Rule of Thirds in Photography: The Ultimate Guide (w/ Tips)

(Last updated on July 7th, 2022)

As a new photographer, there are many simple ways you can greatly improve your compositional skill. One of the easiest ways to do this is by learning and using the rule of thirds.

Rule of thirds photography involves dissecting your photos into a 3×3 grid and aligning subjects in certain positions. It is a rudimentary photography technique that should be one of the first things you learn.

Due to its importance, I have used my knowledge to create a comprehensive guide to the rule of thirds in photography. In this guide, you will learn the basic definition of the rule of thirds and why it is important. We then look at a range of examples with grid overlays and end with tips on how you can use this rule in your photography.

The Rule of Thirds in Photography – A Basic Introduction

Before we look at examples, it is important to look at the basic definition of the rule of thirds photography. Luckily, it is one of the simplest photography rules. It is also a rule that I would advise all beginners to learn as quickly as possible.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds is a compositional rule for photography. It breaks a photo into vertical and horizontal thirds which results in the image being split into nine separate blocks. Using this grid, the rule states that key elements and/or subjects in a photo should be aligned along the intersecting lines.

Here is a simple demonstration of the grid:

Rule of thirds grid representation. A simple representation of the rule of thirds grid.
Rule of thirds grid representation. A simple representation of the rule of thirds grid.

The red lines are aligned on the “thirds” of the photo, both horizontally and vertically. Your subject or key elements of the photos should ideally be aligned on those lines.

To take this one step further, the rule of thirds gridline also has four power points. These are the points at which the horizontal and vertical lines intersect. The immediate area surrounding these power points is an ideal position for your central subject. I have created a simple diagram below that shows the power points outlined in green:

Showing the power points. This demonstrates the main power points of a rule of thirds grid.
Showing the power points. This demonstrates the main power points of a rule of thirds grid.

Why is the Rule of Thirds Important in Photography?

So why is this imaginary grid and the rule of thirds important? The short answer is that the rule of thirds simply makes photos more appealing.

Firstly, placing your subject using the rule of thirds creates balance. This is the balance between the subject and the background. The subject occupies a third of the photo and thus is a clear focal point. However, the background occupies the other two-thirds and fills the empty space perfectly. When we look at something like this, the photo just looks right.

Rowing boat in Slovenia. A rowing boat is aligned using the rule of thirds.
Rowing boat in Slovenia. A rowing boat is aligned using the rule of thirds.

The above image demonstrates the rule of thirds perfectly. It was a photo I took on Lake Bled in Slovenia. Here we can see that the rowing boat is positioned in the right-hand third of the photo. As a result, it is clearly defined as the central subject.

However, due to the positioning, the lake and background items provide balance. If the boat was positioned centrally, the image simply wouldn’t look right, and the boat would become far too dominating in the scene.

Examples of the Rule of Thirds in Photography

You now have a basic understanding of the rule of thirds. But how does this translate into actual photography? To give you a demonstration, I have included four examples below of my own photos. These all use the rule of thirds and I have added a 3×3 grid overlay too.

Example 1 – North Star on a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship

North Star Pod on a cruise ship. The pod of the North Star is aligned with the rule of thirds.
North Star Pod on a cruise ship. The pod of the North Star is aligned with the rule of thirds.

This photo is of a cool contraption on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. It is a mechanical arm called the North Star that gives you an awesome birds-eye view of the ship. I took a photo of this as it was moving upwards.

As you can see from the gridline, the viewing pod of the North Star is positioned on the left-hand third of the photo. Although the mechanical arm straddles across the center, the pod is the clear focal point and thus balances the image nicely.

Example 2 – An Owl at a Bird Sanctuary

Eagle Owl in a sanctuary. An Eagle owl poses in a bird sanctuary in Wales.
Eagle Owl in a sanctuary. An Eagle owl poses in a bird sanctuary in Wales.

This photo was taken at the British Bird of Prey Center at the Welsh National Botanical Gardens. Here we can see a gorgeous Eagle Owl during a demonstration. The owl was sat on a wooden post and I took the opportunity to photograph it.

We can see that I framed the owl in the left-hand third of the photo both horizontally and vertically. This composition just looks fantastic and again we see that the owl is the clear focal point. However, due to the positioning, we can also see the owl clearly in its natural surroundings.

Example 3 – A Rowing Boat on Lindisfarne

A rowing boat in Northumberland. The rule of thirds used to frame a rowing boat
A rowing boat in Northumberland. The rule of thirds used to frame a rowing boat.

On Lindisfarne in Northumbria, you can walk along the beaches and see an array of old rowing boats. I love photos like this and the rule of thirds works perfectly to frame the boat here against the bleak landscape.

I positioned the boat on the left-hand third of the photo (I think I favor the left-hand side because I am left-handed?). Again, it creates a balanced photo. In the left third, we have the battered rowing boat that is the key subject. However, in the right third, we have the muddy background and other boats left from the retreating tide.

Example 4 – A Bee at Heilegan Gardens in Cornwall

A bee on a flower. Here we see a bee collecting pollen on a flower.
A bee on a flower. Here we see a bee collecting pollen on a flower

Here we have a photo where I actually framed the subject on the right for once! This was a close-up photo of a bee at the beautiful Heilegan Gardens in Cornwall.

If this was an extreme macro close-up, the rule of thirds may not have been applicable. However, because I wanted to include the flower as a key element, the rule of thirds makes an impact.

As you can see, the bee is virtually framed on the top-right power point. In hindsight, I could have framed this a little better by moving the bee and flower slightly more to the right!

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Tips for Using the Rule of Thirds in Your Photography

Now that we have dissected some examples and have an understanding of the definition, we can look at how to use the rule of thirds in your photography.

Below, I have created some simple tips from my own experience that should help improve your use of this technique. When I started photography, I had no clue about the rule of thirds. However, over time, I learned about its benefit and started to incorporate it into my photos.

It is now second nature to me and something that I automatically do – you can easily do the same by using these simple tips.

Use Your Camera’s Grid Mode if Available

This first tip is invaluable and I still sometimes use it today when exploring with my camera.

Many cameras allow you to add a grid overlay to your display/viewfinder. This doesn’t affect the actual photo – it’s simply a visual aid to help with composition. Most cameras also allow you to change the size and frequency of the grid. For example, with my Canon EOS M50 Mark II, I can select a 3×3 grid that effectively mimics the rule of thirds.

The Humber Bridge in Yorkshire. The rule of thirds used to frame the Humber Bridge.
The Humber Bridge in Yorkshire. The rule of thirds used to frame the Humber Bridge.

When taking photos I can simply line up my subject using the grid overlay to make sure it has the rule of thirds applied. For beginners, using a grid in this manner is incredibly beneficial. It removes the guesswork and means you can easily build your confidence using the rule of thirds.

The grid option is typically located in your camera settings menu. I would first advise doing a quick Google search to see if your camera has this function.

Embark on a Dedicated Rule of Thirds Photography Trip

With your grid overlay applied, it’s now time to take your camera and start practicing. As with any photographic technique, practice is key. The more you take photos using the rule of thirds, the easier you will find it.

To start, dedicate an entire day or trip to improving your rule of thirds photography. For example, head into your local city and take subject photos exclusively using the rule of thirds. As you walk and explore, you will start to frame your subjects in this manner automatically. Eventually, it will become second nature and you won’t even have to think about the framing!

Analyze Your Old Photos and Re-Edit Them to Apply the Rule of Thirds

Today, photographers have the benefit of powerful photo editing software like Adobe Lightroom and ON1 Photo RAW. Software like this allows us to take an objective look at our photography – both past and present.

As a beginner who is learning new techniques, this is invaluable. For example, you can look back at your old photos for inspiration. Spend time analyzing your old photos and pick out a handful to re-edit with the aim of improving them by applying the rule of thirds.

A statue in Chatsworth Gardens. A statue framed using the rule of thirds in a stately home gardens.
A statue in Chatsworth Gardens. A statue framed using the rule of thirds in a stately home gardens.

You can use the crop function of photo editing software to re-frame the subjects in your photos. Sometimes this may not work due to the original composition. However, in many instances, you can simply re-crop a photo so that the subject is aligned to the left or right-hand third of the frame.

There may also be photos where you unknowingly used the rule of thirds!

Take Dual Photos With and Without the Rule of Thirds and Compare Them

It can be difficult to see the benefit and impact of the rule of thirds in your photos without a comparison. Why does framing a subject in the left or right-hand third of an image make any difference?

To get that difference and to see the benefit, spend time taking dual photos of subjects. The first photo should NOT use the rule of thirds and the subject should be aligned centrally or randomly. Next, take a photo of the same subject, but use the rule of thirds.

You now have a direct comparison. By analyzing both photos, you should be able to see a clear difference and why the rule of thirds creates a more pleasing and impactful photo.

Know When Not to Use the Rule of Thirds

With your newfound knowledge, it is tempting to frame every subject using the rule of thirds. Indeed, this is generally good practice and results in appealing photos.

However, the rule of thirds is not infallible and there are instances where it is not appropriate to use.

For example, in portrait photography, we often align the subject centrally. This is because the person is the main focal point, and the background is usually irrelevant. Using the rule of thirds in a headshot or a close-up portrait simply wouldn’t work.

A headshot not using the rule. Here we see a headshot that frames the subject centrally instead of using the rule of thirds
A headshot not using the rule. Here we see a headshot that frames the subject centrally instead of using the rule of thirds

Also, oftentimes you want to place emphasis on a particular subject or create photos that have strong lines. In instances like these, the rule of thirds doesn’t give the desired end result. For example, the below photo isn’t aligned to the left or right-hand third of the image. Instead, the pier leads directly into the center of the photo. However, due to the leading lines, and the striking effect this has, it works brilliantly.

This pier is centrally aligned too. Here we have a pier centrally aligned which creates a fantastic effect
This pier is centrally aligned too. Here we have a pier centrally aligned which creates a fantastic effect

Conclusion

I hope that you are now seeing 3×3 grids everywhere you look and are ready to go out and use the rule of thirds!

As a new photographer, I would advise nailing this rule and using it as often as possible. It is one of the first photography rules I learned and I have found it invaluable. By incorporating the rule of thirds into your photography, you can take a huge leap in terms of compositional quality and professionalism.

From there, you can look at learning other important photographic techniques such as leading lines, the golden ratio, and using symmetry and patterns.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why do photographers use the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds is primarily used for the placement of subjects in photos. Photographers use this rule because it creates pleasing compositions. Placing the subject in the left or right-hand third of a photo is just more visually appealing than placing it centrally.

What is the golden ratio in photography?

The golden ratio in photography is 1.618 to 1. This ratio is applied to compositions and shapes to split the photo into segments and thus provide an ideal positioning for subjects. It is seen as a more advanced version of the rule of thirds and is used widely in photography, art, and architectural design.

What is a leading line in photography?

Leading lines are another photographic technique that is often used in conjunction with the rule of thirds. Leading lines are distinct lines in a photo that lead your eye towards a certain position. For example, this could be a road that leads off diagonally into the distance, or to an end structure. They are used to direct the viewer’s attention.

How do you use the rule of thirds?

The simplest method is to use a grid mode if your camera supports it. Many cameras allow you to overlay a 3×3 grid onto your screen which replicates the rule of thirds. You can then use this grid to help position your subjects when composing.

Should you always use the rule of thirds?

No! Although it makes for excellent subject photos, there are instances where you shouldn’t use it i.e. headshot photos and many portrait photos.

Can you get a rule of thirds grid on your camera?

Yes, many cameras allow you to place a grid overall onto your screen and/or viewfinder which helps you easily visualize the rule of thirds.

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