What is the Photography Rule of Thirds?

What is the Photography Rule of Thirds? - Mastin Labs

The photography rule of thirds is a time-tested guideline. It’s a rule that’s widely accepted because it’s been proven to help artists create work that is genuinely pleasing to the eye. Art is meant to be inventive, stretch the imagination, and break the rules. 

Yet the rule of thirds in photography may be the one rule that isn’t meant to be broken. Keep reading to learn more about the rule of thirds and you can decide.

heashot of a woman standing on a beach on a sunny day demonstrating the photography rule of thirds

Photo Credit: Marija Savic | Preset: Portra 400

The Photography Rule of Thirds Explained

The rule of thirds is applicable to all types of art, and it’s commonly referenced in photography to help photographers compose images that are visually interesting. It’s considered a basic principle in photography because it is a , and it is a virtually foolproof way to create a balanced, appealing photo.

The rule of thirds is based on research that shows that images that are composed with the subject placed at specific points of a frame tend to be more appealing and interesting to the eye. It encourages photographers to leave interesting white space around an object, and to refrain from creating stiff, static, centered images.

When you’re able to master this rule, you can create images that are more engaging. The resulting photos are considered to be more subconsciously interactive, leading the viewer to linger on the photo longer. Learning this strategy for more captivating photos will make you a more skilled photographer overall, even if you don’t use it in every single one of your photos. 

Practicing the Photography Rule of Thirds with a DSLR 

If you have a DSLR camera, you most likely have a grid feature you can activate that will appear when you look through the viewfinder. If your camera doesn’t have this feature, you have to use your imagination. 

To follow the rule of thirds, you must first activate the built in grid feature on your camera or mentally divide your image with two evenly spaced vertical lines and two evenly spaced horizontal lines across the image. This splits your image into 9 equal squares. Notice (or imagine) the 4 points of intersection. The rule of thirds tells photographers to position the most important parts of a picture on or near these intersection points.

By using the intersecting points of the grid to compose your image, you’re leaving white space, naturally drawing the eye to the points of interest, and showing the context of your subject to help tell a story; this is another way in which the rule of thirds is a valuable guideline.

rule of thirds displayed in a photo of a mom holding her daughter close during a family photoshoot

Photo Credit: Kayla Baptista | Preset: Portra 800

How to Use the Rule of Thirds in Different Types of Photography

Knowing the rule of thirds by definition is just the beginning; to get the most value from the rule of thirds, you have to understand how to apply it to different types of photography.

The Rule Of Thirds In Portraits

In portrait photography, the rule of thirds is most often applied to the positioning of the eye line because the eyes are typically the intended focal point of the frame. Professional portrait photographers often position the subject's face within the left or right two-thirds of the viewfinder, with the subject's eyes along the top horizontal line.

woman with her hair slicked back into a ponytail in dark red lipstick looks into the camera with her hand touching her neck

Even if you choose to break the rule of thirds and center a portrait, you can still position the eyes along the top horizontal line to create balance in the negative space around the subject. Don’t feel confined by the rule of thirds in portrait photography, but rather, use it to complement your creative choices and bring balance to your portraits.

The Rule Of Thirds In Group Photos

For portraits of multiple people in a single frame, sometimes you have to get creative and use your best guess. Simply pay attention to where the subjects are in the image and balance out how much space they’re filling on either side of the line. You can also use environmental landmarks like trees or furniture to bring balance to a multi-person portrait.

man posing for a photo while sitting on the beach looking down at his blue and white surfboard with a woman looking out into the ocean holder her board behind him

Photo Credit: Andrew Shepherd | Preset: Ektar 100

The Direction Rule in the Rule of Thirds

An important guideline for portraits using the rule of thirds is to consider the direction of the eyes. When composing a picture, position the subject in the center of the right or left vertical line, opposite of where they are looking. 

This guideline also applies to subjects who are moving in either direction. Following the rule of thirds, you should position the majority of the negative space ahead of the subject. When you do this, you reveal what they are looking at or where they are going, you bring movement to an image, and you provide context to tell a story.

Tip: When there’s no clear direction, or if the subject is looking straight ahead, position them along the right vertical line; this is naturally where the eyes want to focus. 

Applying The Rule of Thirds In Post Production

With editing software you can apply the rule of thirds after you’ve taken the picture. This is helpful in a lot of instances, as what may appear straight or well aligned in photo capture can appear crooked when it’s uploaded. Thankfully, editing software allows you to reposition your image in post-processing for better composition. 

Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom both have “crop guide overlays” which apply a 9-square grid over your image so that you can compose and crop your image easily using the rule of thirds. If you’re just learning about the rule of thirds now, you can practice applying the rule by re-composing old photos.

The Rule Of Thirds In Landscape Photography

A common mistake that new landscape photographers make is to position the horizon line across the middle of the frame, splitting the image evenly in two. Draw attention to the sky by aligning the horizon along the lower horizontal line. 

If you’d like to draw attention to the ground, position the horizon line across the upper horizontal line. If an image contains a cluster of trees, a building, wildlife, or any other point of interest, align it with one of the vertical lines and follow the direction rule we outlined above. 

Even in micro nature photography, the rule of thirds can be applied by aligning bugs, leaf veins, or blades of grass along intersecting lines. 

Tip: For landscape images that do not contain an anchor point (such as a building or tree), the eye will be drawn to the part of the image that takes up the most space (For example, ocean vs. sky, mountain vs. meadow)

man standing on giant rocks in front of crashing waves staring out into the sea in a brown sweater and hat

Photo Credit: Suzanne Marshall | Preset: Superia 400

Photography Rule of Thirds Lessons and Takeaways

As with any rule, don’t be afraid to break or modify the rule of thirds when you feel artistically compelled. That said, the rule of thirds is practiced in photography because it’s been proven to be effective in visually appealing to viewers overall. 

No matter if you strictly follow the rule or use it selectively, the rule of thirds can greatly elevate your photography by helping you create interesting, eye-catching images.

As a photographer you want your work to be authentic, whether you follow the rule of thirds or not. It’s important your subjects are captured authentically too. Read our 5 Simple Ways to Capture Authentic Expressions in Portraits.