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.
Table of contents
- What is the rule of thirds?
- Why is the rule of thirds useful?
- How do I use the rule of thirds?
- Breaking the rule of thirds
- Wrapping up
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Position the stem along a grid line and place the flower itself on a point of interest for a dynamic, balanced photo.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.