The rule of thirds is a handy but imperfect composition tool for photography. Here’s everything you need to know about when – and when not – to use it.
What is the rule of thirds?
The rule of thirds is a way of helping you to compose a photograph. It can guide how you place the main elements of your composition in the frame, so your photo feels well balanced and pleasing to the eye. You can apply it no matter what you’re photographing, from macro photography to portraits.
To be clear, though, it isn’t a rule.
Think of the rule of thirds as just one option to consider when you’re working on your composition. The key is that by understanding it, you’ll know when it will help you and when a different approach will work better.
How do you use the rule of thirds?
The basic idea is to divide your frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically – hence the name. You’ll probably find that your camera has a setting to overlay a rule of thirds grid on your viewfinder or the screen, if you’re using live view.
Dividing the frame up this way gives you a nine-part grid but it’s not the parts between the lines we’re interested in – it’s the lines themselves.
When composing your photograph, you place the point of interest on one of the lines or at the where two lines intersect. This technique also works with other important elements of your composition that aren’t your main subject but are key to how the image feels, such as the horizon in landscape photography.
If you’re using a shallow depth of field, it can also help you to determine where your focal point should be, to ensure the most interesting part of the scene is in focus.
Rule of thirds examples
Many times, the rule of thirds will give you a pleasing composition. My own photography focuses on architecture and urban spaces, and I often find the rule of thirds helpful for positioning converging lines in the frame. In this image of the Riverwalk apartment building in London, I’ve placed the convergence point where the upper horizontal line and right vertical line meet.
When you have a person moving through the frame, as in the shot below, putting them on the left or right third (depending which way they’re travelling) gives them space in the frame to move into. This works with birds and other wildlife too.
The rule of thirds can help you decide where to put a dividing line in the image. In this shot of the Can of Ham building in London, I positioned the right edge of the building on the right third, giving a nice balance between the mirrored front and the side of the building.
The rule can also be effective when you have a single, clear subject surrounded by negative space. Here, the building is ‘looking’ to the right, so that’s where the empty space feels natural. This also applies when taking photos of people looking to the left or right.
In the shot below of 22 Bishopsgate, the row of vents feels natural on the upper third line. In the photo of the Riverbank building, the right edge aligns with the right third line, giving just the right amount of space between the building and the side of the frame.
Why the rule is not a rule
A rule is only a rule if it always works. Plenty of times, the rule of thirds just doesn’t. One obvious example is when you have a symmetrical subject.
I took this shot of a frosty tree in one of my local parks. There’s nothing to be gained here by thinking about thirds. Putting the line of mist on the lower third would have resulted in one third of a frame of grass. Similarly, with nothing going on in the sky, there’s no benefit to placing the top of the tree on the upper third line.
Instead, this symmetrical composition just works. The central tree has a beautiful balance of its own, with a nearly equal spread of branches on both sides, combined with the placing of the two trees in the background.
Don’t let people tell you that you can’t put your subject smack in the middle of the frame. It works with symmetry.
In this ‘look-up’ photograph, it was important that each of the four main buildings had similar prominence, otherwise it gives the sensation that the most prominent buildings are going to fall on top of you. I avoided this by placing the convergence point in the middle of the frame. Any attempt to move it towards one or other of the thirds gave too much weight to some buildings and not enough to the others.
The strong repeating pattern in this detail of the US Embassy makes the rule of thirds redundant. There is a natural order to this shot that the rule of thirds wouldn’t improve.
You’ll often hear people say that dividing an image in two – for example, by putting the horizon along the centre line – creates an unsettling tension in a photograph. The argument is that the brain cannot determine which of the halves is dominant – hence a one-third/two-thirds split feels more natural.
Sometimes, though, that half-and-half split is exactly what you want. In the image below (part of the tourist information centre near St Paul’s Cathedral), I wanted to emphasise the angularity and the stark contrast between light and shade. This would have been less powerful if the shadows had been limited to just the top third.
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Mixing it up
Compositions doesn’t have to be one thing or another. Here, I chose to position the horizon on the lower third but the post is central. Placing it on a third line would have seriously unbalanced the composition.
Does the image orientation or aspect ratio matter?
Not particularly. As you’ll see from the examples I’ve posted above, you can use the rule of thirds with landscape, portrait or square images.
Other than the square shots, the aspect ratio of the images above is typically 3:2 or 5:4, but in principle there’s no reason you can’t use it with other common aspect ratios. As always, it’s about what works for your specific shot.
Don’t believe the critics who say you have to use it…
A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. If you’re new to any discipline, it can be comforting to latch onto ‘rules’ and apply them dogmatically. If you don’t follow the rule of thirds, you may get feedback from inexperienced photographers who are sure you’ve got your composition wrong.
You’ll also hear this in a more subtle way, which is that you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Don’t take that literally, because it suggests you need to take shot after shot with rule of thirds before you can graduate to something different. That’s a recipe for boredom, for you and your viewers.
You may also hear the claim that there are scientific explanations for the rule of thirds, to do with the way the human eye moves around an image. If someone says this to you, ask for a link to the studies. If anything, the scientific evidence points in the other direction.
…or let them tell you it’s only for beginners
On the other hand, don’t be afraid to use it when it’s right.
If you believe some articles – and the comments beneath them – you’d think that ‘it’s only for beginners’. There is something in this, in the sense that when you’re starting out, it’s tempting to stick your subject in the centre of the frame, whether it looks good there or not.
Learning about the rule of thirds may be the first time new photographers think about creating an effective composition and discover the benefits of off-centre composition. But as you gain experience, you’ll find the concept still has its uses, when the circumstances are right.
Using the rule of thirds in post processing
If you’re not happy with the composition you got in-camera, cropping can help you to find a more harmonious image. Any editing program you use will have the option to crop using rule of thirds, with on-screen guides to show the lines and intersection points. In Photoshop, rule of thirds is one of several grid options you can choose.