Composition: Rule of Thirds

  • Pattern Name: Rule of thirds
  • Problem or question: What is the main elements-distribution guideline to avoid static, dull, too symmetrical, visual compositions?
  • Visual elements: A grid of equally distributed parallel horizontal lines, crossed by two similar vertical lines on four points, marks the ideal positions of the visual elements in a picture.
  • Solution: Put the subjects of the image under one of the cross marks, or the lines, or distribute the content over the planes formed by the parallel lines.
  • Technical implementation: As a general rule, this pattern have a wide field of action. There is no good or bad aperture or shutter speed. But, take into account that if the distribution of content in planes or crossed points comprises distance between subjects it is required a closed aperture as f/8 or more.
  • Examples:
Rule of thirds using a cross point and a vertical line
Rule of thirds using a cross point and a vertical line

The rule of third is one the main rules in photography and visual arts. If you should know only one compositional guide, this one must be it. The problem that it aims to solve is the visually attractiveness. How to avoid the visually dull distribution of elements in a composition? How can we avoid the boring symmetrical disposition of content?

As you see in the image above, the girl in front is nearly under the first vertical line, and in the third plane, with her head under the cross point. A grid of four lines, two horizontal, two vertical, equally parallels and distributed in the picture, functions as a visual guide for the elements of the image content. There are different elements in each plane, avoiding the totally symmetrical content.

The rule of thirds is very useful to avoid the boring distribution of content, when a subject is dropped on the middle of the image and equally distant from the edges, for example. In landscape photos is very common to use also the horizontal planes formed by the horizontal lines to show the sky (upper plane), a shoreline or mountains (the middle plane), and the lake or sea water (the lower plane).

The following is a similar example using a building:

Rule of thirds using the horizontal planes
Rule of thirds using the horizontal planes

The sky, the upper floor and the first floors are almost equally distributed in each horizontal planes. Also notice that the balcony, and the tree in the roof, are crossed by the last third line.

In portraits the rule is very useful for a dynamic distribution of the human head and face. Notice that, on the contrary to the deep of field of previous examples, the portraits required a shallow, blurred backgrounds:

Rule of thirds in portrait
Rule of thirds in portrait

In the image above, the mannequin head is in the lower-left cross-point, allowing the upper planes to show some interesting background content.


As you see, the rule of thirds is a very useful guide to distribute the image content. It’s too famous that, that many cameras and post-production software includes a third-of-rule grid guideline for cropping or recompose.

You can experiment with all the possibilities the guideline suggest. Remember the visual elements are the planes (horizontal and vertical), the lines and the intersection points. You can leverage one of them or several. Once your eyes are trained to «see in thirds» your compositions start to gain in quality and dynamism. In my opinion, this is the first compositional pattern you must apply exhaustively to improve your skills.

The rule of thirds is related to another rule or guidelines that use the golden ratio. In another post I will describe that rule and its relations with this one.

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