Master the Rule of Thirds in Photography: A Practical Guide
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. What is the Rule of Thirds?
  2. How to use the Rule of Thirds grid
  3. Rule of Thirds in landscape photography
  4. Rule of Thirds in portrait photography
  5. Rule of Thirds in still life photography
  6. How to break the Rule of Thirds
  7. Rule of Thirds vs Golden Ratio
  8. Practice exercises for the Rule of Thirds

Photography is an art that captures moments in time, tells stories, and expresses emotions. One technique that can improve your photography skills significantly is mastering the rule of thirds in photography. This rule is a basic yet powerful tool that can instantly enhance your images. It's like the secret ingredient in a recipe that makes all the difference. So, let's dive in and understand what this rule is all about and how you can become a master at it.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds is a composition technique in photography. It divides an image into a 3x3 grid. Now, imagine a tic-tac-toe board overlaid on your photo. The rule suggests that you place the main subject of your photo at one of the four intersections of these lines.

Why should you do this? Well, it's all about creating balance and engaging the viewer's eye. Placing your subject off-center makes your photo more interesting and pleasing to the eye. It encourages the viewer to look at the entire photo, not just the central part.

  • Rule of thirds and balance: The rule of thirds helps to add balance to your photo. The grid helps you align your subject in such a way that it gives a sense of stability and structure.
  • Rule of thirds and engagement: The off-center placement of the subject catches the viewer’s attention. This makes your photo more engaging and interesting.
  • Rule of thirds and storytelling: This rule allows you to create a narrative within your image. For instance, a person looking towards the larger section of the frame suggests they are looking at or moving towards something, thereby adding a story to your image.

So, understanding and mastering the rule of thirds in photography can greatly enhance the quality of your photos. It can turn a good photo into a great one. But remember, like all rules, it can be broken too. And sometimes, breaking this rule might give you an even more stunning photo. But, that's a topic for another day.

How to use the Rule of Thirds grid

Now that you know what the rule of thirds is, let's learn how to use it to improve your photography. Don't worry, mastering the rule of thirds in photography is not rocket science. It's pretty straightforward, and with some practice, you'll get the hang of it in no time.

First off, you'll need to visualize a 3x3 grid on your viewfinder or LCD screen when taking a photo. Some cameras and smartphones have an option to display this grid on the screen, which makes things easier. If yours doesn't, don't panic. You can still imagine the grid and try to align your subject along the lines or at the intersections.

Here are some steps to get you started:

  1. Turn on the grid: Check your camera or smartphone settings to see if there's an option to display a grid on your screen.
  2. Align your subject: Try to place your main subject along one of the vertical lines. If there's a horizon in your photo, align it with one of the horizontal lines.
  3. Focus on intersections: The points where the grid lines intersect are the most powerful spots. Try to place points of interest in your photo at these intersections.
  4. Experiment: Play around with the rule of thirds. Try different placements and angles. See what works and what doesn't. Remember, practice makes perfect.

Mastering the rule of thirds in photography is about understanding the power of these grid lines and intersections. It's about learning how to use them to add depth, balance, and intrigue to your photos. And most importantly, it's about using them to tell your story through your images.

Rule of Thirds in landscape photography

You've probably seen those breathtaking landscape photos where everything seems perfectly balanced — the sky, the horizon, and the land. There's a good chance that the photographer used the rule of thirds to create that harmony. So, how can you apply the rule of thirds in landscape photography?

When you're out in nature, camera in hand, ready to capture the beauty around you, remember the rule of thirds grid. Imagine that grid on your viewfinder or LCD screen. Here's how you can use it:

  1. Align the Horizon: Instead of placing the horizon smack in the middle of the frame, align it with one of the horizontal lines on your grid. If the sky is more interesting—maybe there's a dramatic cloud formation or a stunning sunset—place the horizon along the bottom third line. If the land is more captivating—perhaps there's a field of wildflowers or a majestic mountain range—place the horizon along the top third line.
  2. Place Points of Interest: Remember those intersections on the grid? They're your best friends when it comes to placing points of interest. A lone tree, a mountain peak, a winding river—these can all be points of interest.
  3. Balance your Elements: Don't let one part of your photo overpower the rest. Use the rule of thirds to balance the elements. For example, if you have a large tree on one side of your photo, balance it with a smaller object or group of objects on the opposite side.

Mastering the rule of thirds in photography, especially in landscape photography, can help you create stunning, balanced photos that draw the viewer in. It's all about placing your elements in the right spots and creating a harmonious composition. So, next time you're out in the great outdoors, camera in hand, remember the rule of thirds!

Rule of Thirds in portrait photography

Portrait photography is all about capturing the essence of a person, their emotions, their personality. But even in this highly personal form of photography, the rule of thirds can be a game-changer. So, how can you apply the rule of thirds in portrait photography?

Picture this: you're about to take a portrait. You're looking at your subject through the viewfinder, or maybe on the LCD screen. Now, recall the rule of thirds grid. Here's how you can use it:

  1. Position the Eyes: In a close-up portrait, the eyes are usually the main focal point. Try aligning them with the top horizontal line on your grid. This places the eyes in a strong position and gives some space above the head, avoiding a cramped feeling.
  2. Align the Body: In a full-body or half-body portrait, align the body along one of the vertical lines. This creates an interesting composition and leaves room for additional elements or negative space in the rest of the frame.
  3. Use the Intersections: You can also place your subject's eyes or other important features at the intersections of the grid lines. This draws the viewer's attention directly to these points.

By mastering the rule of thirds in photography and applying it to your portrait shots, you can create engaging, dynamic photos that capture your subject in a unique and compelling way. Remember, rules are there to guide you, but don't be afraid to experiment and find your own style!

Rule of Thirds in still life photography

Still life photography is an art form that breathes life into inanimate objects. Whether it's a bowl of fruit or a set of old books, the way you capture these objects can tell a story. So how can you make a bowl of fruit more than just a bowl of fruit? The rule of thirds can help you do just that.

Let's imagine you're setting up a still life scene. Here's how you can apply our trusty rule:

  1. Position Your Main Object: Let's say the apple is your star attraction in that fruit bowl. Position it at one of the grid intersections to draw attention to it.
  2. Create Balance: Use the other elements in your scene to balance your composition. For instance, if your apple is on the right, place something interesting on the left. This creates a balance and guides the viewer's eyes around the image.
  3. Use Negative Space: Don't forget the power of empty space. Leaving part of your image empty can emphasize your subject even more. Use the rule of thirds to help you decide where to place this negative space.

Mastering the rule of thirds in photography can transform your still life images from simple to stunning. It's a simple rule, but it can make a world of difference. Remember, though, it's your photo. Feel free to play around, break the rules and create something that speaks to you.

How to break the Rule of Thirds

Now that you're getting the hang of the rule of thirds, you might be thinking, "Wait, I thought this was about mastering the rule of thirds in photography, not breaking it!" But hold on a second. Understanding when and how to break this rule is a part of mastering it. After all, rules are made to be broken, right?

Breaking the rule of thirds doesn't mean throwing composition out of the window. It's about knowing when a different composition might tell your story better. Let me give you some examples:

  1. Centered Composition: Some subjects beg to be in the spotlight, smack dab in the middle. A symmetrical scene or a powerful subject like a towering mountain or a majestic animal can benefit from a centered composition.
  2. Fill the Frame: Sometimes, your subject is so captivating that it deserves all the attention. In such cases, fill the frame with your subject and let the details do the talking.
  3. Leading Lines: If your scene has strong leading lines—like a winding road or a row of trees—these can guide the viewer's eye without the need for the rule of thirds.

Breaking the rule of thirds can lead to some truly standout images. But remember, it's all about balance. You have the freedom to experiment, but knowing when to use and when to break the rule will truly show your mastery in photography.

Rule of Thirds vs Golden Ratio

When it comes to mastering the rule of thirds in photography, another concept often pops up: the Golden Ratio. The question is, what's the difference? And which one should you use?

The Golden Ratio, also known as the Fibonacci Spiral, is a mathematical ratio commonly found in nature, and it's thought to be aesthetically pleasing to the human eye. It's a bit more complex than the rule of thirds, as it involves a spiral that sweeps through your image.

So, rule of thirds or Golden Ratio? Well, here's the deal. The rule of thirds is a great starting point. It's simpler and easier to apply, especially for beginners. It's a handy tool that can quickly improve your composition.

On the other hand, the Golden Ratio can offer a more dynamic and natural feeling to your photos. But it's more challenging to use, and it might not be the best fit for every situation.

Remember, these are both tools at your disposal. Depending on your subject and the story you want to tell, you might choose one over the other. The key to mastering the rule of thirds in photography is understanding these tools and knowing when to use them.

Practice Exercises for the Rule of Thirds

Ok, so you've got a solid understanding of the rule of thirds. But, to truly master it, you need to get out there and practice. Here are a few exercises to help you get started:

Exercise 1: Grid Overlay

Most digital cameras and smartphones have a grid overlay option. Turn it on and practice aligning your subjects with the intersecting lines. Remember, it doesn't have to be perfect — the idea is to get a feel for the rule of thirds.

Exercise 2: Post-Processing

Not quite happy with your shot? No problem. Use editing software to crop and reframe your image. This is a great way to practice mastering the rule of thirds in photography, even after you've taken the photo.

Exercise 3: Break the Rule

Yes, you heard that right! To truly understand the rule of thirds, you should also practice breaking it. Try centering your subject or placing it at the edge of the frame. See how it changes the feel of the photo. This can help you understand when to use — and when to break — the rule of thirds.

Remember, rules are there to guide you, but they don't define creativity. Keep experimenting, keep practicing, and most importantly, have fun with it!

If you want to further improve your photography skills and learn more composition techniques, make sure to check out Austin James Jackson's workshop, 'Tips To Compose More Compelling Photos.' This workshop will help you master a variety of composition techniques, including the Rule of Thirds, to create visually stunning photographs.