How to Use Rule of Thirds in Photography

By September 26, 2019 June 20th, 2020 Composition, Photography

What Is the Rule of Thirds?

The rule of thirds is a compositional technique that leverages asymmetry to create dynamic and visually exciting compositions.

It involves evenly dividing your frame into nine parts using two horizontal lines and two vertical lines. This creates a tic-tac-toe pattern, as shown in the image below.

The idea is to position your focal point along one of the lines or on one of the four intersections. This naturally places the point of focus off-center, creating aesthetically pleasing images through asymmetry.

The Rule of Thirds and Asymmetry

What does asymmetry have to do with dynamic and visually interesting compositions? The reason has to do with the way the human brain processes visual information.

When looking at a scene, our brains try to find as many patterns as possible, making symmetry easy to understand.

Asymmetry, on the other hand, is not as straightforward and compels our brains to explore more of what it’s seeing.

When you position your focal point off-center, you create asymmetry by making one area of your image heavier than the rest. This effect makes patterns in your image less obvious, compelling the viewer to pay closer attention.

Example Image Using Rule of Thirds:

An image with a focal point located at the center, on the other hand, often lacks visual tension. Without visual imbalance, the viewer’s eyes’ become static and quickly come to rest.

Example Image Not Using Rule of Thirds:

In other words, our brains take longer to process asymmetrical images which makes them more captivating.

This is what it means to create “dynamic” compositions using the rule of thirds.

Whereas symmetrical compositions tend to suppress energy and movement in an image, asymmetrical compositions infuse an image with vitality and flow.

Who Invented The Rule of Thirds?

In his book “Remarks on Rural Scenery”, painter John Thomas Smith was the first to introduce the term “Rule of Thirds”. Although, he was not the first to mention the idea he was the first to formalize it in a book. Since then, it has become one of the most influential compositional rules in visual arts.

Here’s a copy of his Smith’s writing:

How to Apply The Rule of Thirds in Your Photos

Most photographers use the rule of thirds by merely imagining the grids on their compositions.

However, apply the grids this way requires some practice, and may not be the best route if you’re a beginner.

For assistance, you can use the built-in grid line tool in your DSLR. To apply a grid overlay to your camera while you’re shooting you will need to find the grid display typically found when pressing the menu button. Once you found the grid display selection, the rule of thirds is generally titled 3X3.

If you’re using an iPhone you can, you can also apply the rule of thirds grid while shooting. To apply, select settings, then choose camera, this will give you the option to turn on the grid feature.

Editing software like photoshop and lightroom also have built-in overlays that allow you to apply the rule of thirds to existing photographs. These overlays enable you to reposition the focal point in your image according to the rule of thirds even after you’ve taken the picture.

Here’s how you can do it:

Crop Overlay Using Lightroom

In Lightroom, you can display the grid overlay two ways: shortcuts or manually. 

Using Short Cuts – Option 1: 

  1. Use Command + Option + O (Mac) | Control + Alt + O (Win). This should display the first gird on your scene. 
  2. While the grid is visible, Command (Mac) | Control (Win) displays options for Size and Opacity. Click-drag left/right on Size to decrease/increase the grid size

Using Shortcuts – Option 2: 

  1. Select the crop feature button. 
  2. Once the crop feature is active, hit the R key. This will automatically pull up the Rule of Thirds grid on your screen.  

Using Manual Buttons:

  1. Select the Crop feature button
  2. In the left-hand corner below the histogram, select the gird icon shown in the image above. 
  3. Once selected, you can choose from multiple overlays, select the Rule of Thirds option. 

Crop Overlay Using Photoshop

Applying the rule of thirds grid is similar in Lightroom and Photoshop. 

Using Shortcuts:

Mac – Command + ‘

PC – Ctrl + ‘

This shortcut should prompt the View tab and within the view tab the Grid selection. 

Using Manual Buttons:

  1. Select the Crop feature button
  2. In the left-hand corner below the histogram, select the gird icon highlighte in the imge above. 
  3. Once selected, you can choose from multiple overlays, select the Rule of Thirds option. 

Rule of Thirds Examples

You can apply the rule of thirds to any genre of photography. Here are a few examples:

Rule of Thirds in Landscape Photography

For landscape pictures, the rule of thirds recommends that you align your horizon along one of the horizontal lines. This will naturally prevent you from placing your horizon along the center of the frame.

The idea is to create asymmetry by placing a heavier emphasis on either the foreground (land) or the background (sky).

If you want to place more emphasis on your foreground, align the horizon with the upper horizontal line. On the other hand, you want to place more emphasis on the sky, or the background then align the horizon with the lower horizontal line.

Once you have your horizon aligned, position your focal point on or around one of the four intersections. This will provide your image with an inherent sense of movement and a natural focal point.

Rule of Thirds in Portrait Photography

When taking portraits align the subject along one of the vertical lines. This will automatically provide emphasis to one side of the frame, creating asymmetry.

If your subject is looking to the right, you want to align them with the vertical line on the left. Likewise, if your subject is looking to the left align them with the vertical line on the right.

Doing so will ensure that your subject will always be looking towards an area of the photo with space rather than to the edge of the photo.

This will provide your image with “breathing space,” enabling the viewer’s eyes to flow from your subject to the environment.

If your subject is looking directly at the camera, align their eyes with one of the horizontal lines.

Placing your subject’s eyes on or around one of the intersections is also a good idea. People’s eyes make an ideal focal point since we are naturally drawn to them. By positioning the eye according to the rule of thirds, your scene has a natural point of interest.

Rule of Thirds in Abstract Photography

Applying the rule of thirds in abstract photography is a bit more challenging than other types of photography.

Since abstract photographs often do not always have a clear subject, subject placement based on the rule of thirds is often irrelevant.

Abstract images without a clear subject are often composed based on color or brightness. 

However, for abstract images with a clear subject, following the rule of thirds rules remains a helpful guideline.

For instance, if have a color that stands out in your abstract composition then you can use it as a focal point. Place the color that draws the most attention according to the rule of thirds to create an aesthetically pleasing result.

You may also align the brightest elements on or along one of the intersection points. Viewers are naturally drawn to bright objects, making them ideal focal points.

Applying the rule of thirds in abstract photography is not as straight forward as other types of photography, but it benefits just the same.

Rather than using a subject as a focal point, try aligning specific features or characteristics of your photo along the focal points to draw attention to them. 

When Not to Use The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is not so much a rule as it is a guideline to keep in mind when you are taking photos.

While the rule prohibits centering your subject, don’t let it mislead you into believing that centered composition has no place in good photography.

You do not have to avoid symmetry altogether, and there are times when it is what an image needs.

For example, symmetrical images often work great when trying to capture reflections over a body of water. In such cases, ignoring the rule of thirds and placing your horizon in the center of the image will likely work better.

Centered compositions may also be ideal if you want to give you subject immense power and authority within your frame. Placing your subject can work as a spotlight, highlighting the most critical element in the picture.

The central composition is also useful in highlighting subjects. It works as a spotlight, highlighting the critical person, element, or the story of the picture. It gives the subject or the object in focus immense power and authority.

Don’t follow the rule of thirds blindly instead use it when you see fit. If your gut tells you can capture a better photo by breaking the rule, by all means, break it.


Overall, using the rule of thirds will help you achieve more aesthetically pleasing compositions.

That said, it’s important that you don’t overthink when using this rule to decide how best to compose your images.

Remember that no compositional “rule” is set in stone. Use the rule of thirds as a guideline, but do not be afraid to stray from it.

Always leave room for spontaneity when creating your images as, in photography, the best guidance often comes from instincts.

About The Author

Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.

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