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What is the rule of thirds?

Watch video: What is the rule of thirds?

At the heart of all photography is composition. There are a number of different 'rules' when it comes to composing an image, but the most well known – and arguably the most useful – is the rule of thirds. 

Of course, when it comes to composition, it’s helpful to remember the pirate code: these rules are more like guidelines. So you don’t have to obey them to a tee, and you don't even have to obey them at all. However, the rule of thirds in particular is a great place to start when framing your shots. 

Speaking of guidelines, the easiest way to understand the rule of thirds is to turn on the literal guide lines in your camera. This varies by manufacturer, but these are typically found in the 'display' area of your camera’s menu system, and is often described as '3x3 grid' – for obvious reasons! 

As you can see, the principle is fairly straightforward: your frame is divided into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, which gives you a 3x3 grid. By positioning the point or points of interest in your composition along these guidelines, or where they intersect, your image should achieve a sense of balance.

This is because when we look at an image, our eyes are not necessarily drawn to the center; rather, they tend to naturally gravitate to one of the four points where the guidelines intersect. This holds true whether you’re shooting in portrait or landscape orientation – and, indeed, whether you’re shooting a portrait or a landscape image. 

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Placing the horizon in the center of the frame gives no point of focus…

Placing the horizon in the center of the frame gives no point of focus…
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… but placing it along the lower or upper third creates balance

… but placing it along the lower or upper third creates balance
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Similarly, a portrait in the middle of the frame can feel lost…

Similarly, a portrait in the middle of the frame can feel lost…
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… but placing a point of focus where the guidelines intersect achieves great results

… but placing a point of focus where the guidelines intersect achieves great results

When shooting a portrait, it can be easy to position your subject’s head in the middle of the frame. The result is that the viewer’s gaze darts around the image, unsure of what it should be focused on. 

However, when you apply the rule of thirds, you can position points of interest – such as the closest eye – on one of the intersections, which immediately makes the image feel more balanced, and the viewer instinctively knows where to look.

Similarly with landscapes, it’s all too easy to place the horizon right in the center of the composition. It’s very bland and too even, and the viewer’s eye is left scanning the frame looking for something interesting. However, using the rule of thirds and placing the horizon along one of the guidelines immediately gives the shot a sense of equilibrium. And again, the rule is just as applicable when you’re shooting vertically as it is when shooting horizontally. 

Like any rule, the rule of thirds can be bent or even broken. But whether you’re just starting out in photography, or you want a good starting point for your composition, the rule of thirds is pretty hard to beat. 

Read more: 

The best lens for portraits in 2020: our pick of the best 85mm lenses right now
The best camera for portraits in 2020: cameras and lenses perfect for portraits
The best lenses for landscapes in 2020: get ready for the great outdoors