There’s one key aspect of photography that I’m extremely passionate about and that’s composition. A while back, I wrote a post called 10 Composition Tips to Take Your iPhone Photos to the Next Level. In that article, one of the first points is about the rule of thirds.

For me, the rule of thirds was a game-changer. Once the penny dropped and I started to apply this rule, the standard of my photography dramatically improved. Here, I’m going to look at the rule of thirds a bit more closely. In it, you’ll learn some easy-to-follow techniques and how to break the rules once in a while.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

Every photo needs to have a subject. Without one, a photo would lack interest or a focal point. The focal point is where the photographer wants the viewer’s eye to go first. The rule of thirds is a set of guidelines that uses an imaginary grid made up of two horizontal and two vertical lines. Subjects are placed on these grid’s lines or on their junction points to add depth and interest to a photo. For example, in the below photo by Arpita Upadhyaya, the young girl has been positioned on the top left junction point.

Photo by Arpi

Photo by Arpita Upadhyaya

In this next photo, the subject is the girl and has been positioned in the lower right corner of the frame. By placing the subject in this location, you are able to create a much more interesting composition than if she was placed in the centre of the frame.

rule of thirds photo 1

How to Use the Rule of Thirds

1. Turn on your iPhone’s rule of thirds grid.

Once you have practiced using the rule of thirds, you’ll “see” the imaginary lines and junction points even without the grid. In the meantime, when using your iPhone’s native camera, you can enable grid lines by going to Settings, then Photos and Camera and enabling the Grid toggle under the Camera section.  During editing, you can use the grid in the iPhone’s cropping tool to reframe an image you didn’t get right the first time. There are several other camera replacement apps that also enable you to use grid lines on the screen as a guide, the main ones being Camera+, ProCamera 8 and VSCO.

2. Place your subject on one of the four junction points.

Placing your subject on a junction point creates a more aesthetically pleasing, natural photograph. You also have the opportunity to creatively use negative space.

In the photo below, the white boat on the top left is the main subject. It’s positioned on the upper left junction point and the rope is positioned on the left hand vertical line. This leads the eye to one specific boat. When photographing people, line up their eyes with a junction point and have them look into the camera.

Low tide by Andy Butler

Low tide by Andy Butler

3. Place your subject on any horizontal or vertical line.

Photo by Andy Butler

When shooting landscapes, try placing the horizon on the lower line to fill the photo with sky. In the photo above, the natural lines of the beach and pier were placed on and below the lower horizontal line, filling the majority of the image with the dramatic lighting of the clouds, sky and streaming sunlight. Alternatively, place the horizon on the upper line to fill the photo with the foreground. When shooting in an urban setting, position tall buildings along the grid’s vertical lines.

4. Balance the photo diagonally.

The grid’s horizontal and vertical lines create nine quadrants. By using these you can balance a photo by placing one subject in a corner quadrant and the second subject in an opposite quadrant. The composition shouldn’t be heavy on any one side of the frame.

Rule of Thirds Photo by Andy Butler

For example, in the photo above the main subject is the man on the right and the secondary subject is the post rising out of the water. By placing the subjects opposite each other, both the right and left sides of the image are balanced which create a much more stronger composition. It also helps that the man is pointing in the direction of the post which helps to strengthen the connection between the two.

Rule of Thirds photo by Andy Butler

Above is a photo of my son which was taken from the stairwell of a tall building looking down on a group of people as they pass by. The photo balances itself out due to the positioning of the group of people in the upper left and the position of my son Luke, in the bottom right corner of the frame.

Break the Rules

Despite its name, the rule of thirds is only a set of guidelines, not a hard and fast set of rules that must be adhered to no matter what. Once you’ve learned the basic rules of photography, you have permission to break them! Even without following the rule of thirds, other elements can create an interesting composition. Experiment with lighting, shadows, shapes and framing. For this image, I photographed my old school’s corridor during their 50th anniversary opening. The square format and the lines of perspective create a compelling photo.


In this next image, I photographed my son walking down a narrow alleyway in the seaside town of Tenby in North Wales. He’s centered and framed on both sides by shadows from nearby buildings and the eye is naturally drawn to the middle of the image. While these photos don’t strictly use the rule of thirds, both images work and are still captivating because they incorporate other compositional guidelines.

Photo by Andy Butler

Photo by Andy Butler

Share your photos with us!

If you aren’t already using the rule of thirds, it’s time to start practicing! Tag your results on Instagram with #Mobiography or post them to the Mobiography Flickr Group. The best images will be featured in our weekly photography showcase or in the gallery section of Mobiography Magazine.

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