The rule of thirds in photography: your complete guide.

In photography, the rule of thirds is one of the most important composition guidelines for framing your images. When shooting and editing, it can improve your final creations. Learn how to use the rule of thirds – and when to bend the rules – with this guide co-authored by our expert photography partners.

Using the rule of thirds to photograph a female walking with a pink umbrella

What you’ll learn.
 

 

What is the rule of thirds in photography?
 

The rule of thirds in photography is a guideline that places the subject in the left or right third of an image, leaving the other two thirds more open. It divides a photo into nine equal parts, split by two equally spaced horizontal and vertical lines. Generally, the rule of thirds leads to compelling and well-composed shots.
 

Imagine dividing a photo, or even your camera’s viewfinder, into nine equal zones using these horizontal and vertical lines. That forms your rule of thirds grid – a setting you can select on most cameras, and even your phone.


“It’s not really a rule. It’s more of a guideline or best practice.”

Photographer and designer Shawn Ingersoll

 

Girl looking to the sky, standing on grey tiles.

The corners of the central square are the intersection points in your rule of thirds grid. This is where you should place the focal point of your photo – like four crosshairs targeting a shot’s most important elements. It helps balance your main subject with negative space in your photograph, to nail an effective composition that will draw the viewer’s eye.
 

“This might be a generational thing, but if you think of The Brady Bunch intro, where you have the nine identical rectangles, they’re all the same size and it’s three by three – three rows, three columns.”

Shawn Ingersoll
 

When your image includes natural straight lines – such as a landscape or tree – placing them along one of the four grid lines creates a simple and effective composition. Otherwise, the most important elements should be placed at one of the four intersection points of these lines, as shown below:

Four intersection points.

The subject you’re shooting can affect the best positioning to comply with the photography rule of thirds. For example, when capturing a sunset, you should position the horizon along the top or bottom horizontal gridline. On the other hand, when shooting a portrait, you might place the subject’s eyes two-thirds up the image around the left or right intersections and align their nose within the grid.
 

Examples of the rule of thirds in photography.

Blonde woman looking to the camera.

In this portrait, the woman’s face appears in the right-hand third of the image. Her face covers the two intersection points on that side, instantly drawing the viewer’s attention – away from the relatively nondescript background space to her left.

Green meadow and clouds in the sky.

This landscape shot uses the rule of thirds by placing the horizon along the bottom horizontal line, so the sky fills two thirds of the picture. The tree also appears close to the intersection points on the right. 

Gorgeous black labrador with red collar.

Just like human portraits, the rule of thirds applies to animals and other subjects. This happy dog’s eye is around one intersection point, with his whole head and collar taking up about two thirds of the image on the left. It highlights the dog’s expression, while the grassy background adds a good contrast without drawing any focus.

Black and white image of woman on skateboard.

The rule of thirds can be combined with other techniques to great effect, such as black-and-white photography in the above image. Here, the skateboarder is placed in the left intersection. Along with her white top standing out on the dark backdrop, the positioning really draws in the viewer’s focus.

Beautiful sea shore with sail boat in the distance.

Both horizontal lines are used to align the sky, sea, and sand into three aesthetically pleasing sections in this landscape image. The photo has clearly been framed with the rule of thirds in mind. But if it was re-shot or edited out the sand, the sea would need to cover the bottom two thirds of the image rather than a straight half-and-half split. 

“If you are tuned in to the imagery we see around us, I feel like you sort of absorb [the rule of thirds] even if you can’t put your finger on it. But it’s incredibly helpful for people who are starting out and need a practical tool to help them with their composition.”

Photographer, author, and instructor Khara Plicanic

 

How to use the rule of thirds while shooting.

Wind turbines with blue sky.

Getting the shot you want with your camera is ideal as it gives you more visual information on the scene. After the shoot is over, you can’t go back and recapture the exact same moment. That’s why preparing for and knowing how to use the rule of thirds in photography effectively is important. 

Repetitive, practical use of the rule of thirds is the best way to understand it and hone your skills. Eventually, the grid lines and their intersecting points ingrain themselves in your brain. Improve your skills by considering these photography rule of thirds tips for shooting.

Woman at the beach in summer linen clothing on a windy day.

Practise with your camera’s rule of thirds grid.

Many modern digital and even smartphone cameras include settings to overlay a grid or gridlines in your viewfinder. Use these as a guide to literally see where your subject fits across the intersections and line them up. Do this enough and you’ll no longer have to rely on it. 

“Turn it on so you can see what you’re doing as you’re doing it. Eventually, you get a feel for it.”

Khara Plicanic

Autumn leaves.

Take a rule of thirds field trip.

Practice makes perfect – as you gain experience, you’ll find you apply the rule of thirds instinctively. Start with a simple landscape or by shooting a still subject like a tree to get a feel for it, before working with moving objects, challenging lighting, and other tricky shots. 

“Go to a park or somewhere and try to take ten good pictures that follow the rule of thirds model. The more you do it, the more it gets ingrained into your head.”

Wedding photographer Anna Goellner

Small pink flowers

Focus on the eyes.

Whether you’re shooting people, animals, or even statues, think about where your subject’s eyes need placing before you take the photo. This could change the angle you shoot from and composition of the image.

“Choose where you want your point of focus to exist before you’re shooting. I’m always going for the eyes.”

Author and animal photographer Carli Davidson

Pidgeon perched on a steel bar.

Allow plenty of space and shoot a lot.

Shooting wider and leaving space on either side can make it easier to crop and edit images down to comply with the rule of thirds later. When you have time, try a few different compositions and angles that both abide by and are exceptions to the rule, then pick out the best ones.

“Take a shot with your subject dead centre, take one with them in the upper-right and one with them in the upper-left. Even if you think you got it in the first shot, you should always take two or three more. You can pick which one works better later.”

Photographer Derek Boyd

Egyptian pyramid.

Break the rule of thirds (sometimes).

Rules are made to be broken – but only once you understand them. To keep things simple, beginners may find it easiest to stick with the rule of thirds. But when you’ve grown in confidence, try filling the frame, different compositions and pull back from the subject to compare your results.

“Filling the frame is really interesting — when there are parts of an image that aren’t necessarily fully in the frame or when there’s a subject that’s very much in the foreground of the frame. I think those are areas where you can really throw the rule of thirds away. For example, I’ve transitioned lately to portraits of people that are perfectly centred.”

Art director and photographer Alex Tan

Photographer with yellow raincoat, looking out over a lake.

How to use the rule of thirds while editing.

Beagle dog, walking along the beach on a sunny day.

Capturing images first-time that follow the rule of thirds is ideal, but if you don’t quite nail it, you can usually touch them up later. During post-processing you can edit your photographs for a rule of thirds composition a few hours, days, even weeks or months after taking them.

You might just be starting out and got the positioning and angle slightly off, or your subject moved within the frame. Whatever the issue, you can use software such as Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom to crop images – either removing distracting aspects or to move the subject on to the intersections.

Photographer with tripod taking sunrise photo of mountains.
“I use Lightroom for my quick edits on everything. I go in and I’m cropping things. I’m seeing how the different elements work and I’m playing with my rule of thirds – it’s great for editing the images.”

Carli Davidson
 

You can also apply an overlay or guides to your image to identify areas to remove or where to position the subject, so they match up with the rule of thirds. It also helps line up the horizon, mountaintop, or landscape to the relevant horizontal or vertical lines. And if you’re being creative by adding extra elements, this will help you place them in the best position. 

As you edit, you’re training yourself once again – working on that repetition for how you see and use the rule of thirds. At first, you might struggle to recognise photos that work with the rule of thirds. But with practice, it will become something you don’t even think about. You’ll just know. Put in the work, and your eye and audience will thank you.

Acorns

Rule of thirds: frequently asked questions.


Can I break the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds is one of the most broken rules in all of photography. Framing your shot where the subject or lines don’t stick to the conventions of the rule of thirds can still form a wonderful image. Filling the frame and placing your subject in the centre are often used in photography to great effect, despite breaking the rule of thirds.


What is the purpose of the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds helps direct the viewer’s gaze to the main focal point of an image, whatever the subject may be. It makes the most of empty space by drawing your eye to a specific part of the image, emphasised through composition. Shooting or editing images to comply with the rule of thirds leaves you with a well-balanced and strong final image.


Does the rule of thirds apply to portraits?

The rule of thirds is applied to portrait photography in its position of the eyeline. Rather than having the face in the centre or filling the frame, professional portrait photographers normally place the eyeline along the top vertical line in a rule of thirds grid. The subject’s face won’t be central but there’s enough space for their head to draw interest from the viewer.

White orchid on black background

Adobe’s rule of thirds photography partners.

The following photographers helped with the creation of this article.
 

  • Khara Plicanic is a professional photographer, author and instructor who runs Photoshop tutorials in a unique and playful style. See Khara’s work

  • Shawn Ingersoll is a designer and photographer who has worked both freelance and in-house. See Shawn’s work

  • Alex Tan is a maker and educator who lives in Los Angeles but builds brands globally with a focus on art direction and design. See Alex’s work

  • Anna Goellner is an artist and wedding photographer who also focuses on family and lifestyle photography. See Anna’s work

  • Carli Davidson is a wildlife photographer who spent many years working with animals. She is best known for her Shake series. See Carli’s work

  • Derek Boyd is a photographer based in Portland, Oregon, with a passion for shooting anything he gets his hands on. See Derek’s work

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