The "Rule" of Thirds

I put "rule" in quotes because it isn't really a rule, but rather a guideline. If we all rigidly followed it as a rule, photography could get pretty boring :) Used as a guideline, however, it can add interest and appeal to your photographs.

The general idea is to find a pleasing placement for the objects in your photograph, rather than simply placing the main object in the center of the photo, or having your photo appear to be a random collection of elements.

To use the rule of thirds, visualize a 3 x 3 grid overlaying the scene you see in your viewfinder or LCD. When composing your shot, try to locate the main objects in your photo at the intersection of these grid lines. In other words, place your main objects 1/3 up from the bottom and 1/3 over from the left, or 1/3 down from the top and 1/3 over from the right, etc.

Photographs composed according to the rule of thirds tend to appear calm and balanced. Often, depending on the theme of your photo, that may not be what you want: you may want a little tension, for instance. This can often be achieved by moving the elements just a little off of the grid intersection points.

Here is an representation of a typical flower shot (although I created it by cropping another shot). It appears that the photographer got as close as possible to the flower, filling the frame with it. The result is ok, but uninspiring.

The see the 3 x 3 grid, roll the cursor over the photo (your browser must support JavaScript).

Here is another version of the same shot, showing a partial application of the rule of thirds. The photographer has backed away from the subject, and added new elements (the buds and the diagonal line of the stem) to the shot. The center of interest of the iris is, indeed 1/3 of the way down from the top, and the tip of the bud is 1/3 from the bottom. On the other hand, the subject is still almost centered horzontally.

Which do you like best? What would you do differently?

The see the 3 x 3 grid, roll the cursor over the photo (your browser must support JavaScript).

Better than the "Rule" of Thirds?

Now, this isn't the only compositional guideline photographers use. Some advocate a 5 x 5 grid, for example.

If you're interested in the theory behind this, do a web search for "Rule of Thirds." You also might want to search for the terms "Golden Mean," and "Golden Section:" There is some evidence that the "Rule" of Thirds may be based on them, and may in fact be an over-simplification.

Here is an image analyzed using the "Golden Mean."

If that one tree catches your eye and seems to be in just the right place, the Golden Mean says you're right :)
Image to be analyzed using Golden Mean Analyzed using the Golden Mean


There are different theories of composition, and I view them as tools to get me to think differently about my shooting, not as rules to be followed slavishly. My goal is to place objects within the frame in a way that creates balance and a sense of order (or slight imbalance and controlled disorder, in some cases), to help the viewer see the scene in the way I saw it and feel the effect that I'm trying to convey.

A Free Action

If you have Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, and would like to analyze your own images, check out our free actions.

Once you've mastered composition, you can take some great photos that you will be truly proud of. When you have a collection of your favorites, create some lasting memories over at!