

Ready to start capturing compositions that’ll leave a lasting impression? 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.

The rule of thirds gridlines
The rule of thirds, visualized! This three-by-three rectangle can help you position the subjects of your photos.

According to the rule, by positioning key elements along the gridlines, you’ll end up with better compositions. Therefore, to apply the rule to your photos, simply use the gridlines to position essential compositional elements.

What do I mean by this? Well, when shooting a flower, you would place its stem or head along the right or left vertical gridline:

flower close-up

And when shooting a sunset, you would place the horizon line along the top or bottom horizontal gridline.

The rule of thirds also identifies four power points at the center of each gridline intersection:

rule of thirds power points

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:

dog with rule of thirds gridline

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’ll say it 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, 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 of 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?

flower rule of thirds example

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.

At base, the rule of thirds is about two things:

  1. Balance
  2. 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.

leaf on the ground

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 turns away.

But the rule of thirds encourages dynamism. When encountering dynamic images, the viewer starts by appreciating a key element of the shot, then takes a visual journey throughout the rest of the scene. In other words, a rule-of-thirds composition provides a more engaging photographic experience.

One more thing: 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 should you use the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds is helpful in a wide variety of scenarios – basically, anytime you have distinct compositional elements to work with, you can try applying the rule.

In fact, professional photographers swear by the rule of thirds in a wide range of genres. Whether you’re capturing breathtaking portraits, sweeping landscapes, bustling street scenes, or even product photography, it can offer outstanding results. It’s versatile, adaptable, and adds a touch of harmony and dynamism to each image, engaging the viewer in a way that feels just right.

Rule of Thirds in Photography: The Essential Guide

But the rule of thirds can – and should – be broken. Remember, the rule is all about balance and creating a sense of harmony, but sometimes you may want to challenge the norm. If you’re aiming to create tension or a minimalist feel, it’s perfectly fine to step away from the rule and try a different approach instead.

For those of you just starting out, however, my advice is to give the rule of thirds a go whenever you encounter a new subject. Capture a couple of shots while allowing the rule to guide you. Then, once you’ve got a feel for it, don’t be afraid to mix things up and experiment with other compositional techniques like minimalism, the golden ratio, or the golden spiral.

When you review your photos later (on your computer), you’ll get a better sense of which approach resonates with your style and the scene itself.

How to use the rule of thirds (with examples)

Because the rule of thirds is so universal, I’m afraid I can’t explain how to use it in every possible genre or scenario; that article would be never ending! However, if you’re looking for rough guidelines for applying the rule of thirds in the field with your camera, this section should help you out.

Using the rule of thirds in landscape photography

The rule of thirds can be a highly effective landscape photography tool; it’s a great way to bring a sense of balance and visual interest to your scenic shots.

First and foremost, the rule of thirds is a great guide for positioning the horizon. You essentially have two options:

  1. To emphasize captivating foreground elements, like a winding river leading toward majestic mountains in the distance, align the horizon with the top gridline.
  2. To emphasize a beautiful sky – such as a cotton-candy sunset painting the sky with its vibrant hues – position the horizon along the bottom gridline. The lower placement will allow the aerial fireworks to take center stage in your composition.
Rule of Thirds in Photography: The Essential Guide

The rule of thirds gridlines and power points can also help you position key elements throughout the frame. Imagine a rugged rock formation in the foreground; placing it at one of the bottom power points creates a strong visual anchor and adds depth to the composition. Or perhaps you’re photographing a solitary tree standing tall in a vast field; positioning it at one of the top power points introduces a captivating sense of off-center balance.

Rule of Thirds in Photography: The Essential Guide

Using the rule of thirds in portrait photography

Portrait photography is all about capturing the essence of a person and telling their story through a single frame. When it comes to positioning essential elements in your portraits, the rule of thirds can be your trusted ally.

Imagine this: You’re framing a wider environmental shot, and you want to emphasize your subject’s body within the context of their surroundings. The rule of thirds allows you to compose the shot in such a way that your subject stands along one of the vertical gridlines. This placement draws attention to their presence and creates a visually compelling composition.

Rule of Thirds in Photography: The Essential Guide

But let’s zoom in a bit closer. Suppose you’re capturing a half-body shot, focusing on your subject’s head and torso. Here’s where the rule of thirds comes into play again. By ensuring that your subject’s eyes fall across the upper horizontal gridline, you create a natural and aesthetically pleasing alignment.

man with microphone following the rule of thirds

And what about those captivating headshots? Well, the rule of thirds can lend a hand there too. When capturing a close-up portrait, you can experiment with positioning one (or both!) of the subject’s eyes at an upper power point. This creates a visually engaging composition, adding a touch of intrigue and artistry to the image.

Using the rule of thirds in wildlife and pet photography

When photographing animals, positioning more distant subjects along one of the vertical gridlines can add a sense of balance and visual interest. By aligning their heads with the upper or lower power points, you can create a strong focal point that draws the viewer’s attention. This works particularly well for frame-filling wildlife or pet shots, where you want to emphasize their presence and capture their unique features.

heron with fish

For close-up shots, consider placing the animal’s head along an upper power point, while aligning their body along a lower power point. This positioning adds depth and dimension to your composition, allowing the viewer to connect with the subject on a more intimate level.

Using the rule of thirds in street photography

When it comes to wider street scenes, consider positioning the horizon or road features – like the sidewalk – along the horizontal gridlines. By doing so, you can create a sense of balance and guide the viewer’s gaze through the frame. Moreover, keep an eye out for architectural features like building edges or flagpoles that align with the vertical gridlines. This simple alignment can add an extra layer of harmony to your composition.

Rule of Thirds in Photography: The Essential Guide

Now, let’s focus on the main subjects that bring life to the streets. If there’s a person walking by a building or a captivating scene unfolding before your eyes, try positioning them at one of the power points. This placement adds a touch of emphasis and draws the viewer’s attention right to the heart of the action.

But what if you prefer to get up close and personal with your subjects? In that case, consider placing their head at one of the power points while aligning their body along one of the vertical gridlines. This technique not only creates a visually pleasing composition but also adds a sense of connection between the subject and their surroundings.

Applying the rule in post-processing

If you didn’t have the chance to employ the rule of thirds while out in the field, fret not! There’s still a way to bring that balanced magic to your photographs through a little post-processing wizardry.

Step into the realm of your favorite editing program and grab hold of the crop tool. This powerful tool allows you to trim away portions of the frame, unlocking the potential to align key elements with the rule of thirds gridlines and power points. It’s like giving your composition a second chance to shine.

Not only can you refine your composition, but post-processing offers an opportunity to experiment with different arrangements and gauge their impact. Test the waters of various compositions and see which ones truly resonate with your artistic vision. It’s an avenue for growth and discovery.

Of course, it’s always best to nail the composition right there in the field, capturing that perfect balance without the need for cropping. But hey, we’re all human, and sometimes a slight crop can salvage a photo that deserves a second lease on life. While cropping does result in a slight reduction in image resolution, the trade-off is generally worth it. It’s far better to have a well-composed image with slightly fewer pixels than a lackluster shot bursting with unnecessary details!

The rule of thirds vs the golden ratio

Photographers and photography instructors often toss around terms like “rule of thirds” and “golden ratio,” leaving many beginners scratching their heads in confusion. What sets these two concepts apart? Let’s dive deeper into the world of composition and unravel the mysteries behind these techniques.

Imagine your camera’s viewfinder as a blank canvas waiting to be transformed into a captivating masterpiece. The rule of thirds provides you with a straightforward three-by-three grid, dividing the frame into nine equal sections. On the other hand, the golden ratio gives birth to a different grid: the phi grid.

While the phi grid shares similarities with the golden ratio, it concentrates its gridlines in the center of the frame, creating a sense of intensity and a touch of static energy. When employing the phi grid, you position essential elements of your composition along these gridlines, just as you would with the rule of thirds.

But which grid should you choose? The rule of thirds offers a distinct advantage: It’s more accessible and easier to remember precisely where the gridlines should align. Plus, many cameras and even smartphones offer gridline guides that can be activated to assist you during shooting.

That being said, some photographers find themselves drawn to the golden ratio’s phi grid. It offers a unique visual aesthetic and can create an intriguing sense of balance in your images. I recommend starting with the rule of thirds, then gradually exploring the golden ratio grid to see how it resonates with your artistic vision.

Should you break the rule of thirds?

It is possible to break the rule of thirds and end up with beautiful photos. As I’ve emphasized throughout this article, the rule of thirds isn’t a rule, but a guideline. Yes, it’ll often get you great results, but sometimes you can end up with an even stronger composition by taking a different approach. By deliberately deviating from the rule, you can create images that captivate viewers and evoke emotions in unexpected ways.

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:

symmetrical succulent

This shot of a corridor is also roughly symmetrical, which increases the composition’s intensity:

man in corridor with cello breaking the rule of thirds

You can also experiment with breaking the rule of thirds is by deliberately placing your main subject toward the edge of the frame. This bold approach can add a sense of tension, drawing attention to the subject and creating a visually striking composition. It challenges the viewer’s expectations, encouraging them to explore the image beyond the conventional confines of composition.

Rule of Thirds in Photography: The Essential Guide

Another creative avenue is to play with the placement of the horizon line. Instead of adhering to the traditional approach of positioning the horizon along the rule of thirds gridlines, try placing it high up or low down in the frame. This technique can evoke a sense of vastness and emphasize the sky or foreground, creating a minimalist aesthetic that exudes tranquility or a sense of grandeur.

Rule of Thirds in Photography: The Essential Guide

That said, breaking the rule of thirds should not be done haphazardly or simply for the sake of rebellion. Instead, it should be a deliberate choice that enhances the story or visual impact of your photograph.

Tips and tricks to improve your rule of thirds photos

Want to level up your rule of thirds compositions? Here are a few quick tips to use the rule like a pro:

1. Turn on your camera’s gridlines

One powerful tool at your disposal is the rule of thirds, a technique that can transform your images from ordinary to extraordinary.

But how do you ensure that you’re applying the rule of thirds with precision and finesse? The answer lies in activating your camera’s gridlines. Most cameras, whether it’s a professional DSLR or your trusty smartphone, offer a rule of thirds overlay that acts as your guiding compass in composing stunning shots.

Once you’ve enabled this invaluable feature, behold the magic that unfolds before your eyes. With the gridlines gracing your camera’s LCD or even your viewfinder, you gain a remarkable advantage. You can effortlessly align your subjects with the gridlines, creating a sense of balance and visual harmony that captivates the viewer.

Personally, I recommend using the viewfinder gridlines. That way, you can immerse yourself in the scene while remaining acutely aware of the gridline positions. It allows you to maintain a connection with your subject while also ensuring that every element falls perfectly into place.

The convenience doesn’t end there. Even smartphone cameras have embraced the rule of thirds, providing gridline overlays to enhance your mobile photography experience. So whether you’re wielding a professional-grade camera or capturing moments with your phone, don’t hesitate to embrace the power of gridlines.

2. Identify a main subject in each scene

Imagine yourself standing before a breathtaking landscape, a bustling city street, or a stunning portrait. Before you even lift your camera, take a moment to immerse yourself in the scene. Look for that one element that commands attention, the focal point that will become the anchor of your composition.

It could be a majestic mountain peak, bathed in the soft hues of a sunrise, drawing the viewer’s gaze upwards and filling them with awe. Perhaps it’s a solitary figure walking along a deserted beach, exuding a sense of solitude and introspection. Or maybe it’s a vibrant flower, bursting with color and life, inviting you to explore its delicate details.

Rule of Thirds in Photography: The Essential Guide

Once you’ve identified your main subject, it’s time to unleash its power via the rule of thirds framework. Positioning your subject along one of the intersecting gridlines or at a power point can create a visually harmonious composition that captivates the viewer’s eye. By aligning your main subject with these strategic points, you create a sense of balance and visual interest that elevates your photograph to new heights.

Remember, the rule of thirds is not merely about placing any random element along the gridlines; it’s about highlighting the most significant, visually striking aspects of your scene. By thoughtfully framing your main subject within the rule of thirds, you guide the viewer’s attention directly to the heart of your image, leaving a lasting impression.

3. Incorporate leading lines into your images

The rule of thirds is a tried-and-true technique that can do a great job on its own. However, combining it with other compositional elements can take your images to new heights, and one powerful technique that can give your photos an extra boost is leading lines.

Leading lines are like visual pathways that guide the viewer’s gaze towards the main subject, creating a sense of depth and movement within the frame. They can be found in various forms, such as winding roads, meandering rivers, architectural lines, or even everyday objects like fences or footprints in the sand.

Rule of Thirds in Photography: The Essential Guide

To incorporate leading lines effectively, begin by seeking out a scene that presents these captivating elements. Look for lines that seem to converge or flow towards your intended focal point. This could be a person, an object, or a particular area of interest that you want to highlight within the frame.

Once you have identified your subject and the leading lines within the scene, it’s time to align them with the rule of thirds. Position your main subject along one of the gridlines, while allowing the leading lines to flow naturally towards it. This dual approach creates a dynamic composition that draws the viewer’s eye into the photograph, leading them on a visual journey towards the focal point.

Imagine a photograph of a lone hiker standing at the edge of a magnificent mountain range. The winding path that leads to the hiker serves as a leading line, guiding the viewer’s gaze from the foreground towards the majestic peaks in the distance. By placing the hiker along one of the rule of thirds gridlines, you create a harmonious balance between the subject and the surrounding landscape, emphasizing their significance within the composition.

Incorporating leading lines into your photography opens up a world of creative possibilities. It adds depth, visual interest, and a sense of narrative to your images. Experiment with different scenes and subjects, and observe how leading lines interact with the rule of thirds to create compelling compositions.

4. Analyze the work of your favorite photographers

One of the most powerful ways to truly internalize a photographic technique is to immerse yourself in the captivating work of other talented photographers. By examining and dissecting their images, you can gain valuable insights into how they skillfully employ the rule of thirds to create captivating and visually striking compositions.

So spend time visiting the websites or Instagram pages of your favorite photographers. Take your time to browse through their portfolio, paying particular attention to the photographs that incorporate the rule of thirds.

As you explore these images, ask yourself questions, such as: Where precisely did the photographer position their main subject within the frame? Which elements gracefully align with the rule of thirds gridlines? How do the strategic placements of these elements contribute to the overall impact of the composition? What emotions or story does the rule of thirds evoke?

Over time, you’ll develop an intuitive eye for the effective use of the rule of thirds. Studying the works of experienced photographers will expose you to a wealth of creative possibilities and allow you to gain a deeper understanding of how the rule can be harnessed to produce compelling, original shots.

The rule of thirds in photography: final words

The rule of thirds is a powerful and versatile method of photographic composition that can greatly enhance your images. Whether you’re a beginner, an intermediate photographer, or a professional, incorporating the rule of thirds into your compositions can elevate the visual impact of your photos.

While it’s important to note that the rule of thirds is not a strict rule that must be followed in every photo, it serves as a valuable guideline that rarely disappoints. It provides a strong foundation for creating well-balanced and visually appealing images.

As you gain experience and explore different creative avenues, don’t be afraid to break the rule of thirds intentionally for artistic effect. However, understanding and practicing the rule of thirds will sharpen your compositional skills and give you a solid starting point for creating captivating photographs.

So grab your camera and explore the world. Keep the rule of thirds in mind, and see what you can produce!

Now over to you:

Do you plan to use the rule of thirds in your photos? Share your thoughts (and images) in the comments below!

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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