The Rule of Thirds in Photography

Photo Composition 101: An Essential Lesson

Cat's eye in camera grid
Liz Masoner licensed to About.com, Inc.

The rule of thirds is one of the most basic composition guidelines in photography, making use of a natural tendency for the human eye to be drawn toward certain parts of an image. As a photographer, it is your way of making sure the viewers focus on what you want them to.

Understanding the Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is an imaginary tic-tac-toe board that is drawn across an image to break it into nine equal squares.

The four points where these lines intersect are the strongest focal points. The lines themselves are the second strongest focal points

How to Use the Rule in Photography

To use the rule of thirds, you need to imagine this grid on all of your images as you compose them in the viewfinder. 

  • If you have an autofocus camera, you can use the autofocus points as references to help you visualize the grid.
  • If you use an LCD screen to compose your images, you can make a rule of thirds grid out of a clear sheet of window cling material.

With a little practice, you will be able to effectively imagine the grid placement as you shoot.

Which Point to Use

Which point or line you place your subject on does matter. While any of the points and lines will add emphasis to your subject, some are stronger than others.

When an object is alone in an image, the strongest position is the left-hand line. An exception to this is for cultures where information is read from right to left.

In those cases, the right-hand line will be the strongest.

When a subject is not alone, there is a hierarchy of image strength.

  • The subject in the foreground will naturally have more strength than the subject in the background. However, the rule of thirds placement can emphasize or reduce this strength.
  • The bottom right point is the strongest for multiple subjects and the upper left point is the weakest.

This theory is often used in movies to convey the emotional dominance of one character over another. Placing a background subject on the right and the foreground subject on the left will confuse the eye and lead to confusion in the viewer about which subject is dominant. This technique is very useful for emotionally-charged images.

Another general rule is that your subject should be placed on the opposite line of the direction that they're looking. For example, if your portrait subject is looking to their left, their body should be placed on the right of the frame. This gives the photo more room in the direction they're looking and avoids the appearance that they are gazing off into space. This rule can, of course, be broken under certain circumstances.

The Rule of Thirds in Portraits

While most good portraits appear to be as simple as centering a torso, they are actually following the rule of thirds.

  • In the case of single portraits, the subject's eyes are placed along the top rule of third line.
  • In portraits with multiple people, the faces are placed on both the top and bottom rule of thirds lines. This is why posing groups in multiple rows is generally more pleasing than if they're all in a single row.

    The Zone Method of Rule of Thirds

    Another way to use the rule of thirds in photography is to divide your scene into zones rather than using the intersecting points of the grid. It is another pre-visualization technique that may be more useful when composing certain photographs.

    • Imagine two lines running across your frame that divides it into three equal sections (or zones). These lines can run either horizontally or vertically.
    • When composing, fill each zone with a different portion of the overall composition.

    For example, when composing a mountain landscape, you might place the mountain peak in the top zone, the lake in the middle zone, and the foreground trees in the bottom zone.

    Keep in mind that the different zones will place various emphasis on the subjects of the image.

    • Objects placed in the bottom of the frame tend to have more influence.
    • For people who read left to right, they will focus on the right side of the frame. The opposite is true for viewers who tend to read from right to left.

    You can overcome these dominant features by placing a prominent subject (the moon, for instance) in a way to where it becomes the focal point (in the moon example, the top zone). 

    Putting the Rule of Thirds in Perspective

    Remember that the rule of thirds - either the point or zone methods - are just one tool photographers use in the greater scheme of composition. Use it and be aware of the position of your subjects in each photograph, but do not be overly concerned about following it exactly. It is merely a guide to help you compose visually pleasing images and not necessarily a hard and fast rule.