What is the Rule of Thirds? How to Use it in Photography

What is the Rule of Thirds? How to Use it in Photography

Have you ever taken a picture and it looked perfect without trying? Well, you may have followed the rule of thirds without knowing it! The rule of thirds is a photography rule that can help you take better pictures by making them more aesthetically pleasing.

In this article, we will define the rule of thirds and explain how to use it in photography. We will also show some common examples so that you can see how it is used in the real world. Cover photo by Aksh Goel.

What is the Rule of Thirds in Photography?

rule of thirds lines puppy

Photo by Cristian Castillo

The rule of thirds is one of the most fundamental principles of photography. It is based on the idea that an image is more pleasing to the eye if the subject is not centered, but rather placed at one of the intersection points of a grid that divides the frame into thirds, both vertically and horizontally.

The rule of thirds can be applied to any type of photograph, from landscapes to portraits and anything in between. When composing a shot, simply imagine a grid overlaying the scene and place your subject at one of the intersections. By following the rule of thirds, you can easily create more dynamic and visually appealing images.

Who Invented the Rule of Thirds?

You might be wondering: Where does the rule of thirds come from? Who came up with it, and how long has it been around?

1797 – John Thomas Smith

Credit: Wikipedia

The rule of thirds has been a compositional rule of thumb in a variety of visual arts such as painting, photography, and design. It states that an image should be divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and those important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.

The rule claims that it produces visual interest with more balanced and pleasing compositions, and provides intuitive guidance to novice photographers, designers, and artists.

Excerpt from John Thomas Smith's Remarks on Rural Scenery.

Excerpt from John Thomas Smith’s Remarks on Rural Scenery. Credit: Wikipedia

While the rule of thirds technique has been used by artists for centuries, it was first formally described by John Thomas Smith in his 1797 work Remarks on Rural Scenery. In it, Smith describes the rule of thirds about a painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds and his use of light and dark to create a sense of balance.

Since then, the rule has been widely spread by art and design teachers, books, and articles, making it one of the most well-known guidelines for creating visually appealing images.

Why do we Use the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds is one of the most basic and essential guidelines of composition in photography. It is based on the idea that an image is more visually appealing when its subject is placed off-center. This placement allows for a more dynamic and engaging composition, as opposed to a static, symmetrical arrangement.

Additionally, the rule of thirds helps to create leading lines and S-curves, which can further guide the viewer’s eye through the image. Ultimately, the goal is to create a more naturally drawn, pleasing image that provides a better overall viewing experience.

While there are exceptions to every rule, the rule of thirds is a great starting point for anyone looking to improve their photographic compositions.

How do you use Points of Interest?

points of interest - rule of thirds

Photo by Timo Stern

Essentially, the rule of thirds states that an image should be divided into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, with the key elements of the scene placed at the intersection points of those lines.

The four points where the lines intersect are called “power points.” The theory is that if the subject is placed on one of these points, it will be more visually appealing than if it is perfectly centered in the frame.

intersection of points

Photo by Julie Tupas

To help visualize this, many phones and cameras have a thirds grid that can be activated in the viewfinder or LCD screen. When using this grid, simply align the key elements with one of the power points and you’ll be well on your way to creating a harmonious and balanced composition.

rule of thirds lines example educational photo

Photo by Tanja Cotoaga

There are a few different ways to use points of interest with the rule of thirds. One way is to place the key element at one of the intersection points. This will help to draw the viewer’s eye into the photo and create a more dynamic composition.

rule of thirds urban city nightscape photo example

Photo by Joshua Fernandez

Another way to use points of interest is to position them along a vertical or horizontal line. This can help to create a sense of movement in the photo and lead the viewer’s eye through the scene. Ultimately, you will have to experiment with different placements to see what works best for each photo.

How is the Rule of Thirds Used in Photography?

The rule of thirds is used in all kinds of photography, particularly landscape, architecture, and portrait.


rule of thirds for landscapes

Photo by Bailey Zindel

The rule of thirds can be beneficial when photographing landscape shots as it can prevent the horizon from appearing centrally divided and creating a sense of imbalance. Placing the horizon along one of the horizontal thirds will help to create a more natural and visually appealing composition.

s curve rule of thirds example educational

Photo by Ashley Knedler

An S-curve, known as the “line of beauty,” is a line that travels smoothly through the image, following curves and undulations in the landscape. This is often created through winding roads and rivers.

The rule of thirds can be used to emphasize these S-curves or leading lines, helping to guide the viewer through the shot and creating a more dynamic composition overall.


architecture rule of thirds

Photo by Lance Anderson

Architecture has always been one of the most popular subjects for photographers. The clean lines and geometric shapes of buildings provide a pleasing contrast to the organic forms found in nature.

The rule of thirds can be helpful when photographing architecture. Leading lines can be used to draw the viewer’s eye through the scene, helping to create more interest.

For example, you can place interesting architecture along a vertical line to create an impression of movement and draw the eye upward. This will help the viewer feel like they are physically in the space as opposed to looking at a photo. When photographing buildings, you’ll also want to make sure you use a polarizing filter to reduce glare and bring out all the colors and details that might otherwise be lost in shadow. Ultimately, you can create unique and dynamic architectural images by using things like negative space, shifting perspectives to create diagonal lines and movement, and more!


portrait rule of thirds example

Photo by Philip Martin

The rule of thirds can also be useful for portraits, as it can help to avoid placing the subject’s nose in the center of the frame.

If the subject is perfectly centered, this can create a “confrontational” look which might not be something you’re after. If the subject is off to the side or their head is tilted, this can create a more natural look that can be more engaging and attractive for the viewer. Plus, it’ll be more dynamic and visually appealing.

To create this natural look, you can place the subject’s eyes along one of the rule of thirds to create fantastic and eye-catching portraits that stand out!

Can you Break the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds is a compositional rule of thumb that suggests dividing an image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, so that you have nine equal parts.

The rule of thirds suggests that an off-center composition will be more interesting and balanced than one with the subject in the center. But of course, like (almost) all rules, the rule of thirds is meant to be broken.

While the rule of thirds is a good starting point for many compositions, there are times when breaking the rule can lead to a more visually interesting image.

rule of thirds breaking the rules

Photo by Steve Harvey

One example is when you want to emphasize the symmetry of a subject. In these cases, placing the subject in the center of the frame can create a sense of stability and balance.

So, while the rule of thirds is a helpful guideline, don’t be afraid to break it when it leads to a more impactful composition.


The rule of thirds is one of the most fundamental and well-known principles in photography, and for good reason. It can be used to create more aesthetically pleasing images with a simple grid division of the frame into thirds. However, don’t feel constrained by this rule – there are times when breaking it can result in a more powerful or interesting photo. Experiment with the grid on your camera or phone to see how following the rule of thirds affects your photos, and have fun using this basic principle to elevate your photography skills.

Author Bio

janine designs daily

Janine Heinrichs is a graphic designer who writes at Janine Designs Daily. Her mission is to show people that the faster and more effective way to become a graphic designer is not by getting a degree; it’s by being bold and putting your work out into the world. Her work has been featured on popular design sites like Creative Boom.

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