PHLEARN MagazineRule of Thirds: How to Use It in Your Photography

Rule of Thirds: How to Use It in Your Photography

Have you ever heard of the rule of thirds?

We’d be surprised if you haven’t.

However, knowing the term and having a fuzzy sense of how to apply it may trick you into thinking you already know everything there is to know about the technique.

Actually, there may be several elements of the rule you haven’t been introduced to or considered yet.

For example, do you know how to compose shots both indoors and outdoors using the rule of thirds? Do you have an inkling of how to crop an image according to the rule in Photoshop? And do you understand when to break this rule – and when to stick to it?

If the answer is ‘no’ to any of these questions, or you’re even slightly puzzled about the technique, then this guide is for you.

How and Why the Rule of Thirds Came About

The technique emerged before the dawn of photography. Renaissance painters started using the rule of thirds when they realized that our eyes can easily stray from the center of an image. So, they implemented a way to make accomodations for our drifting eyes by purposely putting the subject of the photo off-center.

Then, in 1797, John Thomas Smith declared the rule was the best way to compose paintings of rural scenery. Since that time, we’ve been using this rule as one of the most basic and rudimentary ways to learn photography composition. In today’s world, you don’t have to look too far to see the rule of thirds applied: It’s often used in video production, graphic design, and photography.

Photos using the rule are ubiquitous because they present the viewer with a dramatic image: The subject (or subjects) of the photo draws the eye by creating a visual focus, and the negative space perfectly offsets that focus.

To practice the rule of thirds in composition, start by dividing a photo up into nine smaller parts, using two horizontal and two vertical lines placed evenly across your photograph to split your photo up. The result will resemble a Tic-Tac-Toe board that looks like this:

Next, you would either line up your subject with one of the four places where the lines intersect, and/or line your subject up with one or more of the vertical and horizontal lines of the grid.


Tip

Your subjects don’t have to match the lines or intersecting points perfectly. They just have to be positioned close to the guide points or lines laid out by the rule.


Here’s a prime example of how using the rule of thirds results in an interesting and eye-catching image:

In this case, the photographer has lined his subject’s face with the bottom-right intersection point in the grid, and the hanging lamp hits the top-left point. Consequently, our eyes are drawn to the subject, but we are also captured by the large amount of negative space in the photo and the symmetry.

In this guide, we’ll teach you how to create photos like this yourself, by looking at these elements of the technique:

  • How to see the rule of thirds in your mind just by looking
  • How to use the rule of thirds – whether you’re inside or out of the studio
  • How to crop your image in post-production to the proper rule of thirds ratio (along with before and after examples)
  • When to make it or break it

Tip

Even your iPhone has “thought” about the rule of thirds. You can turn on a rule of thirds photography grid by going to Settings > Photos & Camera > Grid. Now, lines will be superimposed across your image to help guide you when you take a photo.


Examples of Where the Rule of Thirds Crops Up

You can train yourself to see the rule of thirds in images, starting with absorbing how photographers have applied the rule in these examples. Imagine the invisible lines laid out across the photos and pinpoint where the subject falls.

This composition of Marina Bay in Singapore uses the top and bottom horizontal lines of the grid to frame the structures, creating a much more interesting image than if the photographer had placed the horizon line in the center of the photo.

Below, the photographer has used the rule by placing the walkway, the Toronto sign, and its reflection in the lower third of the shot. This helps to create interest in an image where the building has been placed in the center of the frame.

Photo by Matthew Lai on Unsplash

In this rustic photo, you can see how the flower marks a point where the top and right lines intersect. Our eyes are instantly drawn to the image of the simple flower placed amongst wood planks.

Photo by Arnold Leow on Unsplash

Our subject here sits at the edge of the left vertical line, and the horizon follows the top horizontal line of the grid, giving the photo an expansive quality.

This photo below is a prime example of how using the rule of thirds can transform a mundane, everyday scene into something eye-catching. The tomato has been lined up with the right vertical line of the grid. Notice how the negative space is used to feature the tomato – the background is dark, the texture is barely discernible, and there is no clutter to distract from the main subject of the image.

How You Can See the Rule of Thirds Grid Before Taking Your Photo

When it comes to visualizing the rule, your camera may already be equipped with a handy feature: a rule of thirds grid. Turn on this rule of thirds overlay, and you’ll be able to see the grid lines in your viewfinder or live view monitor.

However, if your camera does not come with this feature, you will have to practice “seeing” the grid by imagining lines and intersections laid over the images you’re capturing.

Here are a few tips to help you along as you practice:

  1. When you’re shooting a scene or portrait, think about which aspects of your photo you’re attempting to highlight. Work on lining them up to the lines or intersections on the rule of thirds grid.
  2. Look to photographs in the world around you to see how other photographers have used the rule of thirds. Each time you see a photo online, in a magazine, or on a bus stop ad, visualize a grid across the photo and think of how the photographer placed their subjects to incorporate the rule.
  3. Think of the rule of thirds grid as you encounter varying scenes throughout your day. For instance, you can think about how to apply the grid in your mind’s eye when you’re stopped at a red light on your way home from work. Or even at home, you can visualize the rule by thinking about the grid overlaying scenes like your child playing, a fruit bowl placed on your counter, or what you can see from your front porch.

Tip

Even your iPhone has “thought” about the rule of thirds. You can turn on a rule of thirds photography grid by going to Settings > Photos & Camera > Grid. Now, lines will be superimposed across your image to help guide you when you take a photo.


A Note on Composition

Using this basic composition rule can be as simple as choosing what you’d like to highlight, and proceeding from there. Here are two general rules to keep in mind:

  1. If you place your subject on the bottom, horizontal line of your composition, it will stand out more than the other features of your photograph.
  2. Also, since most of your viewers are likely accustomed to reading from left to right, their eyes will naturally drift to the right side of an image. You could place the object you’d like to emphasize there as well.

When you’re new to the rule of thirds, of course you can start with the general tips we’ve noted above and just start experimenting. However, if you’d like to get a more solid idea of how to apply the rule, there are a few tried and true composition formulas to try your hand at first.

How to Compose Using the Rule of Thirds

Inside the Studio

Take a few cozy indoor shots at your home or studio with the following tips:

  • When taking portraits of people or animals, it’s all about the eyes! Since viewers usually gravitate to the eyes in a photo, positioning that captivating feature in one of the off-center intersecting lines will make your image look even more stunning:
    • If both eyes are in the photo, position them across a horizontal line.
    • If only one eye is in the photo, position it at an intersection point.

  • For a head and shoulders close-up using the rule of thirds, place the neckline over a vertical line and the shoulders on a horizontal line.
  • For photos of two people or objects, placing one subject on the top-right intersecting lines of the grid and the other on the bottom-left intersecting lines can add an interesting look to your photograph.
  • In cases where you’re taking a photo of multiple people, it’s best to line up a few faces on the top, horizontal line, and a few on the bottom. This looks a lot better than lining your subjects up in a single row. You could try applying this technique with two people as well, such as a mother and child or a couple.
  • Also, in the case where you are photographing several people at once, you can place some of your subjects on horizontal and vertical lines and then scatter one or more of your subjects at intersecting points to create an interesting image.
  • When taking individual portraits, you could try positioning the model facing sideways, looking inwards, from the right or left vertical line, as though they are looking at something outside the frame on the other side. This will create a void on one side of the photograph, which could help to convey a mood or a sense of mystery.

Outside the Studio

Let’s talk landscape! Here are some tips to apply the rule of thirds outdoors:

  • Don’t put your horizon smack dab in the center – it tends to look awkward that way. Instead, line it up with one of the two horizontal lines. Then, take another eye-catching feature in your scene (called the “anchor” since your eye naturally follows it), like a boat or a tree, and line it up with one of the vertical lines or intersecting points).
  • Macro shots of insects, flowers or other elements of nature present an excellent opportunity for applying the rule of thirds. See the varying effects you can achieve in your images by positioning your subject on different areas of the grid. This will change where the negative space in the photo ends up and can impact the vibe of your photo in a major way.
  • When dealing with an object like a tall building (or anything that stands vertically) do not put the object in an awkward position – i.e., dead center. Position that tall object in alignment with the vertical lines to the left or right of the center.
  • When taking a photo of moving objects (and, for this example, they’re moving from the left to the right side of the frame), you can snap them on the left or right vertical lines. If you catch them on the left, they appear to be walking into the other side of the photo. Conversely, if you capture them on the right, they seem to be walking right out of the scene. It’s your choice, depending on the effect you’re aiming for!

Cropping to the Rule of Thirds in Photoshop

Post-production is a good backup plan when, say, you have trouble eyeing the rule of thirds grid in the first place, didn’t remember to apply the rule while composing a photo, or didn’t have time to line up a really exciting shot.

Here are a couple before and afters to show you how cropping in Photoshop can dramatically impact your image:

Before & After Photos (and Header Image) by Douglas Turner

There is more than one way to crop an image to comply with the rule of thirds. Once you select the Crop Tool in Photoshop, a grid will pop up over your image, showing you the lines breaking the photo up into thirds. You can just drag the edges or corners of the image to resize the photo however you like, but, for the sake of cropping to a clear and defined aspect ratio using the rule of thirds grid, here’s a simple step-by-step method:

  1. Select the Crop Tool.
  2. You’ll see a grid pop up over the image.
  3. Click on the Ratio dropdown menu at the top of the screen and choose the size of the photo you’d like to end up with.
  4. A box representing your newly set crop area and containing the rule of thirds grid will appear over the photo.
  5. Now, when you click on and drag an edge or a corner, the aspect ratio will remain the same.
  6. If needed, you can change the grid’s orientation by clicking on the ‘Swap height and width’ arrows button in the top options bar. Or, just grab one of the grid’s corners and move up for a portrait layout, or sideways for a landscape layout.
  7. Move the box so that your subjects are in line with the horizontal or vertical grid lines, or on the intersecting points.
  8. Uncheck ‘Delete Cropped Pixels’ in the Crop Tool options bar – that way you can get your original image back if you decide to rearrange the crop later.
  9. When you’re satisfied with your new image, click on the check mark icon to commit to the crop.

Remember, this is only one version of of how you can crop your photos to conform to the rule of thirds.

Follow these links to access more rule of thirds cropping methods:

PHLEARN’s own guide to Photoshop cropping

Add Visual Interest to Your Photos with the Rule of Thirds


Tip

It’s helpful if you at least tried to apply the rule prior to taking your photo into post-production. If you didn’t think of doing this while you were shooting, there may not be enough space to relocate the subject according to the rule.


The Rule You Can Break

Breaking the rule of thirds is a lot like breaking rules in any artistic discipline – you must know the rule first in order to be able to break it properly. In fact, some go so far as to say that the rule is only helpful to photographers in the learning stages. As photographers grow in skill, they argue, they can think less about whether they’re conforming to the rule, or breaking it.

Breaking a photo up into thirds looks beautiful to the viewer because it makes them feel like they’re looking at something with movement and flow. Therefore, ignoring the rule of thirds and placing your subject smack dab in the middle of your photo may have a motionless impact and bore your viewers. All this to say, if you dare to break the rule, you’ve got to make the end result dynamic.

To help you out with understanding when it’s appropriate to ignore the rule of thirds, let’s start with a few occasions where we can easily identify when it could be time to break the rule:

1. When you’re capturing symmetry:

Humans love symmetry because we are very attracted to symmetrical faces and bodies, so we don’t need the rule to add interest here. Flowers, butterflies and buildings that are perfectly symmetrical can be photographed straight on.

2. When your image includes a reflection:

In this case, placing your horizon in the center is A-OK. This is because a photo of your subject and its reflection mimics symmetry. Reflections of buildings, animals and humans in the water are all fair game here.

3. When you’re using a shallow depth of field:

Viewers of our photos are already engaged with dimension, so macro shots of birds, bees, or all manner of things do not have to conform to the rule.

4. When you have a horizontal subject:

Be a total rebel and put your subject or image that follows a horizontal line right in the center – you can do this with a landscape photo or when you have an captivating horizontal prop to grace the middle of your photo.

5. When your subject is already intriguing enough on its own:

Feel free to abandon the rule when using it would detract from your subject. For example, a portrait of a person with an interesting expression or facial features may be more engaging and dramatic when placed in the center of your frame.

6. When you want to produce a calming effect:

Using the rule can create tension between your subject and the negative space in your photo; breaking it may help to create a soothing effect for the viewer.


Tip

You can also construct a very attractive photograph when you extend an image (or a part of the image) as far as you can, such as an image that reveals mainly sky, and a bit of the earth, like this example:

Or a photo where the scene is extended over a majority – or all – of the frame, such as part of a building:


Now It’s Your Turn

Can you think of other ways to defy the rule of thirds?

The thing to keep in mind as you contemplate this question and practice this technique in your photography is that sometimes using the rule will work. You’ll come out with a polished photo to be proud of. However, other times, using rule of thirds photography will make your image look awkward or just won’t showcase your subject as you’d envisioned. In that case, don’t spend time worrying about it. Use these successes and failures with the rule as ways to deepen your knowledge for future photo shoots.

WIth experimentation and practice, you will become familiar with when to use or break the “rule.”

If you’re feeling confident enough to both use the rule of thirds and ignore it, and are asking yourself, “What’s next?” why not wade into the wide world of other composition techniques?

What are you waiting for? Get started with a couple of PHLEARN resources:

3 Guides for Great Composition in Your Photos
25 Tips for Perfect Photography Composition

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PHLEARN Staff

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