The Rule of Thirds

Read the guide to learn:

  • What is the rule of thirds
  • How to use the rule of thirds
  • When you can break the rule of thirds
  • How to use a photo editor to apply the rule

Edited by Pat Bitton

October 29, 2019

The Rule of Thirds in Photography

The rule of thirds photography is perhaps one of the most popular rules of photographic composition. It is the first you learn when you step into a photography class for the first time. The basis of this rule is to help you create a balanced and interesting shots.

You probably know that rules are meant to be broken, but it would be much better to understand the rules so that when you break it, you know exactly what you are doing. Nevertheless, if you are new in the field of professional photography, cast away any thought of breaking the law of thirds. Rule of thirds is explained below.

The Rule of Thirds: Definition

So, what is the rule of thirds? To understand the rule of thirds definition, think about breaking the picture into thirds both horizontally and vertically such that you have 9 parts. Professional snappers don't have to draw these grid lines, but they use them to position places of interest in their photos. The theory of the rule of thirds holds that placing points of interest along these lines creates a more balanced image.

Studies indicate that people's eye naturally focus on the intersection points of the lines rather than going to the center of the image. Photographers not in the know will naturally want to position their object at the center of the viewfinder. However, people looking at the photo don't naturally appreciate it from this perspective.

Examples of the Rule of Thirds in Photography

You will find many examples to illustrate the rule of thirds in photography. Think about a portrait photo of a man in a suit. Points of interest would naturally fall on the man's eyes, the tie and the flower on his coat pocket. It would look unnatural and unbalanced to position the subject's head at the center of the photo. Instead, apply the rule of thirds and position the man's eyes and ties along the grid lines.

Another example is landscape shots. While it is common for photographers to place the horizon along the center of the frame, it may create the impression of a split photo. But using the rule of thirds, you can position the horizon along the horizontal grid lines, and try to include another interesting aspect in the photo, such as a tree or a rock. The other object could fall along the vertical lines; thus, attracting the attention of the viewers to its presence.

Also, when taking photos of people, placing them at the center of the viewfinder creates the impression of a mugshot. You wouldn't be too comfortable if your picture was taken like a mugshot, would you? To avoid creating the mugshot-like impression, avoid positioning your subjects at the center of the photo. It is always a good idea to locate them on one side of the frame, so that other aspects of the environment are visible.

How to Use the Rule of Thirds

When framing a photo, imagine the grid lines defining the rule of thirds. It may be quite a challenge at first, but you get used to it with time. Next is the elements in the photo that you need to highlight. Think about what aspects are the most important, so you can position them along the grid lines. They don't have to be perfectly aligned, but so long as they are close, you can get a perfect shot. Depending on where you want to lay emphasis, you may apply the 1/3 rule or the 2/3 rule to balance the images.

You may also want to position your objects at the dead center of the frame, but doing so in every picture would make them rather boring. Granted, central compositions can be a great way to compose your photos, but you can make them more enthralling by using the rule of thirds.

Click on this link for more information about photo composition ideas:

Photo composition ideas for taking flawless images

Breaking the Rule of Thirds

Like any other rule, photography rule of thirds can also be broken. You can comfortably ignore the law of thirds when taking photos if the circumstances dictate. One problem with this rule is that the grid lines don't change even when the objects in the viewfinder do.

Sometimes, the points of interest may not be close together or fall on a straight line, hence, quite difficult to apply the rule. It may force you to compromise your composition by excluding important elements in the picture just to accommodate the rule of thirds photography.

Also, if you are not a novice in photography, you may comfortably disregard this rule. The essence of this law is to introduce beginners to off-center photography, and teach them how to balance their shots by including various important aspects. Once you get used to off-center positioning, and avoiding creating unnecessary mugshots, you can let your skills and prowess in photography take control.

Although off-center composition can create spectacular shots, especially for portrait and landscape photographers, it is the scene and its composition that may dictate whether to apply the rule. In cases where the scene is cluttered with lots of unnecessary objects, such as a subject in a busy street, you will have to position the subject at the center to create focus on them.

You may also encounter instances when it is difficult to find a vantage point for taking your shots. It is often the case in crowded places, subjects in swift movement – as is the case in sports – or when they don't fancy the photographer intruding on them. In such cases, you will use any opportunity you find to take your shots, rules or no rules.

Using Editing Software

If you were not able to use the law of thirds when taking your shots, you don't need to be alarmed. It is possible to apply the rule in post-processing of the photos and make them more interesting. You need a good photo editing software to help you to reposition the important elements in the picture to achieve the desired effect.

You may also come across existing images that require improvement. Load them onto an image editor and apply edits such as cropping and moving to achieve the rule of thirds photography.

A variety of photo editing software are available for you, and you can make your choice depending on cost and functionality. Premium editors such as Photoshop or Lightroom, can be quite expensive but give some of the best results if you know how to use them.

If you are using Lightroom, press R on the keyboard to toggle the rule of thirds photography composition grid on your picture. Alternatively, you can click on the cropping tool to access this overlay. You should be able to obtain great images even when they weren't originally captured with the photography rule of thirds in mind.

Learning and applying the rule of thirds photography shouldn't present much of a challenge. Divide the frame using three horizontal and three vertical grid lines, and position the elements in your picture along these lines. If, for any reason, you are not able to apply this rule, worry not because you can edit the pictures into great shots via a reliable photo editor. If you have no idea which photo editor to use, consider downloading and installing Movavi Photo Editor.

Movavi Photo Editor

The easiest way to turn any snapshot into an eye candy

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