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Improve Your Composition With the Rule of Thirds

You may have heard of the rule of thirds in photography. But do you know exactly what it is? Or how it can help you? Taking great images isn’t only about your lenses or your camera.

Adding compositions to your scenes will make them more interesting. After a while, they will become second nature, allowing you more time to concentrate on the subject.
Majestic photo of a Golden retriever dog standing on the edge of a cliff with a glorious landscape beneath with the rule of thirds composition grid overlayed

What Is the Rule of Thirds Photography Composition?

The rule of thirds is one of those photography terms that you will never shake. It is one of the most important rules of photography composition. Saying that it isn’t infallible, so it’s something that can be broken.

Photography compositions are very important. They help to make or break your scene, separating the wheat from the chaff. Photography compositions, such as the rule of thirds are just one attribute to creating great images.

Although your camera and lenses are important, they are not working alone. You need a great eye, technical skill and practice behind you. The composition is one of the most important and basic tools for your photography.

It helps to make your images interesting and stand out from the crowd. Especially if you are capturing a location that has been done to death.

Composition comes in at this point. This is how you arrange the subject and objects within your frame. You do this from your camera’s perspective. The compositional tool we are covering today is the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds photography composition is one of the basic tools at your disposal. And it’s one of the easiest to master. You can even incorporate other photographic elements. Vertical or horizontal lines are a good option here.

You are breaking your photograph into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. This will leave you with nine equal rectangles, as you can see below.

A red grid showing the rule of thirds intersections for better composition

The nine rectangles leave you with four intersection points. Now, this is something you can do in your head or you can change the setting in on your digital camera. Most modern DSLRs and mirrorless systems have an option to set this on the LCD screen.

Having the grid will help you photograph with this photographic composition. The lines will show your scene, but they won’t be part of your image when you photograph a scene.

The four intersection points are the most important part of the rule of thirds photography composition. This is where you should place the main subjects or the points of interest in your scene.

This works in two different ways. Imagine the differences between a location and a subject. When it comes to a location (landscapes) this grid helps you place the horizon on the two-thirds line. Either two-thirds landscape and one-third sky, or two-thirds sky and one-third landscape.

If we are capturing a subject (portrait), we want to capture the person on one of the intersections. This keeps them out of the center, immediately creating more interest.

We are talking about the relationship between negative space and interesting elements. It helps give the scene a focal point, in a natural way.

As you see, these intersecting points are very important. It’s an aid in assisting your photographic composition.

Points of Interest

Sometimes, you’ll have an image with one or a few specific points of interest. This type of image is great for using the rule of thirds photography composition.

Important compositional elements, such as people’s eyes become strong interest points.

For example, the photo below shows the subject on the lower-left intersection.
An image of a woman walking through the countryside on an overcast day to show the rule of thirds composition
You can see this better with the rule of thirds photography grid as a reference placed over the image.
An image of a woman through the countryside with the rule of thirds composition grid overlayed
The same goes for landscape shots. This is where we can see the most prominent point-of-interest on the intersection.
A stunning image of boats on turquoise water sailing through a mountainous landscape to show the rule of thirds composition
The rule of thirds photography grid shows this idea better. The boat falls on the lower-left intersection and the mountain on the upper-right.
An image of a beautiful tropical landscape with the rule of thirds composition grid overlayed
The theory goes like this. Points of interest placed in these intersections help your photo become more balanced. It creates more tension, energy and interest.

The viewer’s eyes will fall to these points in an image in a subconscious manner. Because of the placement, Your image then becomes more dramatic.

Important Elements

The same idea goes for images where the landscape is the subject. These images don’t have one specific point of reference.

Here you have four lines that help you to arrange these important elements in your frame.

For example, take this image of a landscape/road scene.
A countryside road scene at evening time, showing the landscape to sky ratio is 1/2 - rule of thirds composition tips
This image isn’t very dynamic as you can see the horizon is right in the middle of the frame. You can see this better by using the rule of thirds photography grid.
A countryside road scene at evening time, with the rule of thirds grid overlayed
For images of landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes, it is better to work from the idea of 1/3 and 2/3. Luckily, this grid gives you that from the horizontal and vertical lines.
This image below is more interesting. The landscape takes up 1/3 of the image, where the sky takes the remaining 2/3.
This idea is a great way to show two important elements, where one has more importance over the other. This image would not be as dynamic if the sky was only 1/3.
A mountainous landscape with a stunning star filled night sky above, with the rule of thirds composition grid overlayed

Breaking the Rule of Thirds Photography Composition

The rule of thirds is the most basic, yet fundamental, composition tool to use. It’s the first compositional tool beginner photographers learn. And it’s simple to pick up. But, it also makes this photography composition east to overuse and abuse.

You can read more about the most common abused rules of composition here.

Of course, you can break the rules. But it is better to learn them first. This way, when you do break them, your choices are more effective and on purpose. There needs to be a reason why the subject is placed smack-bang in the center.

Take this image, for example. The subject neither follows the points of interest falling on any of the intersections. Nor does any of the important elements (eyes, lips, etc) rest on the 1/3 and 2/3 breakdown.

This image did win Coco Amerdeil 2nd place in the 2017 Lens Culture portrait Award. Thankfully, the story or idea behind the image was strong enough to shine through the composition used.

A portrait of a female model with her head above water. The second place winner of the Lens Culture portrait award 2017 shows no apparent rule of thirds
Coco Amardeil

Here, the power and concept of the scene overshadow the composition.
The concept of an image and the content will always take precedence over composition. Composition is there to help you boost your images. And make them more interesting if the content is lacking.

Post-Processing

You can also use rule of thirds photography when post-processing your image. It is a helpful way to correct your images and help make them more interesting.

By using software such as Lightroom or Photoshop, you may find that you would like to crop your images. This may be due to distracting subjects or backgrounds.

You may even find that a tighter crop places more importance on your photographed scene.

The  rule of thirds photography grid can help you achieve a better crop, and thus, a stronger image.

While in Lightroom, press ‘R‘ on your keyboard. This will toggle the rule of thirds photography composition grid on your image. Or, clicking on the crop tool will also activate this overlay.
A screenshot showing how using the rule of thirds overlay in Lightroom will help you crop your images better
You can use this to crop your image so that subjects fall on these intersections better.
For Photoshop, there is no simple command, but you can make your own by using guides, found in View>New Guide.
If you want even more tips on how to use the rule of thirds to improve your composition, check out our rule of thirds tips from our 30-day photography challenge project or watch our tutorial video below.

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50 comments
  1. At last a very informative yet concise website which gives the everyday photographer the essential information as used by professional photographers like yourself. Very many thanks.

  2. outstanding information and very neat website blog. i have request if you can post some article about forensic photography or sort of photography useful in criminal investigation?
    your works is 5 thumb out of 5.

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