01/06/2024

What is the Rule of Thirds in Photography? A Comprehensive Guide

At TYX Studios, we specialise in helping clients create stunning images. One of the key techniques often used is the Rule of Thirds (as you can see from the cover image of our studio). In this comprehensive guide, we'll delve into what the Rule of Thirds is and how you can use it to enhance your own photos.

Table of contents

  1. What is the rule of thirds?
  2. Why is the rule of thirds helpful?
  3. The history of the rule of thirds
  4. The Golden Ratio
  5. Rule of thirds photography examples
    1. Landscape photography
    2. Portrait photography
    3. Still life photography
    4. Street photography
  6. Combining leading lines with the rule of thirds
  7. When to not use the rule of thirds
  8. Conclusion
  9. TYX London photography studio

What is the rule of thirds?

White rule of thirds grid black background

*Example of the rule of thirds grid

The rule of thirds divides images into a grid of nine equal parts. This lets you easily position elements along grid lines and intersections. The grid is made up of 3 horizontal lines and 2 vertical lines.

This simple composition technique can help anyone create professional-looking photos. Today, most cameras, phones, and photo editing software have this setting built-in. This means beginners to photography can easily start experimenting.

Part of the reason for its effectiveness is that the rule of thirds aligns with how we naturally view images. It can aid visual storytelling, highlighting crucial parts of the photo, like the horizon in landscapes or eyes in portraits.

Why is the rule of thirds helpful?

The rule of thirds brings balance, avoids static compositions, and adds dynamism. By placing compositional elements along the gridlines or intersections, your photos will be more natural and engaging. This technique aligns with how we naturally view images, enhancing visual appeal.

It also aids storytelling, highlighting crucial parts of the photo, like the horizon in landscapes or eyes in portraits.

The history of the rule of thirds

Painting by Turner of ships and sea

* The Fighting Temeraire by Turner, 1839

The earliest written account of the rule of thirds was by John Thomas Smith in 1797 in his book Remarks on Rural Scenery. An avid painter and writer, Smith refers to the rule of thirds as a key method for composing a photo:

“In connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion”

While some artists find it controversial and it’s not always applied in design and photography, it’s a useful guideline for any artist to know.

However, while this composition guideline is fairly new, its precursor stretches back over two millennia.

How does the Golden Ratio relate to the rule of thirds?

Jpanese painting of wave shoiwng use of golden ratio

*The golden ratio was often used in works of art

In 300 BC, a monumental work of classical mathematics was published. It is in Euclid’s Elements that we find the earliest mention of The Golden Ratio. (approximately 1.618) is evidenced throughout the natural world, seen in the spirals of shells and galaxies, and the branching of trees.

This natural symmetry inspired its use in art and design for creating harmonious compositions. The Golden Ratio is still widely used in photography but can be complex to calculate.

The rule of thirds is its natural successor, breaking images into a simpler 3×3 grid. This adaptation made the principles of the Golden Ratio more accessible to photographers, ensuring balanced and engaging compositions without the complexity of precise mathematical calculations.

Rule of thirds photography examples

Below are 4 main types of photography it’s often used in:

Using the rule of thirds in landscape photography

Dog sitting on field by beach against cloudy sky with rule of thirds grid

Positioning the horizon

Align the horizon line with either the top or bottom horizontal gridline. Placing the horizon along the top grid emphasizes the foreground, making elements like rivers or fields stand out. Conversely, positioning the horizon along the bottom gridline gives about two thirds of the space to the sky—ideal for capturing dramatic cloud formations or sunsets.

You can also position the horizon line in the centre can create a sense of symmetry and balance, which is particularly effective in reflecting scenes or when both the sky and foreground hold equal interest.

Foreground interest

Beautiful scenery of sunrise reflecting in the sea with rule of thirds grid

Use the gridlines to position important elements in the foreground, such as rocks, trees, or pathways. Placing these elements at one of the four intersection points can add depth and lead the viewer’s eye into the scene.

Balancing elements

Ensure that significant landscape features, like mountains or buildings, align with the vertical gridlines. This alignment creates a balanced composition, making the photo more engaging.

Using the rule of thirds in portrait photography

Black and white photo of pretty woman with grid showing rule of thirds

Eyes on the upper third

Position your subject’s eyes along the top horizontal line. This placement immediately attracts the viewer’s attention to the subject’s face, which is often the focal point in portrait photography.

Vertical alignment

Align the subject’s body along a vertical line. For example, if you’re taking a full-body portrait, placing the subject slightly off-centre creates a more dynamic and less static image.

Off-centre compositions

Portrati photo of brown haird woman with 9 block grid

Experiment with placing your subject at one of the four intersection points. This off-centre placement can make the composition more interesting and engaging, especially in environmental portraits where you want to include elements of the background.

Close-ups and headshots

When shooting close-ups, position one of the subject’s eyes at an intersection point. This technique creates a visually appealing balance and draws immediate attention to the eyes.

Using the rule of thirds in still life photography

Positioning the main subject

Place the main subject, such as a piece of fruit, a flower, or any other object, at one of the four intersection points. This off-centre placement makes the composition more dynamic and engaging.

Balancing elements

Align secondary elements in the composition. This creates a sense of harmony and balance, preventing the image from feeling too crowded or chaotic.

Creating depth

Position elements at varying distances from the camera along the gridlines, adding a sense of depth and dimension.

Negative space

Still life of fruit with rule of thirds grid

Incorporate negative space by leaving parts of the grid empty. This draws more attention to the focal point.

Using the rule of thirds in street photography

Photographer capturing skateboarder

Subject placement

Position your main subject along one of the vertical lines. This draws attention while also allowing the surrounding environment to be part of the story, adding depth and context to the image.

Leading lines

Use elements like roads, buildings, or fences to create leading lines along the horizontal or vertical lines of the grid. These lines guide the viewer’s eye through the photo, making the composition more engaging.

Foreground and background balance

Example: a person walking on the street could be positioned at one intersection point, while an interesting background element, like a building or a sign, is placed at another.

Movement and direction

Man playing football with kids

If your subject is moving, position them on one side of the frame with space in front of them, creating a sense of direction and movement. It can make the image feel more dynamic and alive.

Capturing interactions

When photographing interactions between people, place each person along different lines or at intersection points. This composition technique helps to tell a more compelling story by highlighting the relationship between the subjects.

Combining leading lines with the rule of thirds

Man walking down path toward mountain with red arrow

*Example of leading line

Leading lines are visual pathways that guide the viewer’s eye through the image, often towards a focal point.

To use these effectively with the Rule of Thirds, start by identifying strong lines in your scene—these could be roads, rivers, fences, or architectural elements.

Once you’ve identified your leading lines, position your main subject where these lines intersect with the Rule of Thirds grid. For example, a winding path leading to a person positioned at an intersection point can create a harmonious balance between the subject and the surrounding environment.

This technique not only emphasizes the main subject but also creates a visual journey for the viewer, enhancing the overall storytelling of the image. Moreover, prioritising leading lines may result in breaking the rule of thirds which is totally fine!

When to not use the rule of thirds (8 Examples)

A group of excited friends

Remember, rules were meant to be broken! Honestly “rule” is a bit misleading. The rule of thirds is a guide. Many of the images we’ve shown don’t adhere exactly to it. Onn many occasions “breaking it” can lead to more impactful and interesting photos. Here are examples of when you might want to ignore the rule:

  1. Symmetry and reflections – Centre your subject for strong symmetry or reflections, like architectural photos or landscapes with perfect reflections.

  1. Emphasising scale – Centre large subjects, such as towering buildings or vast landscapes, to highlight their dominance, especially in wide-angle shots.
  2. Minimalism – Use central compositions to create calm and simplicity, emphasising a lone subject and drawing focus.
  3. Leading lines – Centre your subject to draw the eye directly to the focal point, using roads, railways, or pathways in urban scenes.
  4. Mood and emotion – Centre subjects to convey stability or confrontation; place them at the edge to evoke tension or imbalance.
  5. Dynamic angles – Use high or low perspectives with central or off-centre compositions to create dynamic, engaging shots.

Close up of pretty woman profile

  1. Filling the frame – When subjects fill the entire frame, focus on details and textures, making the rule of thirds less relevant.
  2. Abstract photography – Break the rule for creative freedom; use central compositions, unusual angles, and unconventional placements to intrigue and provoke thought.

That wraps up our guide

That wraps up our guide on the rule of thirds. You’ve learned how this simple yet powerful technique can transform your photos, creating more balanced and visually appealing compositions. By aligning your subjects along the grid lines or at the intersection points, you can naturally draw the viewer’s eye and add depth to your images.

Remember, while the rule of thirds is a fantastic tool, don’t be afraid to break it when the situation calls for it. Sometimes stepping outside the box can lead to the most stunning shots.

Keep practising and experimenting with your compositions. Happy shooting, and may your photos continue to captivate and inspire!

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Our state-of-the-art photography studio is located in the heart of Tileyard, Kings Cross (Europe’s largest creative community). It’s equipped with top-notch gear like Profoto D2 1000 flash heads and versatile light-shaping tools. With full blackout capabilities, on-site changing rooms, a kitchen, and a lounge area, TYX ensures a comfortable and professional environment for all your photography needs.

Enjoy the convenience of private meeting rooms, free car service from King’s Cross, and an inspiring atmosphere that fosters creativity and collaboration.

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OUR MOST ASKED QUESTIONS
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Yes, TYX Studios provides a selection of professional photography equipment for rent. Please contact us for a detailed list of available gear and rental terms.
Otherwise known as the "sunny day rule", if you're using ISO 100, the shutter speed should be 1/100 and the aperture should be f/16. This usually produces the best-exposed front-lit photos on a bright day.
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Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO, Composition, Lighting, White Balance, and Focusing.
Beginners can start by studying basic photography concepts, practising regularly, experimenting with settings, and learning from tutorials, courses, and experienced photographers.