How to use photography’s rule of thirds — and when to break it

The rule of thirds is the most widely known, and widely overlooked, creative “rule” of photography. It divides the frame into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and says that placing the subject near the resulting intersection is better than placing it in the middle.

As a guideline, the rule of thirds is notable because it goes against our natural inclination to make the center of our attention the center of the picture. Our eyes don’t behave like that in real life; when we look at something we see straight On this. In a conversation, we tend to frame the other person to the left or right of center little-to-no.

But this purposeful misdirection—putting the subject elsewhere from where you expect to find it—is one reason why the rule of thirds can make a picture more interesting. This invokes dynamic balance in the frame and encourages the viewer’s eyes to remain mobile rather than completely resting in the middle of the image. What’s important isn’t that you follow this rule to a T, but use it to become more aware of how you structure your photos.

how to use the rule of thirds

Devon Mathis/Nerdshala

In portraits, try aligning your subject’s body with a vertical line in an imaginary rule-of-thirds grid (some cameras actually have grid overlays that can be turned on to help with this). You should place their face at one of the intersection points (usually, one of the top). For close-ups and headshots, the face can be self-centered, but you can still frame the eyes according to the rule of thirds.

Your subject’s line of sight is also important where you place them. They should generally be looking into the frame, not from the side. If they are looking to your left, frame them to the right. If they are looking up, frame them down. This gives them some breathing room and allows the viewer’s eyes to follow the subject’s vision in the rest of the image.

Of course, you don’t always have to do this. Framing your subject so that they are looking right from the edge can create tension and a feeling of being trapped. If it helps to illustrate the story you’re trying to tell, that’s strong composition. Most of the time, though, that’s not the effect we’re going for with a portrait.

Devon Mathis/Nerdshala

With the landscape, start by placing the horizon on one of the horizontal grid lines. Choosing the lower third will open up the sky more – a good choice when photographing a sunset with interesting colors and clouds – while aligning the horizon with the upper third will focus on the ground. Vertical objects, such as trees, buildings, or mountains, can be matched with vertical grid lines.

Remember, the goal of the rule of thirds is to get you thinking about your composition so that you can make an informed choice about subject placement. This doesn’t mean that randomly placing your subject off center will produce a better image. Other techniques can also help point you to the strongest composition.


Here, we’re talking about frame within frame, something that helps anchor and provide context to the image. A clear example of this is photographing a subject through a window frame, but many objects serve as photographic frames. A frame can also be made from foreground or background elements and should not be anything physically close to the subject. For example, you can make an outdoor portrait so that your subject appears to be trapped between a tree in the foreground and a mountain in the distance. It is the abstract size that matters.

Framing has its own compositional technique that differs from the rule of thirds, but both work by hand. Your composition will be more dynamic if your subject is not only positioned according to the rule of thirds, but is also framed by other elements within the image. Alternatively, a focused subject drawn equally on both sides can be used to denote strength and perseverance, while avoiding all framing can create feelings of loneliness or emptiness. The story you choose to tell will decide how you use or avoid this rule.

key lines

Devon Mathis/Nerdshala

Like framing, looking for key lines in an image is all about abstraction. The classic example is a road that snakes into the distance, a s Shape. Whether straight or curved, lines are an important compositional tool that serve to guide the viewer’s gaze throughout the image.

Creating your image according to the rule of thirds can take up too much negative space. By including prominent lines in that space, the photo will be more dynamic and draw the viewer’s attention to the subject. Lines that extend beyond the edge of the frame will create the feeling that the scene and your story also move beyond the frame, opening the viewer’s imagination. Conversely, lines that begin and end within the frame will make the scene feel contained, even boxed.

when to break the rule of thirds

All the best artistic rules are meant to be broken, and the rule of thirds is no different. First and foremost, you shouldn’t let imaginary gridlines determine how you draw a picture—think of them as a polite suggestion, something to put in the background of your mind. If you spend too much time focusing on the correct implementation of the rule, you’re going to overlook the more important aspects of the image. The important lesson of the rule is that you should not default to centering the subject.

In addition, there are some situations where you should knowingly go against the rule of thirds.


Storytelling with your photos includes variety, control, and attention to detail. It also requires a fair amount of emotion, which is not always possible to express following the rule of thirds. In other words, the story of your picture includes much more than technical aspects, and its structure goes beyond technical limits. The lovely 2015 video, above from Canon Australia, beautifully illustrates what we mean. In this video, six photographers tell six different stories about the same portrait subject. Most still images follow the rule of thirds in some way, shape or form, but each photographer does so in a wonderfully unique way.


Devon Mathis/Nerdshala

Symmetry draws our gaze, so it’s natural to uncover it when we see it around us. Symmetry is especially pronounced in photographs that contain reflections. For example, imagine a picture of a mountain mirrored in a lake where the far edge of the water completely bisects the frame. The two peaks – one physical, one reflected – are spaced equidistant from the center. You can use the same idea to depict vertical symmetry, in which case you’ll frame the subject vertically according to the rule of thirds—or by intentionally going against them to create an asymmetrical effect.

technical/scientific photos

It’s easy to get caught up in artistry and unique photography approaches, but “good” photos don’t always require exciting angles or other gimmicks. For example, technical or scientific photographs aim to be as clear and concise as possible, rather than make an artistic statement. Taking photos of products for catalogs and marketing images is another example where you don’t have to worry about being artistic and taking inventive photos; You need to spotlight the product. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get a little creative with technical images, especially if it means giving you more eye-catching shots. For example, MIT science photographer Felice Frankel does not consider herself an artist. Still, she makes excellent use of color and composition. Helping scientists better communicate their ideas, proving that there is always room for artistic flair.

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