What is the rule of thirds in photography?

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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. 

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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. 

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. 

You might be interested in the best cameras for landscape photography, and the best lenses for landscapes. If you're more of a people person, check out the best camera for portraits and the best lenses for portraits too. 

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James Artaius

The editor of Digital Camera World, James has 21 years experience as a journalist and started working in the photographic industry in 2014 (as an assistant to Damian McGillicuddy, who succeeded David Bailey as Principal Photographer for Olympus). In this time he shot for clients like Aston Martin Racing, Elinchrom and L'Oréal, in addition to shooting campaigns and product testing for Olympus, and providing training for professionals. This has led him to being a go-to expert for camera and lens reviews, photo and lighting tutorials, as well as industry news, rumors and analysis for publications like Digital Camera MagazinePhotoPlus: The Canon MagazineN-Photo: The Nikon MagazineDigital Photographer and Professional Imagemaker, as well as hosting workshops and talks at The Photography Show. He also serves as a judge for the Red Bull Illume Photo Contest. An Olympus and Canon shooter, he has a wealth of knowledge on cameras of all makes – and a fondness for vintage lenses and instant cameras.