What is the rule of thirds in photography?

Jun 6, 2023

Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.

What is the rule of thirds in photography?

Jun 6, 2023

Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.

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Rule of thirds with a lady bug

The rule of thirds is probably the best-known compositional rule in photography. At a guess, it’s the first compositional rule beginners learn. It is straightforward to use, but that doesn’t stop it being effective. In this explainer, we’ll be looking at what the rule of thirds actually is, why it works, how you can use it, and when it’s actually a good idea to break the rule.

[Learn Photography Composition: Rule of thirds | Symmetry | Triangles | More…]

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What is the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds is a compositional technique where you divide your frame equally into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. This results in four grid lines–two horizontal and two vertical–and nine equally sized rectangles superimposed over your frame. Although, if you’re using a square crop, the frame will be divided into squares, not rectangles. More on that later.

The four points where the grid lines intersect are known as points of interest, or power points.

Rule of third grids, with the lines in red and the points of interest in blue.
The rule of thirds grid, with the points of interest marked in blue

You use the grid lines and the points of interest to help you position your subjects or anything else that’s significant, for example a horizon line, in the frame.

Why is the rule of thirds useful?

The lines and the points of interest help you to compose an image that is both balanced and dynamic. Together, these elements create a strong composition that holds your viewer’s eye.

A bumble bee resting on a pale purple phacelia flower. The background is out-of-focus green and purple. The bumble bee is sitting on the lower left point of interest according to the rule of thirds.
A bumblebee resting on a phacelia flower at the lower left point of interest.

Balance

By having your subject or subjects situated in one third of the frame, you are able to balance the tension in the other two thirds of the frame. You might do this with negative space or with a larger or smaller element that could be in or out of focus, but which contrasts with the subject. However you do it, it’s pleasing to the eye.

Dynamism

When you place your subject smack-bang in the centre of the frame, it can feel static and dull. The eye goes directly to the subject and stays there, with nothing to draw it through the frame and tell the story of the image. When you use the points of interest and the grid lines, you are encouraging your viewer to engage with your photo and explore it. The rule of thirds makes your compositions more compelling and inviting.

How do I use the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds grid is a fairly easy pattern to imagine placed over your scene. However, plenty of cameras now come with a grid overlay that you can display on your viewfinder to take the guesswork out of your composition. When the grid is always over your scene, you’re never far away from a strongly composed image.

Placement grid

Align any strong horizontals or verticals in your scene with the grid lines created by the rule of thirds. Think: the horizon or shorelines, people, and trees. It doesn’t need to be exact, but close enough. If you find that you need to move a little to improve your placement, then go ahead.

A sail boat on a turquoise sea with green hills in the background. The shoreline in the lower line of the rule of thirds grid and the boat on a power point.
A sail boat on turquoise waters. The shoreline is on the lower grid line according to the rule of thirds.

Points of interest

If there’s something of particular interest or a natural focal point in your scene, try to position it onto one of the points of interest. This could be a barn in a valley, a bee on a flower, or the eye of a human or animal subject. Humans are always drawn towards eyes, so an eye on a point of interest makes for a very strong composition.

A star-shaped lamp set into a wall, pictured reflected in a mirror on an opposite wall.
The star lamp is positioned according to the rule of thirds. Note that the obvious lines in the image aren’t.

Landscape photography and the rule of thirds

Using the rule of thirds to position your horizon in a landscape photograph is probably one of the most obvious uses for the rule of thirds. But it’s also highly effective. If you cut your scene in half with the skyline, it can look very flat. The grid lines aren’t just for horizons, though. You can use them for shorelines–and a shoreline on the lower line with the horizon on the upper line is really effective–tree lines, city skylines, anything that’s running through your frame.

A wooded creek with four sailing boats moored in the lower right.
The shoreline is on the lower grid line; the horizon is higher.

The vertical lines are good for positioning trees, lighthouses, rocky outcrops, or any other type of upright feature in your scene.

If you can, you want to place features–for example beach huts, lone hikers, paddle-boarders, boats, or one of the points of interest, too.

People

When you photograph people, think about positioning them on one of the verticals with the head or the eye on a point of interest.

Wildlife photography and the rule of thirds

When you’re photographing wildlife, or your pets, aim to place an eye on a point of interest to maintain your audience’s focus.

A red-collared lorikeet facing the left on a dark foliage background.
A red-collared lorikeet. Note the placement of the head.

Flower photography

Position the stem along a grid line and place the flower itself on a point of interest for a dynamic, balanced photo.

A multi-pink and white sweetpea on a blurred foliage background. The stem follows a rule of third grid line and the flower is on a point of interest.
The stem of the sweetpea is following the right grid line of the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds in Photoshop

You can’t get every shot perfect in camera. If you need to neaten up your rule of thirds in the editing suite, you will find that most of them have a rule of thirds overlay button. Select it, and then you can crop according to the grid lines and points of interest.

Breaking the rule of thirds

Rules are made to be broken, but the key to breaking them is knowing them first. The rule of thirds isn’t always the right choice for your composition. You might find that to emphasise the symmetry of your subject, a central subject placement is best. A more extreme subject placement, for example deep into a corner, could be exactly what you need to tell your story. And if you’re using a square crop, the rule of thirds can be a bit hit-and-miss in my experience. Sometimes, it just doesn’t leave enough to room for your subject to breathe. There’s nothing wrong with trying something and finding that it doesn’t work, so following an alternative. And that goes for sticking or twisting with the rule of thirds.

It’s also worth remembering that the rule of thirds does not need to be applied precisely whenever you use it. You can use it as a compositional guideline. The horizontal lines in your frame do not have to sit precisely on the gridlines. The key elements of your composition don’t have to be perfectly placed on a point of interest. It’s there to act as an aid.

Wrapping up

The rule of thirds is an easy and effective way to create a sense of balance in your photos and maintain visual interest for your audience. The more that you practise using it, the more that it will be automatic to compose your frame according to its principles. And indeed, the more that you use it, the more that you will appreciate when it doesn’t quite do what you need it to.

FAQs

What is the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds is a compositional rule that divides your frame into a three-by-three grid of nine equally sized rectangles. You use the lines to position upright or horizontal features in the frame, and key subjects on the four intersecting points. These are call points of interest, or power points.

What is the purpose of the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds helps to create compelling and engaging compositions. If you use the lines and points of interest to position your key features and focal points, the composition will have balance and be dynamic.

Do I have to use the rule of thirds?

Not at all! But it is a good idea to understand how it works so that it if you want to break it, you doing so with purpose.

What alternatives are there to the rule of thirds?

If you have a symmetrical subject, central placement can be powerful. Putting your focal point into a far corner can make for a very striking composition. And sometimes positioning lines diagonally across your frame is far more effective than using the rule of thirds.

Does the rule of thirds work for portraits?

It can do! Just think about where you position your subject according to the grid lines, and where you position their head or eyes using the points of interest.

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Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker

Daniela Bowker is a writer and editor based in the UK. Since 2010 she has focused on the photography sector. In this time, she has written three books and contributed to many more, served as the editor for two websites, written thousands of articles for numerous publications, both in print and online, and runs the Photocritic Photography School.

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