Do you have a desire to capture better images? Have you learned the fundamental settings and are ready to take the next step? If so, it’s time to start learning more about compositions. If you’ve read any article touching the subject, it’s quite likely that you’ve heard about the Rule of Thirds, the most known and discussed rule of photography.

The Rule of Thirds is the first (and only) compositional rule that most photographers learn and it’s not without a reason; it’s relatively easy to understand and it can instantly make your photography more visually pleasing. This is a well-known rule not only for photographers but amongst other visual artists as well, and it can be seen in art dating back to the late 1790s.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

First of all, I want to point out that I believe there shouldn’t be any rules in photography as it’s a creative craft where strictly following rules will limit your creativity. Instead, I choose to look at the Rule of Thirds and other compositional rules as guidelines and techniques that will help you in creating better photographs.

So, what is the Rule of Thirds?

The principle of it is to break the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, leaving you with 9 frames. These frames serve as guidelines as to where you should place subjects of interest in your image, either at the intersections or along the lines.

Rule of Thirds Explained

In other words, the main subject (or a point of interest) in your image should be placed at the intersections between the frames. This is at the lower or upper right or left intersections. By placing the elements at these spots, you’re creating a more visually pleasing image that naturally helps guide the viewer’s eye.

Visualizing these lines might be challenging in the beginning but luckily you can use the grid view in most cameras’ Live View or Viewfinder – it’s also possible to use an overlaying grid while displaying an image you’ve captured. Look through your owner’s manual to see exactly how this is done in your camera.

The Rule of Thirds in Use

To make it more visual and easier to understand, let’s look at some example images where the Rule of Thirds has been applied:

Rule of Thirds Explained

Let’s look closer at the image we used above. As you can see when we use the Rule of Thirds overlay, the dog is placed at one of the intersections. I’ve also chosen to include parts of the dog in the middle section to avoid two “empty” boxes. The lower left box has been left empty in order to achieve a more well-balanced image.

You can also notice that the horizon is not in the middle of the image; instead, the sky begins along the upper horizontal line. In general, try to avoid centering both the horizon and main subject.

Here are a couple more image where the Rule of Thirds has been used:

Rule of Thirds Explained

rule of thirds explained

rule of thirds explained

Should You Always Follow it?

Breaking the rules certainly has its benefits at times but even though I don’t believe you should strictly follow them, I believe it’s important to study and understand them. Having this knowledge will, without a doubt, lead to you becoming a better photographer.

That being said, once you’ve learned (and understood) the Rule of Thirds, it’s important not to get too fixated on it. Strictly following the rules will limit your creativity and will have a negative impact on your photography. Since you already know the rules, it’s time to start looking for scenarios where you benefit of breaking them; be bold and try something different.

Some of my personal favorites do have the main subject placed in the center of the frame, or the horizon split in the middle of the image.

rule of thirds explained

Do you want to learn more about compositions and the fundamentals of landscape photography? Then A Comprehensive Introduction to Landscape Photography is the right place to start. 

Rule of Thirds Explained