The Rule of Thirds Photography Explained

What is the rule of thirds in photography? And how can you use it for consistently gorgeous results? 

In this article, I’m going to reveal it all:

What the rule of thirds is.

Why the rule of thirds matters.

And how the rule of thirds can instantly take your photos to the next level.

So if you’re ready to discover a composition trick that’ll change your photography forever, then let’s get started.

What Is the Rule of Thirds in Photography?

The rule of thirds is a well-known artistic guideline, used by photographers, painters, and graphic designers alike. 

It states that the most pleasing composition is the one in which key elements are placed a third of the way into the frame. 

In other words:

For a good image, you place your most important elements along one of these gridlines, here:

The photo above is a rule of thirds overlay, and it’s a visual representation of the rule of thirds concept. Note that the grid is divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically, resulting in nine grid squares. 

Here’s an example of a photo that uses the rule of thirds:

Do you see how the horizon line runs along the top rule of thirds gridline? 

That complies perfectly with the rule of thirds. 

And here’s another example of a photo that uses the rule of thirds:

This time, you have a vertical subject (the person) positioned along one of the vertical rule of thirds gridlines. 

Now, it’s important to know that the rule of thirds isn’t actually a hard and fast rule, just a guideline. 

But it’s been around for hundreds of years, and it’s one of the most well-known compositional guidelines for photographers, which is why you’ll hear about it – and see it in action! – all the time. 

So why does the rule of thirds work so well? Why does it matter? What does it really do?

Why Does It Matter?

The rule of thirds is popular for one key reason:

It creates photos that are well-balanced, without making them seem too static. 

You see, static images tend to be bad; they keep the viewer in place, and prevent the viewer from really exploring the frame with their eyes. 

Whereas a more dynamic image – as long as it’s well-balanced – can take things to another level entirely. 

That’s where the rule of thirds comes in.

You see, the rule of thirds implores you not to do what most beginners are tempted to do:

Place your subject smack-dab in the center of the shot. 

Instead, the rule of thirds urges you to place your subject off to one side, so that the image becomes immediately more interesting and powerful.

Nice, right?

Rule of Thirds Power Points

I’ve talked about the rule of thirds gridlines, and how you can place key elements along the lines. 

But I haven’t talked about the rule of thirds power points, and how they come into play.

What are the rule of thirds power points?

These are the areas at which the rule of thirds gridlines intersect. 

So there are four rule of thirds power points per composition. 

And by putting key compositional elements at the rule of thirds power points, you can create exceptional images. 

Personally, I’m a huge fan of these power points, because they’re great for emphasizing a particular subject. Positioning your subject at a power point balances out the frame while still ensuring that the shot is eye-catching.

So remember that the rule of thirds has two broad parts:

The gridlines. 

And the power points.

Using the Rule: A Step-By-Step Process

You can use the rule of thirds in pretty much every composition you capture, if you’re interested. 

It’s not hard – and it’s made even easier by modern cameras, most of which offer some sort of grid overlay in their viewfinders. 

(That way, you can see the rule of thirds overlay even as you’re capturing photos!)

Here’s what I recommend you do when composing a shot:

First, identify any key elements within the frame. 

This includes horizon lines, as well as main subjects and supporting subjects. 

Then, do what you can to position them along the rule of thirds gridlines. 

Horizon lines generally sit well along the top or bottom gridlines (depending on the appearance of the sky; the more interesting the sky, the better it is to let it take up a lot of your photo).

Supporting subjects often sit well along the right or left gridlines, though you can play with putting them along diagonals (for that, I recommend also checking out the golden triangle overlay, which works well with the rule of thirds). And you should consider positioning your most important subject at a power point, where it can really shine.

Before taking your photo, ask yourself:

Does the shot feel balanced? Does it feel dynamic (i.e., like it has motion)?

If the answer is yes, then you’ve done well. If the answer is no, then I’d recommend reevaluating your composition; look for areas you can adjust elements while still maintaining the rule of thirds.

Finally, capture your hard-earned composition!

Adding in Leading Lines

Leading lines refer to lines that guide the viewer from one part of the scene to another – and generally bring the viewer from the edges of the frame toward the center. 

Now, leading lines are very powerful on their own, and can be used to create ultra-compelling compositions (particularly in landscape photography, but in other genres, as well).

But when you combine leading lines and the rule of thirds, you get an especially strong image. The leading lines guide the viewer’s eye and create an even more dynamic composition, while the rule of thirds ensures you get a balanced image. 

Note that you’ll often want to position your leading lines in a way that doesn’t follow the rule of thirds. For instance, you might put a key leading line in the bottom center of the composition, like this:

Or in a bottom corner, like this:

But as long as the rest of the composition conforms to the rule of thirds, you should be fine. 

When to Break the Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds isn’t actually a rule; it’s a guideline. 

Which means that there technically are some times when it’s best to break the rules

In fact, there are a number of times when the rule of thirds just isn’t going to get you the best results, and it pays to be aware of them. That way, you don’t get so caught up in following the rule that you end up missing a beautiful shot. 

Here’s when you need to break the rule of thirds in photography:

First, when you’re confronted with powerful symmetry. Symmetry is very in-your-face, and it can give your photos an intensity that you can’t get using the rule of thirds, like this:

So if you get the opportunity to work with symmetry, it’s okay to abandon the rule of thirds completely. Instead, position your main in the center of the frame across the axis of reflection. 

Make sense? 

Of course, you’re always free to test out both the rule of thirds and the symmetry option, so that you’re able to get a sense of what will work and what won’t for your particular subject. 

Second, you may want to break the rule of thirds when you’re creating a powerfully minimalistic composition. 

What is minimalism?

Minimalism is about simplifying your compositions and creating images that are filled with negative space, like this:

Do you see how most of the image is empty? That’s what minimalism often does; it creates impact by filling most of the frame with nothing at all. 

Now, minimalistic compositions do sometimes follow the rule of thirds. 

But there are also times when minimalism involves avoiding the rule of thirds by placing your main subject below the bottom rule of thirds gridline, like this:

You see? While the photo above has clearly broken the rule of thirds, it still has a compelling, eye-catching composition. 

And, at the end of the day, that’s what matters. After all, the rule of thirds is just a tool you can use for better compositions!

The Next Step

The rule of thirds is a popular compositional guideline, almost to the point of becoming a cliche. 

But that doesn’t mean you should avoid using it. 

In fact, the rule of thirds is quite possibly the most useful compositional guideline available – and it absolutely has the potential to revolutionize your photography. 

So use the rule of thirds whenever you get the opportunity. 

And capture some stunning photos!

What is the rule of thirds in photography?

The rule of thirds is a guideline that gives you suggestions for arranging compositional elements. Essentially, the rule of thirds advises you to position your key compositional elements a third of the way into the frame (and it comes with a handy set of gridlines to help you do just that!). You can use the rule of thirds to position horizon lines, your main subject, and more, so that you can come away with well-balanced, dynamic compositions.

Should you always use the rule of thirds?

No. The rule of thirds isn’t actually a rule–instead, it’s a guideline, one that’s helpful in many situations but shouldn’t be the only method you use for achieving good compositions. There are plenty of times when it makes sense to break the rule of thirds, such as when you’re faced with symmetrical compositions or minimalistic compositions, and you want to either emphasize your main subject’s symmetry or you want to create an atmospheric effect.

When should you break the rule of thirds?

I recommend breaking the rules in a few key scenarios. First, you should break the rule of thirds when you’re faced with symmetry and you want an in-your-face style shot. Symmetry looks good when placed smack-dab in the middle of the frame, and you should take advantage of this. Second, break the rule of thirds when you’re aiming to create a minimalistic composition–one that has a lot of negative space. Here, you can position your subject and horizon line above the top gridline or below the bottom gridline for a very interesting effect.

Why is the rule of thirds useful?

The rule of thirds allows you to create compositions that are balanced, which is key in photography; rule of thirds compositions are also more dynamic than the natural alternative, which is to place your subject and horizon lines right in the middle of the frame.

What are rule of thirds power points?

Rule of thirds power points are the areas at the intersection of the rule of thirds gridlines. This means that there are four rule of thirds power points. Note that the power points are especially eye-catching spots at which you can position compositional elements. For instance, you might choose to position your main subject at a rule of thirds power point, and your supporting subject at another power point. Also note that rule of thirds power points don’t overrule the standard rule of thirds; they simply supplement them. So you should use the rule of thirds gridlines plus the rule of thirds power points to create a stunning composition.

What does the rule of thirds do?

The rule of thirds helps you create balanced, dynamic compositions. It urges you to position your key elements off-center, so that you create less static compositions, and instead end up with compositions that (generally) include more movement. Remember that the rule of thirds is a guideline, not a true rule, so you should use it when you see fit and discard it at other times.

About the Author
jaymes dempsey author

Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel. You can connect with Jaymes on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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