Essence of Photography: Rule of Thirds

There is not a more famous "rule" of photography than the Rule of Thirds. This best practice is often one of the first things every beginning photography student learns. What is this infamous rule, what are some examples, and how can you use it to create better photos?

July 27, 2019

Rules. They give us guidelines for how to do things the "right way". And, many times they are meant to be broken!

But first it helps to understand the rules before going outside the lines.

A challenge for beginning photographers is where to place the subject in the frame.

The Rule of Thirds is a way of arranging the subjects in your photo on a grid which divides the frame into 3 equal parts - both horizontally, and vertically.

Some of us may have a natural inclination to put a subject right in the center of the image. In the right circumstances, this might be an effective composition. However, it can often result in somewhat boring or static images.

This is a great catch of a hawk in flight, but a little boring when the bird is in the center of the frame.

By placing the subject along one of the thirds or grid lines, you can create a more dynamic photo which adds interest for the viewer.

As an added tip, when photographing birds or wildlife, this also gives the animal room to move through the frame as if flying from the left to the right.

This seems more natural to the viewer vs. being trapped in the middle of the image like a bullseye. Note that you could also position the bird a little lower so it is at the intersection point of the bottom line though more important is moving out of center for this example.

A perfect opportunity to practice using the Rule of Thirds is when taking photos of the ocean, sky and horizon.

One might think to first frame the photo with the horizon line in the middle of the image as shown in the photo on the left. Unless there is something else in the scene that creates interest, this is often not the most visually exciting option.

Compare to the photo on the right where the horizon is on the bottom grid line and the sun is lined up on the top line. The composition on the right is more interesting. Rather than an equal proportion of sky and water, which is somewhat boring or static, we see more of the orange sky, and the sun has ample space above and below and creates a nice sense of balance for this scene.

In this example, there were not any strong vertical elements to line up, so it makes sense to put the sun in the middle of the vertical lines, while positioning the horizon on the bottom thirds grid line.

The great thing about the Rule of Thirds is you can apply it to all different types of photography and the elements that fall on thirds don't have to be full objects, horizon lines, or people.

For example, when working with portraits of faces, you can align an eye or an ear as the element along the third. This makes for a balanced composition in comparison to putting everything center.

Here we have the eyes perfectly lined up on the top third and the intersection of the horizontal and top vertical line on the right come together at the bridge of the nose and start of the eye.

See also how this gives space for the man to gaze out of the image frame.

The woman and her reflection in the image below, are beautifully composed using the Rule of Thirds. Notice how the top third of the image is the woman, and the bottom third is her reflection.

This photo also illustrates another concept about the Rule of Thirds. The grid lines don't have to fall exactly on a line in the image, as much as they divide the image up into sections with logical placements in the various areas.

Here the skin tones on her face and the reflection of her face each are positioned in a specific quadrant, top left and bottom left respectively. This is still a valid use of this technique and likely more common that you will not always have a horizontal or vertical element that lines up exactly.



Here are a few more examples of photos which are composed using the Rule of Thirds. Not all of them are exactly on the lines, but they all utilize the basic structure to create successful images.

While it may seem strange at first, the more you practice this technique, the more you will start framing your photos in this way, at least as a starting point.

This is also something you can change when editing your photos. Many photo editing programs provide a Rule of Thirds tool which overlays a grid while resizing the image. This helps to better visualize how the elements line up and gives more precise control over the final image.




Essence of Photography is a series of tips, tutorials, and visual inspiration on a variety of photography skills and techniques.

All photos in this article were posted to the Aminus3 Photography Community and are copyrighted by their respective photographers.

Click on any photo to see a larger version or to leave a comment for the photographer.

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TOPICS: essence of photography composition

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