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How to Use the Rule of Thirds for Stunning Photography

Marc Schenker May 25, 2021 · 13 min read
Mastering the rule of thirds isn’t hard when you understand the concept. Chances are that you’ve probably already heard a little bit about the rule of thirds, even if you’re new to design in general. That’s because this guideline is a centuries-old design principle that has been proven to produce great results. The beauty of it is that it doesn’t just apply to design, but also photography, paintings, films—really the visual arts in general. The rule of thirds empowers you to have a good idea of how to arrange the elements in your shot to create the most visually appealing effect. This is in contrast to what some would do, which is simply centering the picture in the frame and hoping for the best. Long story short, this rule states that you’ll get the best results from your images when you divide them into nine, equal parts; the most vital compositional elements should then be strategically placed along the horizontal and vertical lines that divide the picture into those equal parts. If mastering the rule of thirds has you stumped or working harder than you’d like, fret no more. Here’s how to succeed at it.

Where Does the Rule of Thirds Come From?

Historically, this rule is a few centuries old already, having been first described by English painter, antiquarian and engraver John Thomas Smith in 1797. Smith coined this phrase in his book called Remarks on Rural Scenery, in which he refers to an earlier work that discusses at length the process of balancing darkness and light in paintings. Smith builds on an idea touched on by Sir Joshua Reynolds by stating that, in his opinion, he always believed that the most “harmonizing proportion” in any picture occurred when:
  • One element in a landscape was present at two-thirds (water, for example)
  • Another element was present at one-third relative to the preceding element (land, for example)
  • Both of these two elements then combine to form just one-third of the area of the entire picture
  • The remaining two-thirds of the overall picture are reserved for two other elements (like the sky and other aerial perspectives)
Note the striking use of thirds in his rationale of how to cut up any given picture to get the most “harmonizing proportion.” From this focus on thirds, we today get the rule of thirds. Now that we have this short history lesson out of the way, let’s dive fully into making the most of this rule in photography.

Mastering the Rule of Thirds: The Very Basics

To start, let’s look at what the rule of thirds means in principle. Think of your basic image or frame, which is really a rectangle if you’re shooting a landscape (horizontal). Using your imagination, think about cutting up this rectangle into nine, equal parts. Do this by imagining that there are two vertical and two horizontal lines going up and down your image. In turn, the division of the image like this will create nine, smaller rectangles that should be equal in area (if you divided up your image equally with the vertical and horizontal lines). Now, the trick involves positioning the most important elements in your shot (read: those elements that you want viewers to focus on) along these lines or even right at the intersections of these four lines. Design philosophy and aesthetics say that the ensuing off-center composition of your image will be more attractive to the eye than directly centering your subject right in the middle of the frame. Let’s go with a tangible example. Assume your landscape shot involves a cabin in the outdoors. You want your viewers to gaze at this cabin since it’s the subject of the shot. However, instead of doing what perhaps is most instinctive when arranging the shot—positioning said cabin right in the middle of the frame—place it along one of the four lines or even at one of the intersections of said lines. The result is an off-center composition because you’ll force viewers’ eyes to drift below, beneath or to the left or right of the middle of the shot to gaze at the cabin. When you can wrap your head around this simple, mental picture, mastering the rule of thirds becomes a more real possibility. What’s neat about the rule of thirds’ thesis is how the science backs this up all day long. In other words, studies that track gaze patterns show that, indeed, people don’t tend to fixate on the middle of a frame when looking at images.
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At Creative Market we have more than 1 million stock photos that are ideal for any design project. Here are some that showcase the rule of thirds to great effect:

Science Confirms This

Any time we encounter a popular theory or principle, like the rule of thirds, it’s immediately interesting to see if there’s any scientific data to back this up. After all, when research confirms a design principle or guideline, it makes it all the more persuasive and real. To see if the rule of thirds has any scientific merit behind it, I decided to consult various eye-tracking studies. Now, for those not in the know, eye-tracking studies use heatmaps to determine where the user’s eyes fixate, and in what order, when viewing websites. Looking at these heatmaps is an ideal way to test out the rule of thirds since you can easily substitute the rectangle of an image—or the LCD display or viewfinder through which you’re viewing a scene—for the computer screen. A few years ago, Mashable ran an article where they discussed the way that people look at other people’s social-media profiles. They used heatmapping technology—represented by the green and red, colored clusters—to show that most people didn’t look at the middle of the frame. Instead, most folks concentrated their gazes on the upper-left portion of the social-media profiles. Put another way, their gaze patterns followed an off-center chronology. Another study by UX (user experience) experts the Nielsen Norman Group involved a classic eye-tracking study that demonstrated how people read or look at sites in the famous F-shaped pattern. Here, again, the main takeaway is that people do not look at the middle of the computer-screen frame. Most people look at the frame by:
  • First, users read in a horizontal manner across the upper section of the content
  • Then, their eyes move down the webpage a bit and start reading across from left to right in a second horizontal manner, which is shorter than the first horizontal motion
  • Lastly, users skim the content area left side in a vertical manner
This reading or gazing pattern forms the letter F, hence the F-shaped pattern. If you analyze the letter F relative to the frame of a picture, you’ll notice that this means that most people look at the upper and left-hand side of the frame instead of the middle. Again, the rule of thirds is validated! When mastering the rule of thirds, it’s important to understand the technique involved.

How to Use the Rule of Thirds

If you’re like some photographers, you’ll take to this rule very quickly. If you’re like other photographers, it’ll first take some practice. No matter which group you fall into, you’ll have to determine a few things before you can apply the rule to your pictures. You’ll want to:
  • Figure out the points of interest in your frame
  • Settle on what the most important element(s) in your frame is
  • Be conscious about where to purposefully place the points of interest
Once you’re decided on these three things, you’re all set to compose your picture in your mind. Some cameras even feature a setting that lets you overlay the rule-of-thirds grid right over the scene you’re looking at, thereby ensuring 100% accuracy in your placement of elements in accordance with the rule’s best practices. You don’t have to precisely place the most important element directly on one of the lines or at the exact intersection—if you’re close, that’s good enough. In all likelihood, you’ll have to move around somewhat to obtain the best composition. You’ll be pressured to deliberate longer as you’re setting up your shot, which is something that will only make you a better photographer in the long run. In other words, rule of thirds or not, you should always already be spending considerable time thinking about how to compose your shot in the perfect way.


The rule of thirds can be used with virtually any photography subject and in any type of scene, making it a versatile guideline with widespread applications. This accounts for its popularity and increasing use over the centuries. Have a portrait that you want to apply the rule to? Check. Interested in an outdoor shot that you want to optimize with the rule? Can do. How about some urban street photography—would the rule apply there, too? Absolutely.

The Horizon Line

In photography, the horizon line is the visual boundary at which point the sky is set apart from the water or land. This line is a mainstay of much landscape photography and plays a vital role in composition. Mastering the rule of thirds means being able to integrate aspects like this into the guideline with ease. Normally, you’ll see photographers putting the horizon line smack dab in the middle of the shot. This normally creates the impression of the scene being cut in half, which is pretty commonplace and not that interesting. The rule of thirds can help make this so much more visually appealing. What you’ll want to do is position the horizon line…right along one of the two horizontal lines of the rule of thirds. This means your horizon will either be a little higher or lower than where your audience will expect it to be, which strengthens your composition. Even a small, subtle shift like this in what an audience expects can add great interest to a photograph. In a related situation, when you’re shooting a subject that’s vertical—like a tall tree or the Eiffel Tower—it, too, can have the same effect on the frame as the horizon line. It can cut the image in two…just from the vertical perspective. To avoid this awkward-looking effect, simply move it to the left or right of the center by positioning it along the vertical rule-of-thirds lines or its intersections.

The Focal Point or Anchor

In most images, you’ll notice a so-called focal point or anchor of the frame. So named because it gives the audience something tangible on which to fixate, the focal point maintains the role of greatest interest in the shot. Going off of the horizon-line example above, the focal point could be a surfer on the water if your photograph shows the sky and massive waves breaking. Said anchor doesn’t have to be visually complicated; in fact, the simpler the focal point, the better. The last thing you want to do is ruin the composition by giving your viewers too many things on which to focus. Remember to position this important focal point along one of the two vertical or horizontal lines—or their intersections—in your rule-of-thirds grid. Play around and experiment with positioning, as long as it’s according to the rule. You may be surprised to discover that a shift here or there by one line makes all the difference to creating a composition that’s truly harmonious and appealing to the eye.

Placing People

People are some of the most popular (and easily available) subjects to photograph. If you want to snap away at people, you can get some great results based on your application of the rule of thirds. Pro tip: Definitely don’t put people in the center of the frame, especially if you’re just photographing their head and shoulders, because that can make it look like you’re taking a mugshot of them. Instead, be sure to move your person subject off to one area of the frame, perhaps by lining said person up with one of the two vertical lines of the rule of thirds. This gives the subject more white or negative space around him or her, thereby working as breathing room in the frame. With more space around the person, viewers can more readily focus on your subject. Also, take care to position your subject’s eyes properly. Psychologically, eye contact is such a powerful and built-in cue that your audience will naturally look a person in the eye, whether in real life or in a picture. Another strategy is to place the subject’s eyes directly on one of the intersections of the rule-of-thirds lines. This also helps to create a clear-cut focal point.

Moving Objects in the Shot

What should you do when your subject exhibits movement in the shot? The rule of thirds can optimize this effect as well. Key here is understanding where the subject is going. For example, if you’re shooting a racing car moving from left to right on a track, you know exactly the direction in which it’s going. Line up the car with the vertical or horizontal lines in the rule-of-thirds grid, but take care to leave more space in the frame for the direction in which the object is going. Doing so creates openness in the picture and tells a story, by giving an indication, of what the object is going to be doing.

Mastering Visual Composition

When mastering the rule of thirds, you are mastering composition. You are aligning and arranging the elements in your photograph to be consistent with aesthetics and what most people generally consider visually pleasing. The strength of this rule is that it’s been in use for hundreds of years now, making it a tried, tested and true guideline that’ll help you make your photographs memorable and stunning. The nice thing is that you don’t have to be a seasoned pro to apply this rule to your pictures; even those just starting out can produce great pictures if they begin applying this rule to their images right now. By following the instructions above, you’ll be able to turn any old image into an optimized one featuring amazing composition. You don’t need tons of experience or the benefit of sophisticated photography courses on your resume. The rule of thirds is actionable and practical. See our stock photos category for more examples of the rule of thirds in action, and go out there and experiment with this guideline in all your shots.
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About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

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