If you have any interest in photography chances are you have heard of the rule of thirds. It is one of the most common rules of photography. Hi-tech cameras and computers have changed photography for good. New models of cameras can do most of the work for you. Even your smartphone can produce quite decent shots. And this is great in a way. Everyone likes to see a good photo. Be it a family vacation photo from the beautiful beach, or amazing landscape, or something like that. Nowadays, almost everyone can take a great photo with almighty new cameras. As a result, more people start to like and appreciate the art of photography. And no matter how good cameras get, you will still need skill and knowledge to take photos that stand out.

This is why we have so many photography classes these days. And one of the first lessons is always the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is actually the basic rule of composition. The composition is a crucial element in all visual arts. And the rule of thirds has been used for centuries in visual arts, even before the invention of photography. Sometimes you can get it right naturally, even if you don’t know any of the rules. However, rules can help you to raise your skill to another level. They will allow you to be more proficient. Avoiding mistakes and a plethora of wasted shots will give you great satisfaction. Finally, once you get a solid grasp of the rules, then you can break them!

The Basics of This Rule

The rule of thirds is actually very simple. It is easy to apply as well. When you are looking at the image that you want to shoot, divide the image into the thirds both vertically and horizontally. This way you will get a virtual grid that divides your image into 9 equal sections. Intersections of these lines are the key points. This is where you want to place your points of interest. It works differently for different kind of photos, but the principle stays the same.

Our brain processes the images in a certain way, and our eyes have a tendency to focus in a way to help the brain understanding the image. The rule of thirds is based on these characteristics of our visual ‘equipment’. To make this simple, subject placed in the center of the image can appear dull and the relationship between the subject and the background can go unnoticed. Moving your subject to the side and placing it on the intersection lines creates dynamics. This way you are able to convey the whole story.

However, if you forget about it and make a mistake, you can crop it later in Photoshop.

The Rule of Thirds in Landscape and Portrait Photography

Landscape photography can be quite tricky. Has it ever happened to you to notice a beautiful landscape or extraordinary sky on your trip and stop to take a couple of quick shots? But, when you came home it looked ordinary and not remotely mesmerizing as the scene you have witnessed.

“Photography is a kind of virtual reality, and it helps if you can create the illusion of being in an interesting world.” – Steven Pinker

When you take a landscape photo it is natural to place the horizon in the center of the image. WRONG! The horizon should fall on the upper or lower horizontal line of your visualized grid. So that the sky takes one or two-thirds of the image. Which line you should choose depends on your point of interest. While for most of the outdoor photos the horizon should be on the upper horizontal line, in landscape it will fall on the lower line more often. But, as I said, it depends on your point of interest. Vertical lines are important, too. A big tree, or dominant hill, or whatever catches the eye, shouldn’t be placed in the center, but along the vertical lines and intersection points.

When it comes to portrait photography, focus on your subject’s eyes. The eyes naturally attract our view, so place them at the intersection points. Once again, move your subject aside from the center of the image. That way the image becomes more engaging. Of course, if you are taking a close-up shot you can’t do that. Unless you want a photo of two-thirds of the head! Actually, for portraits, you will break the rule of thirds often. But, you should always break it for good reason.

camera and its shoot applying the rule of thirds

When to Break The Rule of Thirds

Once you get some practice, using the rule of thirds will become your second nature. However, sometimes you will get a better photo if you break this rule. It depends on the message you want to convey. Centering the subject accentuates the symmetry. If you want to highlight the symmetry, the rule of thirds will weaken it. Also, when you want your subject to appear larger, centering can be a good idea. Anyway, the rule of thirds isn’t set in stone. It works out well for most of the images, but not for all. Don’t be afraid to disregard it in order to convey the desired message.

“Photography has always been about capturing light.” – Om Malik


The rule of thirds is a great guideline. You don’t need the skill to apply it. Moreover, the result can be a dramatic improvement to your image. Generally, moving the point of interest from the center will increase the engagement of the viewer. You will get a stronger visual impact. Those are very simple things that will make your photos stand out from the crowd.

The smallest changes can make a difference between good and great photo. While the rule of thirds alone won’t make you a great photographer, it will set you on a path to become one.