If you’re a beginner photographer, learning about the rule of thirds is a great starting point for you. It’s easy to understand, it’s integrated into every camera and photo editing program, and it produces amazing photos.
Undoubtedly, by learning the rule of thirds, you’ll quickly become an overall much better photographer, as it’s part of every photography genre. Of course, there are times when you should avoid the rule of thirds, but before you learn how to break it, you need to learn how to use it.
Here’s everything you need to know about the rule of thirds to instantly 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 divided into thirds (both horizontally and vertically), while 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.
As you’re taking a photo, you either have to imagine the grid or enable it in your camera’s LCD.
Now that you know what the grid looks like, let’s identify the four points of interest – the intersections (coloured in red).
To make your photos more interesting and well-balanced, you should align your objects with the intersections. These might include people, flowers, coffee mugs, and pets.
But what do you do when you don’t have an obvious object in your scene?
In such cases, especially in landscape photography, you should align leading lines with one of the four lines of the grid. 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.
The essence of the rule of thirds is that you don’t put the main elements of the scene in the centre of your photos.
For example, if you’re photographing a waterfall, you wouldn’t put it directly in the centre. No, you’d rather shift it slightly to the left or to the right.
This means that all the leading lines, the main object(s), and the background should be aligned with the grid lines or placed on the intersections.
There 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 in your camera, and align your subject(s) on one of the four intersections.
In the image below, the hummingbird and the flower were placed at the opposite intersection (down-right).
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 is that you should align important linear elements of your image with the lines of the grid.
You can align your elements with either horizontal or vertical grid lines. Which 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 one of the 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 more interesting part of the scene.
In the photo below, the author decided to put the horizon on the lower grid line. This 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
You don’t have to keep focused only on grid lines and intersections.
When you’re dealing with irregularly shaped objects, such as rivers, roads, and paths, you can use the diagonals.
Instead of giving a river a left-to-right direction, you can try a different direction. For example, from bottom-left to up-right leading line.
In this photo, the road enters in the bottom-left, crosses the bottom-left intersection, and then meanders towards the top right intersection where it exits the photo.
Composing your photo this way will make your eyes wander around the image, making it significantly more interesting.
In contrast, if the road was placed on the horizon, this photo would immediately become less interesting.
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.
Which begs the question:
“When should I break the rule of thirds?“
You should usually break the rule of thirds 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 of a photo to create a more engaging composition. Notice how the reflected peak is closer to the bottom edge of the photo than the top peak is from the top edge.
Rule Of Thirds: Examples
Now, let’s look at a few examples of the rule of thirds in real photos.
I want to make sure you understand the composition ideas behind these examples.
Let’s get right into the first example.
There are 3 main takeaways for you from this image.
- Horizon is aligned with the bottom horizontal grid line. This splits the photo vertically into 1/3 (fore)ground and 2/3 sky (background).
- The tree is not centred. 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 composition is much more pleasing to the eye.
- There’s nothing on the right. By leaving empty space on right, the tree gets more attention and becomes the main subject of the photo. If there were any object on the right, it would only serve as a distraction.
The second example is analogous to the first one.
- The horizon is not perfectly aligned with the bottom horizontal grid line for two reasons:
- 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 zooming 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 of the image.
- 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 the 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 destinations for tourists.
- The boat is on the bottom-left intersection.
- Island with a church is on the top-right intersection.
- A branch in the top left and a deck on the bottom act as a vignette.
In this photo, all objects are positioned in the right half, 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 even more, I would straighten the table (crooked images are a big “no-no”). and I would remove the lamp as it serves no purpose.
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 object (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 right. If it flowed from the right to left, it should be positioned onto the right vertical grid line, to once again flow into the frame.
Rule Of Thirds For 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 so that the top horizontal line is aligned 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 horizontally centre your subject, and that’s okay, but then, try to align their eyes with the upper horizontal grid line, like in the example below.
In portrait photography, we often make vertical shots, 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. Quite often, landscape photos contain several elements that have to be balanced out across the frame, to make a photo interesting and comprehensible.
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.
In the image below, the photo loosely followed 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.
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: photo-editing) is where you can fix any compositional mistakes you made during your photoshoot. 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 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 cannot see the gridlines, you need to enable the extras. Go to View and check Extras (Shortcut: Ctrl + H).
Rule Of Thirds 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 much more intertwined within 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 equals to 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.
The golden spiral rule is the best used with images where there’s only 1 main subject or one focal point.
For 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 where only half of the face/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 just go out with a camera and have fun photographing anything that piques your interest. Even 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 just take photos – after all, isn’t that what photography is all about?
Next time you go for a shoot and find a promising 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 useful guideline that serves as a good starting point for beginners. Of course, there are a lot of 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.