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What is the Rule of Thirds? (And How to Use it in Photos!)

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Related course: Intuitive Composition

Good photography isn’t only about your camera equipment. You also need a great eye, technical skill, and practice. The photographic composition can make or break your image. With practice, you can make a shot of a common subject look unique.

Majestic photo of a Golden retriever dog standing on the edge of a cliff with the rule of thirds composition grid overlayed

The rule of thirds is one of the most fundamental rules of composition and it’s very easy to understand. In photography, we usually rely on our sense of beauty. But using the rule of thirds can be a good starting point to produce images that are more appealing to our eyes.

Read on to find out how to take a rule of thirds photo.

What Is the Rule of Thirds in Photography Composition?

The composition is how you arrange the subject and objects within your frame.

The rule of thirds is dividing your frame into nine equal rectangles. You can do this by creating two vertical and two horizontal lines. The four lines will intersect at four points. These are the points where your point of interests should be. You can do this mentally or you can also change the setting on your camera. Most digital cameras have an option to add the rule of thirds grid onto the screen.

A red grid showing the rule of thirds grid (two horizontal lines and two vertical lines)

How to Use Points of Interest

The relationship between negative space and the subject creates a natural focal point. By default, the viewer looks at the intersection points. Placing points of interest at one of these points balance your image. This also creates more tension, energy, and interest in the photograph.

In a portrait, the subject or other main points like the subject’s eyes, are important. Place these elements on one of the intersections.

For instance, the subject in the photo below is on one of the intersections.

An image of a woman walking through the countryside on an overcast dayYou can see this better using the rule of thirds grid over the photo as a reference.
An image of a woman through the countryside using the rule of thirds composition gridThe same goes for landscape photography, like in the image below. Using the rule of thirds, the photographer placed key elements on the intersections.
A stunning image of boats on turquoise water sailing through a mountainous coastal sceneThe rule of thirds grid shows this better. The boat and the mountain lie on two of the intersection points.
An image of a beautiful tropical coastal scene with the rule of thirds composition grid overlayed, the points of interest falling on the horizontal lines

Important Compositional Elements

Some images like landscapes, seascapes, and cityscapes don’t have one point of interest. Aim to divide the image into one-third and two-thirds. For example, when capturing a landscape, use the rule of thirds to place the horizon on a horizontal line.

For instance, take this photo of a road scene. This image isn’t very dynamic as the horizon falls in the middle of the shot.

A countryside road scene at sunsetYou can see this better if you use the rule of thirds grid.
A countryside road scene at evening time, with the rule of thirds grid overlayed

This photo below is more interesting. The landscape takes up 1/3 of the image, where the sky takes the remaining 2/3.

This is an effective way to show two elements, where one is more important than the other. This image would not be as dynamic if the sky were only 1/3.
A mountainous scene with a stunning star filled night sky above, with the rule of thirds composition grid overlayed

Can You Break the Rule of Thirds?

Of course, you can break the rule of thirds. But before breaking the rule, it is important to learn it. In general, only break the rule for a specific reason.

The photo below, for example, won Coco Amerdeil 2nd place in the 2017 Lens Culture Portrait Award. The subject doesn’t fall on any of the intersections. Nor are any of the key elements (eyes, lips, etc.) on the grid lines. The story behind the image was strong enough to justify breaking the rule.

A portrait of a female model with her head above water. The second place winner of the Lens Culture portrait award 2017
Coco Amardeil

The concept behind a picture will always outweigh the photography composition. The composition can make your frame more interesting if the content is lacking.

Rule of Thirds in Post-Processing

You can also use the rule of thirds during post-processing.

On software like Lightroom or Photoshop, crop your images to remove distracting elements. A tighter crop makes the viewer focus on your composition.

The rule of thirds grid can help you achieve a better crop so that subjects fall on the intersections.

In Lightroom, press ‘R‘ on your keyboard to toggle the rule of thirds grid on your image. Clicking on the crop tool will also activate this overlay.

A screenshot showing how to use Lightroom to crop your images better

In Photoshop, there is no such command. You can make your own by using guides, found in View>New Guide.

Before you go, check out our tutorial video to learn more about the rule of thirds!

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