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The Rule of Thirds: How to Compose Better Photos

Portrait photo of a young man standing next to a library full of books, looking down and smiling.

Do you ever wonder why certain images feel like visual poetry and others do not? Creating visually pleasing photos involves learning to place the elements in that image, so you can effectively avoid any composition mistakes.

Today, I want to share a simple yet powerful composition technique known as the Rule of Thirds – a principle used beyond photography in design, painting, and film.

Using the rule of thirds in photography alongside other compositional techniques will dramatically improve your photos, as they did for me.

What is The Rule of Thirds in Photography?

The Rule of Thirds is a fundamental photography composition rule. It’s the key to taking balanced and intriguing photos.

It involves dividing the image frame into nine equal parts: two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, creating a grid. The main idea behind Rule of Thirds photography is to position the essential elements of your scene along those lines or at the points where they intersect.

Adobe Lightroom screenshot showing the rule of thirds on top of the portrait of a young woman in a white dress and sunglasses
The frame is divided into nine equal rectangles, and the main subject is placed along the left vertical line, making the photo look more interesting and well composed.

Why is the Rule of Thirds Important?

Applying this rule helps to draw the viewer’s eye into the photo and leads them through the scene.

Why does the rule of thirds work? Well, it also makes photos more aesthetically pleasing and creates balance without making the image appear too static or dull.

For example, if you’re taking a portrait, you might place the subject’s eyes along the top horizontal line. If you capture a landscape, you might place the horizon along the bottom horizontal line, leaving two-thirds of the image for the sky.

Similarly, for a shot of a lone building in a field, you could position the building at one of the intersection points.

Landscape photo of a small building in the middle of a field in Latgale, Latvia.

The Rule of Thirds and Negative Space

Understanding and applying the rule of thirds and effective use of negative space can lead to strong, well-balanced, and interesting visual compositions.

Negative space is the space surrounding the main subject in a visual composition. It is the “empty” or “quiet” space that helps define the boundaries of the positive space (the main focus) and brings balance to the composition.

In other words, if your subject is considered the “positive space,” the negative space is everything else — the background helps the subject stand out.

Effective negative space can help draw the viewer’s attention to the subject, add depth and complexity to the composition, and often create interesting shapes or patterns for artistic effect. In some cases, the negative space can even take on a shape of its own, providing a dual imagery effect.

Portrait photo of a young woman wearing a black dress next to a white wall. Rule of thirds composition with lots of negative space.
Here's an example of a photo that follows the Rule of Thirds and has a lot of negative space on the left side of the frame

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How to Use The Rule of Thirds?

Rule of Thirds Photography Tips:

The Rule of Thirds is simple to apply. First, imagine or turn on the grid on your camera screen or viewfinder. Next, place the subject of your photo along these lines or at their intersections. But let’s get more specific.

Visualize Your Frame

The first step to applying the Rule of Thirds is to imagine your frame divided into a 3×3 grid. This means you have nine equal squares in total. 

Most of modern digital cameras including iPhone have a Rule of Thirds grid option that you can overlay on your viewfinder or screen.

Photo of a Fujifilm x100v digital camera with rule of thirds grid enabled
Most modern digital cameras come equipped with a Rule of Thirds grid

Position Your Subject

This could be a person, an object, or a landscape feature – whatever you want the viewer’s eyes to be drawn to. Once you have the grid in your mind (or on your screen), position your subject along one of these lines or at the points where they intersect. These intersections are often called “power points” or “crash points”.

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom showing a portrait of a woman with the Rule of Thirds overlay on top of the photo.
The main subject in the frame is positioned along the left vertical line of the Rule of Thirds

Align Features

The Rule of Thirds can be applied to any aspect of your composition, not just your main subject. For instance, if you’re capturing a landscape, you could align the horizon along the third bottom line instead of placing it directly in the middle of the frame. This can create a sense of depth and interest.

Leave “Breathing Space”

If your subject moves or looks in a certain direction, placing them on the opposite side of your frame is a good idea. This gives the impression of “space to move” or “space to look” and can make your images feel more dynamic and alive.

Portrait photo of a young woman walking from the left side of the frame to the right side of the frame.
The subject in this photo is positioned according to the Rule of Thirds, with ample breathing space on the right side of the frame

Balance Elements

If you have more than one crucial element in your shot, you can use the Rule of Thirds to balance them. For instance, you might place one subject along the left third line and another along the right.

Capture the Image

Take the shot once you’re happy with your composition

Post-Processing

Use the crop tool in editing software like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. These programs offer a rule-of-thirds grid while cropping, allowing you to refine your image composition. Adjust the image if necessary to better align with the Rule of Thirds.

Black and white photo of an ATV driving on the ground.
You can always use the Crop Tool in Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop to refine your photo composition

Analyze Your Image

  1. Spend time reviewing your photo.
  2. Look at how the rule of thirds impacts the overall feel and balance.
  3. Use this information to learn and improve your future compositions.

Break the Rule

While the photography rule of thirds is a practical guideline, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule.

Some images may be more effective with a centered composition or another approach. Be flexible and consider when breaking the rule might result in a more compelling image.

Black and white portrait of a young woman wearing sunglasses.
Some images may be more effective with a centered composition

Practical Application of The Rule of Thirds

Let’s delve deeper into some rule-of-thirds photography examples. Here are some I’ve gathered from my own experiences:

Landscape Photography

Rule of thirds landscape photography helps establish balance and depth. The horizon line can be placed along the top or bottom horizontal line, depending on whether the sky or the land is more interesting. This gives your landscape a sense of depth.

Photo of a beautiful landscape with mountains and lake

Example: Suppose you photograph a mountain landscape with a dramatic, cloud-filled sky. You could place the horizon along the bottom third line to give more space to the sky, making it a dominant part of the image. 

Conversely, if the land is full of wildflowers and you want to highlight this, you might place the horizon on the top third line to give more prominence to the ground.

Portrait Photography

By aligning the subject’s eyes along the top horizontal line, you create a natural “space” below for the viewer’s gaze to travel, and the overall image feels balanced and harmonious. It also allows for capturing environmental context if desired, adding to the storytelling aspect of the portrait.

Black and white photo of a young woman in polka dot dress laying on the sun bed in sunglasses
Notice how subject's eyes are aligned along the top horizontal line

Example: If you’re taking a portrait of a person against a backdrop of a city street, you could position their eyes along the top horizontal line, placing them either on the left or right vertical line. This draws immediate attention to the eyes while also including elements of the environment in the image that can tell more about the subject.

Wildlife Photography

The rule of thirds for wildlife photography can emphasize the subject and its relationship with the environment.

Example: Imagine you’re photographing a deer in a forest. By placing the deer on one of the intersection points (say, on the bottom right intersection), you can create a pleasing composition that includes details of the environment (like the forest trees in the background).

Photo of a wild deer in the forest eating grass

Urban Photography

For instance, if you’re capturing a city skyline, placing it on the lower third of the image can emphasize the sky, which may contain exciting elements like cloud patterns or color gradients from the sunset.

Example: Suppose you’re capturing a photo of the New York City skyline at sunset. Instead of centering the buildings, you could place them along the lower third of the image. This would give prominence to the stunning colors of the sunset in the sky, thus creating a more interesting and dynamic photograph.

Photo of New York buildings and beautiful sky.

Action Photography

In action or sports photography, the photography Rule of Thirds is crucial for showcasing the energy and motion in the scene. The image can convey a stronger sense of movement by positioning the subject off-center.

Example: Imagine you’re photographing a soccer player who’s about to score a goal. Placing the player in the left third of the image, with the goal in the right third, can create a sense of direction and anticipation. The viewer can see where the player is heading, creating tension and excitement in the image.

Photo of a soccer player about to hit a fotball.

Astrophotography

Celestial or astrophotography also allows for the Rule of Thirds. The challenge lies in positioning each component to amplify the overall composition without disrupting it.

Example: Suppose you’re photographing the Milky Way over a mountain range. Positioning the horizon of the mountain range along the lower third line of your frame allows the majesty of the Milky Way to take up the top two-thirds.

Alternatively, if there’s a fascinating element on the ground, like a solitary tree or structure, you could place this on one of the vertical thirds to create a balanced composition with the starry sky above.

Example of an astrophotography. Mountains, blue sky with lots of small stars.

Rule of Thirds Photography Tips

  • PRO TIP: Always remember that rules are meant to be broken. Once you’ve mastered the Rule of Thirds, experiment and break it creatively!
  • PRO TIP: Be careful not to over-crop your image in an attempt to adhere strictly to the Rule of Thirds. It might result in a loss of image quality.

Breaking The Rule of Thirds

A study suggests that the Rule of Thirds might not be as crucial in creating high-quality artworks as often proclaimed. 

Based on the examination of extensive collections of high-end photographs and paintings, it appears that this rule may have a minimal impact on the overall quality and appreciation of these works.

There have been several instances in the history of photography where photographers have broken this rule to create exceptional and memorable images. 

I’m going to show you a few of these examples to inspire you to be a rule-breaker too:

Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” (1936)

The subject’s face is in the center of the image rather than in a third. The power of the image, which reflects the pain and struggle of the Great Depression, isn’t diminished by this “rule-breaking.” (on the contrary).

Richard Avedon’s Portraits

Richard Avedon, one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, often placed his subjects directly in the center of the frame, breaking the Rule of Thirds. 

His photograph of “Marilyn Monroe, actress, New York, May 6, 1957” is a prime example where Monroe is centered in the frame, capturing her vulnerability and genuine personality.

Annie Leibovitz’s “John Lennon and Yoko Ono” (1980)

In her iconic portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Leibovitz places her subjects directly in the center of the frame, capturing a raw and emotional moment just hours before Lennon’s death.

In the words of famous photographer Ansel Adams:

“The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant, and immaterial.” – Ansel Adams.

While this might seem contradictory, it reminds us that photography is an art form. In photography composition, rule of thirds is just one of many techniques that can enhance your photos.

Other compositional techniques may include:

  • Leading Lines
  • Frame Within a Frame
  • Simplicity and Minimalism
  • Balance – symmetrical vs. asymmetrical balance
  • Golden Ratio
  • Conveying depth by Including elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background
  • Negative or Empty Space
  • Patterns and Textures that create a point of interest.
  • Centered Composition and Symmetry

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FAQs

What Is the Purpose of the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds aims to create balanced, visually appealing compositions in photography, painting, and other forms of visual arts. By dividing an image into nine equal parts and aligning the subject or essential elements along these lines or their intersections, the viewer’s eyes are naturally drawn to these areas, enhancing the overall impact of the image.

Rule of thirds diagram
Rule of Thirds diagram

Who Invented the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds in photography is a principle that visual artists have used for centuries, so attributing it to a single inventor isn’t accurate. It evolved, with its first written record being by John Thomas Smith in 1797. But its principles have been applied in various forms in visual arts long before this.

What Is Grid in Photography?

In photography, a grid refers to a set of lines that divide the image into sections, commonly thirds or ninths, which aid in composition. It is often superimposed onto the viewfinder or display screen to guide photographers in framing their shots according to compositional rules, like the rule of thirds.

What Is an Example of the Rule of Thirds?

An example of rule of thirds photography would be a landscape photograph where the horizon line is placed along the top or bottom third line rather than in the middle of the frame. Alternatively, in a portrait, the subject’s eyes are often placed at one of the intersections of the grid lines, drawing the viewer’s attention to the eyes and creating a more engaging image.

Final Thoughts

Learning the Rule of Thirds is a good starting point, but remember that these rules in photography are not laws but guidelines. 

Once you understand them, you can break them and create your own unique style. There are also other rules that can guide you in creating stunning photographs.

Once you’ve honed this skill, you can continue by learning other composition rules and access our various valuable articles here at OhMyCamera.

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Disclosure: OHMYCAMERA.com is a participant in several affiliate programs and may be compensated for referring traffic and business to companies from affiliate programs at no additional cost to you.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Disclosure: OHMYCAMERA.com is a participant in several affiliate programs and may be compensated for referring traffic and business to companies from affiliate programs at no additional cost to you.

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Simply enter your email below to receive a FREE eBook filled with actionable tips for immediate photography improvements. 

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