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Guide to the Rule of Thirds: How to Use | Tutorial

How well do you position subjects in a photo? If you need to know where to start, your answer is utilizing the rule of thirds. This composition feature allows for more effortless viewer engagement creating a form of balance in a picture.
The following article is an in-depth review on what is the rule of thirds and how it is a guideline for every photographer. However, not every photo incorporates the principle, but it is unavoidable via your viewfinder before you switch your shot. Let's begin analyzing what the rule of thirds is.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds is a photo composition that divides the camera's frame into nine equal sections, which most DSLRs already have via the viewfinders. It prescribes the strategic placement of a picture's elements on either of the points for perfect compositions.

Scale diagram of rule of thirds

There are other ways to explore this rule besides positioning your subject at one of the intersection points of the grid. For instance, you can align the horizon of your landscape photos along the horizontal lines of the grid.

Adhering to the rule of thirds photography helps create consistent quality and well-balanced photos. You'll most preferably utilize the photo composition in landscape and portrait photography, but you can creatively incorporate it in other genres like aerial photography.

a ship stranded on the beach
Photo by Phuwin Palasingh on shutterstock

Is the Rule of Thirds a Necessity?

Yes, you can break some of the prescribed concepts of the rule of thirds. You are free to experiment with different compositions when finding what fits your style and the story of your photos.

However, this composition rule serves a wide range of advantages when creatively integrated into your work. Here's a look at the significance of the rule of thirds plays.

Advantages of the Rule of Thirds

a smiling woman sat by the window

Photo by Brooke Cagle on unsplash

You'll love the fundamental concept of the rule of thirds, transforming your images from basic shots to masterpieces. Let's look at the reasons why the composition feature is essential.

  • Helps engage the viewer by creating naturally pleasing images: The principle enables you to create a balanced and dynamic composition, drawing your audience to key elements of your photo.
  • Adds depth through negative space: Placing your subject along the gridlines leaves room on some parts of your picture (negative space). Your viewers will always find such spacing appealing when they stop focusing on the main subject.
  • Distinguishing the relationship between different subjects in a photo: Your main subject should always be alongside the gridlines. Therefore, the other subjects and elements like background and general environment are effectively defined.
  • Adds substance and creative touch to a photo: You can achieve more depth and innovative results by experimenting with different compositions and placement styles.

How to Use the Rule of Thirds in Photography?

The rule of thirds is a basic concept to get professional photography results. Regardless of your subject, animal, plants, people, or any static element, the idea will involve their positioning in a frame. Also, it works for both vertical and horizontal components.

Factors to Consider when Photographing Different Elements

Capturing the front of your primary focus/subject/object

A man and a woman walking hand in hand on the street

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on unsplash

Ensure your main focus faces the lens' direction, especially when photographing any pointing element, including faces, plants, and vehicles. This factor makes the elements strategically positioned in the frame, allowing the viewer to move their gaze from one end to another.

For instance, as a portrait photographer, you can ensure your model's eyes are on the upper line.

Integration of the negative space

Proper utilization of the negative space is your answer if you've wondered how to make a photo element dynamic and balanced. The negative space is an essential concept, allowing the definition of the context within a photo and explaining different factors such as:

  • What the main subject is looking at
  • Defining the picture's background
  • Giving photo elements a relationship

For example, when capturing an individual looking in one direction, leave enough looking space/ breathing room that creates a sense of balance.

How to Properly Use Rule of Thirds when Photographing Landscapes

Most amateurs will place the horizon/ background in the middle of the photo, failing to give a clear distinction of the main focus. Instead, you can set the horizon on the lower, upper, or "third" gridline.

Appropriately Using the Implied Line

Your audience typically uses imaginary lines to move from one point of your image to another. Successfully creating these lines and directions through the photo elements makes your shot more authentic. Therefore, the rule of thirds helps in the correct positioning allowing the definition of imaginary lines from one aspect to another.

Achieving Contrast through the Rule of Thirds

A city shrouded in dark clouds

Photo by Anton Rusetsky on unsplash

As a creative art photographer, having sharper transitions of color and lighting creates a conflict of interest in your photos. Using the rule of thirds confines the darkest section of your image, giving it some "breathing room." Additionally, it's a creative way to create a negative functional space.

Tutorial for Applying the Rule of Thirds in Your Photos

You can achieve quality composition in a photo in several ways, depending on the photography genre you are exploring. You can find different avenues exploring these genres regarding using the rule of thirds photography.

So how do you identify and visualize the rule of third?

Tips for Applying the rule of Thirds

  • Capture from start to bottom:You can move your camera up and down and observe which third of your subject and frame you'll use. After placing the different elements, perform a side-to-side movement to discover the appropriate thirds in either direction.
  • Analyze the points of your photo you'd like to highlight when shooting portraits.
  • Utilize previous photography works to see how other experts have applied the rule of third. You can also get quality samples in different magazines, preferably on your niche and other online sources.
  • Use the rule of thirds, even when on normal photography activities, to get used to the idea, thus easier when applying it on official shoots.

Let's look at practical tips for various types of photography.

Landscape Photography

For starters, Landscape photography doesn't define the clear element/ subject, making it challenging to distinguish the most appropriate subject to focus on. The first way to achieve a quality landscape picture is by placing the horizon line along the top or bottom horizontal third line.

A wooden swing suspended on the beach

Photo by Eyre June Bustamante on unsplash

Try placing the horizon on the lower third line when capturing the sky or clouds to get more space. On the other hand, if your main focus is the star, you can achieve a rule of thirds by positioning the horizon on the upper third line for emphasis.

Additionally, the rule of thirds will help position the diverse elements of the wild or environment, like trees, through the intersections. This factor adds depth and interest to your photo instead of having everything lined up in the middle of your frame.

For comparison purposes, you should take multiple shots of a particular angle when working under landscape photography.

Portrait Photography

A good portrait captured using the rule of third can help you eliminate the imperfections of a particular subject. Unlike other genres, you have ample time to prepare and appropriately position your subject, find a suitable composition, and get the perfect shot.

So how can I handle portraits like a pro? Here are quick tips to help you with the photo genre.

  • Positioning your subject's shoulders within the lower-third grid line, to achieve a more natural and relaxed look from the model.
  • Aligning your model's eyes on one of the upper two gridlines.
  • Drawing your viewer into the portrait by strategically angling your model toward the other empty sections within the grid.
  • If you're capturing a horizontal picture for a print brand, ensure there's no critical information at the center of the photo through the rule of thirds.

Since portraits have defined focal points via the subject, wearing jewelry accessories is optional. However, they can improve contrast or complement the subject with additional authentic details.

Capturing Moving Subjects

A man is cycling on a city street

Photo by Ronny Coste on unsplash

Street photography is a good example where you can capture moving subjects. Typically, there's no planning for such shoots, as you'll always work in the natural environment. Therefore, you have a short window to identify your subject and to capture them.

An important thing to remember is the surrounding environment, which you can utilize to your advantage as a pro. You can achieve different features by integrating leading lines or frame-within-a-frame if you get the perfect location and timing of your shots. Adding the concept of rule thirds will therefore be an artistic approach when working with moving subjects and objects like vehicles.

If you need help knowing where to start, scan and read your chosen surrounding or subject to achieve proper placement. An excellent read allows you to position models along the vertical line of your frame and get more control of the focal points. When your subject is alone, moving from left to right amplifies the composition effect, as when you utilize the left side of the intersections.


Therefore, the rule of thirds is an essential principle in photography, guaranteed to offer the best photo results when expected accordingly. The above write-up has gone in-depth on what is the rule of thirds, providing the basics and extensive topics that are key to understanding the concept. As mentioned, feel free to explore this composition feature to achieve more quality photo results.

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