The rule of thirds is a compositional technique in photography in which an image is divided vertically and horizontally into thirds. The main subject is then placed at one of the intersections or along one of the lines. In this way, the image is divided into nine equal parts.
In other words:
Imagine a 3×3 grid and align all elements with the gridlines.
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 determine the four points of interest. We’ll call them intersection points (highlighted in red). To make your photos interesting and balanced, you should align objects to the intersection points.
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.
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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 center of photos.
For example, if you’re photographing a waterfall, you wouldn’t put it directly in the center. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Sometimes you might want to center 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.
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 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 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 follows 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, a free view in the centre, and pine blocking the view on the right.
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 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.
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.
2. Rule of thirds grid in Photoshop
You can apply the rule of thirds grid in two 2 ways in Photoshop.
- Click Crop Tool in your sidebar (hotkey: C) or go to Edit > Crop.
- Click the little grid icon in the top bar that says Set the overlay options for Crop Tool
- Choose the first option that says Rule of Thirds.
- Check the Always Show Overlay option.
- Go to Edit > Preferences > Guides, Grids & Slices or press Ctrl + K (Command + K on macOS) and navigate to the Guides, Grids & Slices submenu.
- Choose Gridline Every: 100 and Percent and Subdivision: 3
- Click OK.
- If you still can’t see the gridlines, you need to enable the extras. Go to View and check Extras (Shortcut: Ctrl + H).
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.
The golden ratio is the ratio of a to b when a = a+b, which can also be written with the 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’s flower petals, sunflower seed heads, pinecones, tree branches, cauliflower, 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 center to align the main subject or the focal point.
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 centering 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 color vs. another color, or even for creative portraits, such as when only half of the face or person is lit.
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.
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.