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Rule of thirds in photography

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by David Em
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In photography, the rule of thirds is a compositional tool that divides the image into thirds. It states that an image is aesthetically pleasing when the subject is placed on a third.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Person walking in a field with a grid overlay.

What’s the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds is a guideline in photography that helps with the composition of an image. To apply this rule, you’ll divide the image into thirds and place your subject at any point where the lines intersect.

Related: 10 composition tips for better photos

It was first written about by a painter in the 18th century named John Thomas Smith. Since then, some photographers follow it the ultimate rule, while others say it doesn’t work.

The only downside to following the rule of thirds all of the time is that you don’t get to be creative. If you’re constantly following a rule, how can you use your imagination to think out of the box?

Related: What’s shape and form in photography?

However, if you’re new to photography, this is a great tool. It’ll help you learn how to use your camera and understand how to compose an image.

More of a guideline

As you develop your photography skills, don’t be afraid to try new things, and explore other techniques. The rule of thirds is a great guideline, but don’t enforce it as a rule.

There are many other methods to catch your viewer’s eyes, such as leading lines, symmetry, color, and contrast.

How to use

When you’re using the rule of thirds, it’s all about intentionality. You’re intentionally placing the points of interest at one of the intersections.

To use it, take the following steps:

1. Imagine a 3 by 3 grid in your viewfinder or LCD screen. Some cameras allow you to turn on the grid in the settings.

2. Place your subject on one of the intersections. If you’re taking a portrait, it looks best when your subject’s eyes are at the intersection.

3. Press the shutter to take the photo.

The rule of thirds is an easy compositional tool that’ll help you take better portraits. If you’re looking to learn more about composition and how to build a photography business, look into our course, the Portrait Photography Masterclass.

Examples

Now that you know what the rule of thirds is and how to use it, the following are examples of what it looks like in different types of photos:

Rule of thirds example with a dog in the forest.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

In the image of a dog sitting in the forest, its eyes are at the top-left intersection.

Rule of thirds example showing a close-up of a person.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

The rule of thirds can be used for close-up portraits, as well. When you’re shooting a close-up portrait, place your subject’s head in one of the thirds. Get one of their eyes at the intersection.

Rule of thirds example showing a person walking on a sidewalk.
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

The best way to make your subject stand out when using the rule of thirds is to focus on colors that stand out.

Conclusion

Rules and theories in photography are guidelines. They’re meant to guide and help you take better photos. As you develop your photography skills, you’ll be able to explore different styles and get creative with your photos. Don’t be afraid to break the rules.

To learn more about the basics of portrait photography, take our course, the Portrait Photography Masterclass.

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Featured photo by David Em/Portraits Refined.

About David Em

David Em.

David Em is the founder of Portraits Refined. He’s a published portrait photographer dedicated to helping photographers develop skills, capture incredible photos, and build successful businesses.

About Portraits Refined

Portraits Refined (PR) is a media company that publishes the latest expert-backed portrait photography tips, in-depth camera gear reviews, and helpful advice to grow your photography business.

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