Rule of Thirds in Photography

Written by Matic Broz Updated on December 2, 2021

Rule of Thirds in Photography

If you’re a beginner photographer, learning about the rule of thirds is a great starting point. It’s easy to understand, integrated into every camera and photo editing program, and produces fantastic photos.

Undoubtedly, by learning the rule of thirds, you’ll quickly become a much better photographer. Of course, there are times when you should avoid the rule of thirds. But before you learn how to break it, you need to know how to use it.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the rule of thirds to become a better photographer.

What is the rule of thirds?

In photography, the rule of thirds is a compositional guideline in which an image is horizontally and vertically divided into thirds. At the same time, the main subject is placed at one of the intersections or along with one of the lines. The image is thus divided into 9 equal parts.

Rule of Thirds grid
Rule of thirds grid

When you’re framing a photo, you either have to imagine the grid or enable it in your camera.

Now that you know what the grid looks like, let’s identify the four points of interest. We call them intersections (coloured in red). To make your photos interesting and well-balanced, you should align objects with the intersections. These might include people, flowers, coffee mugs, and pets.

But what do you do when you don’t have an apparent object in your scene? It happens a lot in landscape photography. Then, you should align the leading lines with one of the four grid lines. For example, the horizon, tree lines, riverbanks, and seashores.

How to use the rule of thirds?

Now that you know what the rule of thirds is, let’s look at how you can use it in your photos. Essentially, the rule of thirds tells you not to place the main elements in the centre of photos.

For example, if you’re photographing a waterfall, you wouldn’t put it directly in the centre. Instead, you’d shift it to the left or right. All the leading lines, the main object(s), and the background should be aligned with the grid lines or placed at the intersections.

These four guidelines will instantly improve your photos:

1. Align objects with intersections

When you photograph, imagine the grid of thirds or enable it as an overlay on your camera. Then, align your subject with one of the four intersections. Take the following image as an example. A photographer placed the hummingbird and the flower at opposite intersections.

Rule of Thirds hummingbird on intersection.jpg
The hummingbird and the flower are ideally placed on the grid intersections.

In this example, elements placed on opposite sides of the image balance it perfectly. Not only that, but both are also similarly shaped.

2. Align leading lines with grid lines

The second part of the rule instructs you that you should align the linear elements of your image with the grid lines. You can align your elements with either horizontal or vertical grid lines. Whichever you choose depends on the orientation of your objects and the scene.

For example, you can align objects such as the horizon, beaches, treelines, and walls with horizontal grid lines. Conversely, elements such as waterfalls, pillars, tree trunks, and even people look best when you align them with one of the vertical grid lines.

This way, the photo becomes more aesthetically pleasing. And you can give more emphasis to the most interesting part of the scene. In the photo below, the photographer aligned the horizon with the bottom grid line. As a result, they split the scene into 2/3 sky and 1/3 beach.

Rule of Thirds beach.jpg
The beach was aligned with the bottom horizontal gridline

For this particular image, this was an excellent choice. Conversely, splitting this scenery into 1/3 sky and 2/3 beach would probably result in a dull or unbalanced photo.

3. Use diagonals

A more advanced but effective tactic is aligning objects with the diagonals produced by the grid. It’s particularly effective with irregularly shaped objects. For example, rivers, roads, and paths all fall into this category.

Instead of giving a river a left-to-right direction, you can position it on a diagonal. Just make sure to align the serpentines with the grid. In the photo below, the road enters the bottom-left, crosses the bottom-left intersection, and then meanders towards the top-right intersection, where it exits the frame.

Rule of Thirds road.jpg
The road zigzags diagonally across the frame.

Composing your photo this way will make your eyes wander around the image, making it significantly more interesting. In contrast, this photo would immediately become less interesting if the road was placed on the horizon.

4. Break the rule of thirds

I briefly mentioned breaking the rule of thirds before. In rare cases, completely disregarding the rule is the best option.

So the question is: “When should I break the rule of thirds?

You may break the rule of thirds any time. No photography police are going to get you. 🙃However, the best time to break it is when there’s some symmetry in the scene. Symmetry in landscape photography is rare, but you can use reflections in lakes, rivers, seas, and wet roads.

Rule of Thirds mountain.jpg
Breaking the rule of thirds with symmetry

To make your photos even better, try slightly shifting the horizon off the centre. You will get a better composition. Notice how the reflected peak is closer to the bottom edge of the photo than the top from the top edge.

Rule of thirds examples

Now, let’s look at a few examples of the rule of thirds in actual photos. I want to make sure you understand the composition ideas behind these examples.

Example #1

Rule of Thirds tree 1.jpg
Rule of thirds: Example #1

There are 3 main takeaways for you from this image.

  • The horizon is aligned with the bottom horizontal grid line. This splits the photo vertically into 1/3 foreground and 2/3 sky (background).
  • The tree is not centered. The frame is slightly shifted to the right, aligning the tree with the left vertical grid line. The asymmetry of the photo, in which the rule of thirds is applied perfectly, demonstrates that such a composition is much more pleasing to the eye.
  • There’s nothing on the right. By leaving empty space on the right, the tree gets more attention and becomes the main subject of the photo. If there were any objects on the right, they would only serve as a distraction.

Example #2

Rule of Thirds windmill.jpg
Rule of thirds: Example #2

The second example is analogous to the first one.

  • For two reasons, the horizon is not perfectly aligned with the bottom horizontal grid line.
    • The horizon in this image is not horizontal nor a straight line, which would make aligning it with any grid line impossible. However, it still loosely follows the rule of thirds.
    • Aligning the horizon with a grid line would push the windmill (the main object) out of the frame.
  • The windmill is placed on one of the grid lines.

To improve this photo, you could take a few steps back or zoom out. This way, you would get more foreground in the shot while simultaneously making the windmill smaller. The foreground suggests that there might be more curves below the current photo, which might help you improve the composition even more.

Example #3

Rule of Thirds bees.jpg
Rule of thirds: Example #3

This is my favourite photo from this series. It’s a very simple photo with an awesome composition that would be difficult to replicate.

Let’s break it down:

  • The bee in focus is in the top-left intersection. Clearly, it’s the most interesting subject in the photo.
  • More bees are on the bottom-left. These bees are in focus as well, representing an anchor point in the image.
  • The bees in the top right are perfectly aligned with the intersection but are out of focus. This way, the image tells a story about “bees coming from the right and landing”. Additionally, the bees in the top right are blurred out by a shallow depth of field; thus, not taking away attention from the main subject.
  • The bottom-right quadrant is empty. This way, all the attention is focused on the one bee.
  • Shallow depth of field. The shallow depth of field has nothing to do with the rule of thirds, but it creates a smudged foreground and bokeh in the background, shifting all attention to the bees.

Example #4

Rule of Thirds Bled.jpg
Rule of thirds: Example #4

Example #4 is from my home country, Slovenia. For those interested, this is Bled, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.

  • The boat is at the bottom-left intersection.
  • An island with a church is at the top-right intersection.
  • A branch on the top left and a deck on the bottom act as vignettes.

Example #5

Rule of Thirds office.jpg
Rule of thirds: Example #5

All objects are positioned in the right half in this photo, while the left half remains empty. While the photo partly breaks the rule, it’s kind of in a bad way. In my opinion, this composition does not work. You could improve it by removing or repositioning the clock.

In the photo below, I moved the clock, and it immediately improved the photo. The clock and the plant now neatly follow the rule of thirds.

Rule of Thirds office PS.jpg
Rule of thirds: Example #5 – corrected

To improve this composition, I would straighten the table (crooked images are a big “no-no”). And I would remove the lamp as it serves clutters the picture.

Example #6

Rule of Thirds waterfall.jpg
Rule of thirds: Example #6

The image of Example #6 can also be dissected into 3 unequal parts. Moreover, it teaches us more than the mere rule of thirds.

  • The photo is divided into three segments. The foreground (the pool), the main objects (the waterfall and the wall), and the background (the sky).
  • The waterfall is perfectly aligned with the left vertical grid line.
  • The waterfall flows into the frame from the left to the right. If it flowed from the right to the left, it should be positioned onto the right vertical grid line, to once again flow into the frame.

Rule of thirds in portraits

In portrait photography, the rule of thirds is used to achieve perfect composition by aligning people or their faces with the grid lines. Portrait photographers usually position the subject’s face to align the top horizontal line with their eyes.

The image below is a prime example of a precisely used rule of thirds in portrait photography.

Rule of thirds in portrait photography - horizontal 2
Rule of thirds in portrait photography #1

Sometimes you might want to centre your subject horizontally, and that’s okay, but then, try to align their eyes with the upper horizontal grid line, like in the example below.

Rule of thirds in portrait photography - horizontal 1
Rule of thirds in portrait photography #2

We often make vertical shots in portrait photography because people (vertical objects) better fit into a vertical frame. Let’s look at an example of a vertical portrait photo that follows the rule of thirds.

Rule of thirds vertical portrait
Rule of thirds in portrait photography #3

Rule of thirds in landscape photography

In landscape photography, we use the rule of thirds to simplify complex compositions. Landscape photos often contain several elements that have to be balanced out across the frame to make a photo interesting and understandable.

If you’re a relative beginner, you might not have yet realized that even small detail, such as misplaced rock, can be detrimental to a photo’s success.

The photo below loosely follow the rule of thirds, but the photographer dared to break it. The pine tree is not aligned with a grid line, and the trees on the cape on the left don’t align with a vertical grid line, either.

However, the photographer managed to compose their shot following the rule of thirds. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that the photograph is divided into thirds:

  • Horizontally: lake as a foreground, mountains as the middle section, clouds as a background, and
  • Vertically: mountains and the cape on the left, free view in the centre, and pine blocking the view on the right.
Rule of thirds landscape
Rule of thirds horizontally

In landscape photography, you will often deal with the horizon, which you should try to position on one of the vertical grid lines. In contrast, vertical objects, such as trees, are used to frame a photo when you position them along with one of the vertical gridlines.

Rule of thirds forest
Rule of thirds vertically

Rule of thirds in post-processing

Post-processing (also known as photo-editing) is where you can fix any compositional mistakes you made during your photoshoot. The rule of thirds is so popular that you can find its grid in virtually every photo editing app.

Let’s look at a few examples of photo editors and how you can enable the rule of thirds grid. Starting with the most popular:

1. Rule of thirds grid in Lightroom

First, import your photo into Lightroom, go to the Develop module, and click on the Crop Overlay button that’s right below the histogram. Natively, Lightroom will already have the rule of thirds grid selected. It should look like this.

Rule of thirds grid in Lightroom
Rule of thirds in Lightroom

In some cases, your rule of thirds grid might not be there, or you changed it to another grid. To enable the rule of thirds grid in Lightroom, go to Tool > Crop Guide Overlay > Thirds.

Rule of thirds grid in Lightroom How to turn it on
How to enable the rule of thirds grid in Lightroom

2. Rule of thirds grid in Photoshop

You can apply the rule of thirds grid in two 2 ways in Photoshop.

Option #1

  1. Click Crop Tool in your sidebar (hotkey: C) or go to Edit > Crop.
  2. Click the little grid icon in the top bar that says Set the overlay options for Crop Tool
  3. Choose the first option that says Rule of Thirds.
  4. Check the Always Show Overlay option.
Rule of thirds grid in Photoshop How to turn it on
Rule of thirds in Photoshop

Option #2

  1. Go to Edit > Preferences > Guides, Grids & Slices or press Ctrl + K (Command + K on macOS) and navigate to the Guides, Grids & Slices submenu.
  2. Choose Gridline Every: 100 and Percent and Subdivision: 3
  3. Click OK.
  4. If you still can’t see the gridlines, you need to enable the extras. Go to View and check Extras (Shortcut: Ctrl + H).
Rule of thirds grid in Photoshop How to turn it on Option 2
Rule of thirds grid setup in Photoshop

alternatives

Having already said that the rule of thirds is more of a guideline than a rule, there are several ways to break it.

1. Golden spiral rule

The golden spiral rule is derived from the golden ratio (also called divine proportion), which is much more intertwined in our lives than we realize. To visualize the golden ratio, consider the rectangle below.

Golden ratio basic
Golden ratio scheme

The golden ratio is the ratio of a to b when a equals a+b, which can also be written with an expression: a/b=(a+b)/a. Solving this equation for b=1 returns a=1.618…, and this is called the golden ratio.

The golden ratio can be easily found in nature flower petals, sunflower seed heads, pinecones, tree branches, cauliflowers and other vegetables, shells, spiral galaxies, hurricanes, and even faces, so it comes as no surprise that we find it appealing.

To use the golden spiral rule in photography, imagine the shell-like spiral and use its centre to align the main subject or the focal point.

Rule of thirds Golden rule portrait
Golden ratio example

The golden spiral rule is best used with images with only one main subject or one focal point. For a more complex composition, I still recommend the rule of thirds.

2. Centre everything

Another viable alternative to the rule of thirds is centring the point of interest, both horizontally and vertically.

This technique is best used when you want to emphasize symmetry or contrast, for example, forest vs deforested area, one colour vs another colour, or even for creative portraits, such as when only half of the face or person is lit.

Rule of thirds Alternative Symmetry
The road is centred, splitting the image in half.
Rule of thirds Alternative Contrast
Cultivated vs empty field create a contract that split the image in half diagonally.

3. Freestyle

There’s another rule in photography that says, “Don’t follow any rules. Have fun and experiment.”. This means that you should go out with a camera and have fun photographing anything that piques your interest. It doesn’t matter if you end up deleting most of your photos.

We often put ourselves into a box and don’t give ourselves a chance to explore, experiment, and take photos. After all, isn’t that what photography is all about?

Next time you go for a shoot and find a good location, just scout around for a couple of minutes. Use your camera or even your smartphone and walk around trying different compositions until you find one or a few that you like, and only then set up a tripod, considering you need it.

Rule of thirds Alternative Freestyle
The rule of thirds is partially applied.

Summary

To sum up, the rule of thirds is a helpful guideline that serves as a good starting point for beginners. Of course, there are many excellent alternatives, such as the Golden Spiral rule or following no rule at all. It’s up to you to decide and learn which is the best choice for each situation.

Happy composing!

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