In photography, it isn’t enough to have an amazing subject matter and know to work your camera to capture it perfectly. You also need to find the best framing angle and create an appealing composition. The rule of thirds is one of the first composition techniques a beginner in photography learns. It is simple, straightforward, and efficient. 

The rule of thirds ensures your subject will stand out in the frame and be the first thing the viewer sees. It also creates balance and dynamism, inviting the viewer to look more intensely and follow the visual story of your photograph. By using a simple rule, you can add visual depth and emphasize the message you want to convey. So check out the following guide in using the rule of thirds, study the examples, and apply what you learn to your photography.

What Is The Rule Of Thirds?

It is a method of distributing visual elements in a frame with the aim of creating visually pleasant images for the human eye. According to history, the idea behind the rule belongs to an XVIII-century English painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who noticed that the bright and dark areas of a painting should have different distributions. One should be dominant, and the other subordinate.

Based on his idea, another XVIII-century English painter, John Thomas Smith, defined the rule of thirds and applied it to his landscape paintings. According to Smith, it creates more harmonized paintings if the painter uses two-thirds of the canvas for the sky and one-third for the land or water. Furthermore, the painter may use the same proportion to break any continuous area of the painting, be it light, color, or shape.

What Is the Rule of Thirds in Photography Composition?

In photography composition, the rule of thirds indicates where to position the subject in the frame to achieve an appealing photograph. According to the rule, the photographer should divide the frame into nine equal rectangles by using two vertical parallel lines and two horizontal parallel lines at one-third, respectively two-thirds, of each of the frame’s axis. Then, the photographer should place the main visual element of the photograph at one of the four intersection points or along one of the lines.


Photo by Aksh Goel on Unsplash

Contrary to popular belief, the first area people check out in an image isn’t the center. The rule of thirds states that the viewer will most likely check out these four intersection points and lines before passing to other areas of the image. Furthermore, based on their reading habits, some people will first look at the left or right side, upper or bottom side. As a result, visual elements placed here benefit from more attention. If you charge them with meaning (i.e., they are the main subject of your story), you have better chances to have your message understood and impress the audience.

Important Compositional Elements

In a photograph, the main subject isn’t the only compositional element. Other elements, such as objects, light, shadows, patches of color, and lines, can capture the viewer’s attention without this being the photographer’s intention. Therefore, it’s important to know what to include in the frame and where to position each element in order to create a strong narrative in which the main subject has the principal role.

The rule of thirds ensures the subject will receive attention. However, the subject alone can’t cover all four points and lines provided by the rule. If other visually striking elements are placed in those positions, they may distract the viewer. 

When you frame a picture, decompose the scene into basic compositional elements, such as recognizable shapes, saturated colors, very bright or dark areas, and strong lines. Then, see which of these should be in the frame to emphasize the subject and the story and which are distractions and should be left out. Secondary elements should be less obvious than the principal ones (e.g., smaller size, less saturated, far away from the points provided by the rule of thirds, etc.).

How to Use the Rule of Thirds

To use the rule of thirds, imagine the two vertical and two horizontal lines passing through the scene. You don’t have to be extremely accurate. However, if you find it hard to do it by eye, use the camera’s guidelines. Most cameras can display the rule of thirds grid in the viewfinder for you.

Then, adjust the position and angle of the camera until you have the subject in one of the four intersection points or aligned with one of the four lines. However, consider more than just placing the subject in the right spot.

The subject’s features dictate its placement. For example, a tall subject will look better aligned with a vertical line, while a wide subject will look better aligned with a horizontal line. A subject that leans or develops more in one direction will look better having more space in that direction. Multiple subjects should be placed according to their importance.


Photo by Jan Huber on Unsplash

If you find that the eye approximation didn’t work very well, you can adjust the photo in post-processing. Photo editors, such as Adobe Photoshop and Affinity Photo, accompany cropping and rescaling functionalities with the rule of thirds grid.

Rule of Thirds in Portrait Photography

The man who had the idea of the rule of thirds was a portrait painter. It seems obvious that portraiture benefits a lot from using the rule of thirds. You create a one-man show in which the main character has to be visible and impressive. Therefore, positioning the model according to the rule of thirds makes better use of the space, creates a separation between subject and background, and breaks the monotony of centered portraits.

If the model is not looking directly at the camera, remember to leave two-thirds of the frame in the direction of his or her gaze. Also, if you want to point out other features, such as body movement, body parts, or hairstyle, apply the rule of thirds not only for finding where to put the model in the frame but also for finding the best pose.


Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

How to Apply the Rule of Thirds to Landscape Photos

The painter who defined the rule of thirds was a landscape painter. So landscape photography too benefits a lot from using the rule of thirds. To start with, most landscape photos include the horizon, a clear division between the sky and land. The proportion between the sky and land should be 1:2 or 2:1, depending on which of them is more impactful (e.g., a sunset sky is more impressive than a calm sea). 

At the same time, you should consider applying the rule within divisions. For example, a nice cloud on a blue sky may look better when using the rule of thirds to position it. Or you may divide the land part into two-thirds sea and one-third beach.


Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Vertical elements, such as trees and mountains, may look better in a portrait-oriented composition that allows them to align with the vertical lines of the grid. Landscapes usually have plenty of lines you can work with. They may also have strong focal points (e.g., rocks, the sun) that will get lost in the frame if not positioned in the right place. So consider what you want your focal point to be and find a good position within the frame for it.

The Rule of Thirds: How to Use It and When to Break It

The rule of thirds provides a good indication of where to place a significant compositional element to give it the right importance in the eye of the viewer. It’s a guideline you should follow when you want to enhance your visual story, make the subject stand out, or create an appealing composition. Try photographing the same scene with and without the rule of thirds grid and see the difference for yourself. It’s good practice and helps you understand the power of the rule.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: Why is the rule of thirds important?

A: The rule of thirds is important because it helps you create appealing and well-balanced compositions that capture the viewer’s attention. In addition, it improves the flow from one visual element to another, ensuring the viewer will spend more time looking at your photographs. The rule of thirds harmonizes the connection between elements and enhances the narrative by making them more or less important to the story. So it improves both the aesthetic and practical parts of the picture.

Q: Can you break the rule of thirds?

A: Of course. The rule of thirds is not the only composition rule in photography. You can, and should, use all of them in order to create a diverse and interesting portfolio. Each time you take a photo the conditions change. You may have a different subject matter or story to tell, different lighting, or other compositional elements. You may even have a different attitude and want to convey other messages. Use the composition technique that allows you to be creative and impress the viewer.

Q: Rule of thirds photography tips

A: Remember to apply the rule of thirds according to your scene’s features and consider the amount of space it needs. The focal point or interest area of the scene should occupy more space. For example, a compact subject looks better at one of the four intersection points. If it develops in a particular direction, leave two-thirds of the frame in that direction.
Leading lines should be aligned with one of the four grid lines. The exception is diagonal lines that go through the intersection points instead. And, of course, if you can’t or don’t want to follow the rule of thirds, be free to do so.