Photography Composition: Using the Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the most basic principles of composition in photography, and one you will use all the time going forward!  It can take a bland and interesting photo, and make it into something much more interesting and dynamic, so it's worth taking a few moments to learn how to do. 

Learn all about the rule of thirds in this photography composition tutorial for beginners!

All you need to do is imagine that your photograph is divided into nine equal sections by two horizontal and two vertical lines like this: 

Now when we look at something, our eyes are naturally drawn to the points where these lines intersect (where those pink circles are) Placing a point of interest on one of these intersections, or simply placing elements along one of the lines, gives the photo more balance and make it more appealing to the viewer.  Simple, eh?! 

rule of thirds photography

Let's see some examples shall we?

Sometimes it's easier just to see this in action, so here are a few examples to get your teeth into.

In this first image you can see that the little girls' eyes are along the top line, with one eye very close to an intersection.  Additionally she is to one side (aligned along the left vertical line) so her body filling two thirds of the frame as opposed to being exactly in the centre. 

In this second example, we are using exactly the same principle, by having the body along one of the lines, and eye on an intersection - just one the other side. 

This one is from either farther back - you can see that the body has been placed along the right vertical line, and the horizon is along the bottom line.

If you have an horizon in the image, try to get it to sit along either the top or the bottom horizontal line - use the top line if you want to show more of the foreground, or the bottom if - like in the image above - the sky is more important. 

This next image is exactly the same principle, just a different setting: 

In this next image, again, the body is placed along right vertical line, with the eyes along the top horizontal line.

Furthermore, the table top runs along the bottom horizontal line, making the image "fit" to the rule in as many ways as possible! 

If you look around at other images, you'll soon start to see that many images use this "rule".

In fact, other forms for art, such as paintings or even television programmes,  will also use the rule of thirds (in fact, I can't watch a TV programme now without seeing how they place their subjects, both with regard to light and composition - I really need to get out more 🤔) 

When the rule of thirds doesn't work...

Always bear in mind though, the rule of thirds is a GUIDE and sometimes breaking the rule can result in stunning and unusual shots! 

This image below breaks the rules, but works better for it.  But do notice, although the subject is in the centre, the sea level falls roughly along the top line, and the sand break between the pebbles lands on the bottom line, so I've still considered the rule, even though I'm breaking it!

Laslty, don't force an image to use the rule of thirds if it just doesn't work.

Here's another image where I have cropped it to fit the "rule" (image on left) but it looks very unbalanced, plus I'm making an awkward crop through her head.  It simply looks better NOT following this rule so don't force it to "fit" when it clearly doesn't.

Now it's over to you!

If you haven’t been using this rule up to now, it can sometimes be a good exercise to go through your old photos and see if they can be improved by applying the rule of thirds through cropping. Not only might it help with giving some photos a new dimension, it helps you to start to see how this works in practice.

Then try to use this guide in camera - for many people, using this composition just comes naturally, for others, it is something you can learn. When giving this a go try to do as much as possible in camera, perhaps leaving a little breathing room for cropping or straightening. You can do this by simply imagining this grid when you take the photo, as I do, or if you prefer, many cameras have the facility to turn on a display setting that shows the rule of thirds grid when you are taking the photo - so no more guesswork involved!

You can also crop your photos using the rule of thirds grid overlay using Photohop, Lightroom or Photoshop Elements, or any other post processing software. 

Above all remember that above all that the rule of thirds is a simply a guide - use it, and if it doesn't work don't be afraid to try something else instead!  

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