rule of thirds in photography

Rule of thirds used for photograph of a bird.Cropped Tightly
Rule of Thirds



The rule of thirds in photography is perhaps the most searched for rule regarding composition. You can use it to create a nice balance to your composition.

It's one of the simplest composition rules to use and it's great for using when you shoot landscapes and other types of nature photography. However, you don't want to automatically use it all the time.

Here's the 3-step formula to figure if you should use this technique or not with your photography.

  1. Use the rule of dividing into thirds to compose your photograph.
  2. Compose another photo of the same subject, but this time without using the rule.
  3. Compare the two and see which one you like.

Yeah, I know what your thinking. "Okay, Captain Obvious." Tell me Something new. The trouble is hardly anybody really does this. You have no film, processing, or printing cost, so try a few variations EVERY TIME you take a photo of a subject. It really is the best way to master a technique.

Here's how to use the rule.


1. first step to use the rule

Simply imagine dividing your view into thirds (both horizontally and vertically). You'll have an imaginary 9-part grid overlaid on top of your image as a guide. 

Rule of thirds on camera LCD screenLCD screen with Rule of Dividing Thirds overlay

2. Second step to use the rule of thirds

Place your center of interest at one of the four intersections of the lines or along one of the lines. It's that simple. I took the not-so-great images below to illustrate the technique of shooting several photos of the same subject with different compositions.

Rule of Thirds Comparison of Three Photos

The three photos above show how the use of the rule of thirds in photography can be used to improve composition. Photo 1 shows a classic photo mistake in composition, letting the horizon divide your photo in half.

In the first frame on the left, the photo is split into two equal sections. I divided the photograph in half by composing with the horizon going right through the middle of my picture. The middle photo is an improvement because I placed the horizon at an imaginary spot, one third of the way from the bottom..

In the third photo I used 3 different leading lines to converge close to an intersection of a vertical and a horizontal 1/3 line. It's not an award winning photograph at all. I get that, but it's just a good example of how to improve your photography by changing your composition.

Rule of Thirds - Horizontal Diagram

The rule of Thirds has been around for a long time.   It's not just used as a guide in photography composition.

This composition rule has been used in painting, art and design for a long time, perhaps since the time of the art created by the caveman.

It says you should divide your viewfinder into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. You are dividing the picture in thirds, side to side, and top to bottom. 

Rule of Thirds Shown on a Vertical Composition

Those imaginary lines intersect at 4 points in your field of view.

As you look through your camera viewfinder or at the screen on the back of your camera or camera phone, points of interest in your photograph should be placed at or close to the intersection of the lines, shown by the circles in the illustration. 

This gives the photo more energy and interest. In the photo to the right the sun was placed close to one of those intersecting lines and the treeline and pavilion were placed in the bottom third of the photograph.

Here is the resulting nature photo with good composition.

Winter scene Rule of Thirds

It was taken just after a snowstorm. It was quite cold and I kept my camera inside the front of my jacket to keep it warm. Batteries lose their power quickly in cold weather and I didn't want to miss the shot because of the frigid conditions.

I made about 100 exposures over a two hour period. Many of the photos were similar. I shoot different angles of the same scene,  at different camera heights, using different zoom settings and different distances from my subject.

This gives several different photo perspectives. After a shoot with so many images, the fun begins when I do all of my photo editing.

In the selfie portrait below, I used three photo composition rules. Photo 1 shows how an amateur photographer might take the picture. In photo 2, I used the rule of thirds and placed my head at one of those imaginary intersections of those vertical and horizontal composition lines.

Secondly, I also changed to a better format by turning my digital camera to make it a vertical composition instead of a horizontal. Thirdly, I tilted my camera at an angle to create a diagonal line.

Comparison of Two Photos.  The one on the Right Used The Rule of Thirds in Photography

Photo 2 is not an award winning photo either, but you can see how much of a better photo it is. With learning just a few tips like the rule of thirds in photography and a bit of practice, you will become a better digital photographer.

Sometimes it's a good thing to break the guidelines of good photo composition, but only if it improves the photograph. Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won't; but it's fun to experiment. The best way to learn is by making mistakes.

With digital photography, if you don't like the result, you can either delete your photo or do some cropping of you image later to make it a better photograph. Dividing your photo by these imaginary lines is just one easy way to take better photographs and it's very easy to remember.


articles related to rule of thirds

Photo Composition Tips.

The rule of thirds in photography is a great tip to use, but it is only one element. Here are nine more good photography composition tips.

Composition in Photography. If you are interested in discovering how the use of balance and artistic patterns effect composition in photography, you will enjoy reading this.

Make sure you enjoy yourself and have fun while practicing.

Here are some more Examples of the Rule of Thirds in Photography.


Happy Shooting!



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