One of the most popular composition techniques in photography is called the rule of thirds. You can of course take photos without following this rule, but by doing so, what are you missing? The rule of thirds is designed to make a viewer focus on a particular part of the photo and give your photography composition balance. In this guide, we’ll look at some of the basics of this rule and how to use it effectively in your photos.

rule of thirds grid line on camera LCD

What is the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds helps photographers ensure important compositional elements within a scene are positioned correctly. Photographers can use this technique to get a viewer to focus on an area that the photographer wants to focus on. But also to be able to ensure that the important parts of the image work in harmony with each other rather through negative space rather than fighting against one another.

The rule of thirds involves dividing your composition horizontally and vertically using four lines. Where the lines intersect on the grid is where the eye of a viewer, or in other words the focal point of the viewer, will most likely go naturally. Secondly, the lines themselves are also a strong magnet for focus.

rule of thirds

Why is it important?

The reason that the rule of thirds is important is that it means that you will stop putting a lone object in the center of the frame. Most of the time when you have an object alone in a scene, the strongest position is off centre to one side.

So, instead of just taking a straight-on picture, move it to the left-hand line or even the right-hand line and see what happens. Notice how your eyes are naturally drawn to lone objects towards the right side of the frame.

rule of thirds photography

How to use the rule of thirds composition?

So now you know that lines and intersections are points of interest for a viewer. But what are the essential compositional elements of the rule of thirds?

Earlier I talked about how you can make lone objects stand out more by placing them along the intersections of horizontal and vertical lines. But you can also use these intersections to build a journey through the photo for the viewer if you have multiple points of interest. If you place your point of interest on the intersecting lines, the viewers eyes will naturally be able to go from one to another rather than scanning the entire photo for something to focus on.

photography composition rule of thirds

This grid can also act as a guide to where you should place horizon lines within an image. For example if you have a dramatic sky you can place your horizon line on the lower horizontal line to show more of the sky. But if your sky is bland and there are interesting foreground object you can line your horizon line on the upper line and show more foreground.

Havana Cuba Malecon

Cropping with the rule of thirds

One of the great things about the rule of thirds is that you can use it even after you have taken a photo when you are editing. For example, you may have taken a photo and forgot to consider where you positioned your point of interest. By cropping your image using the rule of thirds you may be able to position the main element more effectivly.

In fact, cropping your photos well is one of the easiest and quickest ways of improving a photo. Of course, it is always best to get every photo right at the time when you are taking the shot. But if you can’t, then by using Photoshop or Lightroom (or other editing software) you will be able to crop your photo for better results.

cropping using rule of thirds

Breaking the rule of thirds

Sometimes rules are there to be broken. As much as I would advocate that you always apply the rule of thirds grid, sometimes you can’t or even wouldn’t want to. The rule of thirds works when you have a point of interest within a composition. So in some rare occasions like abstract compositions, you won’t be able to apply it.

Think of the rule of thirds as an aid to your photography rather than strict criteria that you should follow. Just be sure that if you are going to break the rule of thirds grid, it won’t have a detrimental effect on your image.

breaking the rule of thirds

The rule of thirds is interesting in photography. Some may say the rule of thirds is meant to be broken, and maybe they’re correct in individual shots. But I think the rule is still precious in many photographic scenarios.

It is interesting to look at a picture where the rule was utilised and then notice your eyes wandering towards the imaginary lines. Even an amateur photographer taking family photos can use the rule of thirds to make their photographs unique.

So if you don’t already use the rule of thirds in your photography, introduce it and see the effect it has on your composition.

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Kav Dadfar is a writer and travel photographer who has written over 400 articles on photography. He is also a judge on the Wanderlust Travel Photography of the Year competition and a speaker at camera clubs and events. He has years of experience shooting assignments with his images having been used by some of the biggest brands in the world.

This article on the rule of thirds definition and use is subject to copyright. Words and photos by Kav Dadfar (That Wild Idea). Copying or reposting of photos or article elsewhere is strictly forbidden.

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