Composition 101: The Rule of Thirds

When most people think of composition, they think of the “Rule of Thirds”. It seems like this big, scary thing to remember, and by throwing the word “rule” in to the mix, you totally freak people out.

Composition is actually a tricky part of photography, from amateurs, bloggers to pros alike- but nothing is more important when it comes to getting a good picture than HOW you take the picture.

Composition refers to the formula of how the picture is physically set up- how it is staged, at what angle you shoot from, what is in the background, where the lighting is, where lines are, and where your subject is. Composition is your way of arranging your photograph visually.

Part two of this mini-series (last week we covered the concept of Simplicity) is all about the big fat elephant in the corner of the room for any photographer trying to take better shots: The Rule of Thirds.

We’re not supposed to break rules. Rules are supposed to be firm.

The thing is, in photography, anything really goes. Learning the rule of thirds can help you compose some awesome shots, and make your craft posts more engaging. But to be perfectly honest, you’ll find a zillion photographs that break the rule of thirds, and are still compelling. It is more a tool to composition- so think of it as a guide, not a rule you have to stick to.

While useful in craft photography, it is easier to illustrate and understand the rule of thirds in landscape photography- so I am showing off a few of my favorite photos from my honeymoon in Scotland almost three years ago. Sad to think that was one of the last times we had to just immerse ourself in our beautiful surroundings and take pictures… now it’s all diapers/pacis and strollers!

Want to know more about this rule and why it makes photos interesting? Read on!

The rule of thirds, basically, refers to the way your photograph is split up into sections. There are three sections left to right, and three top to bottom- making a 9×9 grid. Where your subjects, frames, backgrounds etc line up within the grid determine if a photo follows the rule or not.

One of my favorite photos (that my husband took) is a picture off a ferry we took from Kennecraig to the Isle of Islay in Scotland. It was a clear morning (one of very few we encountered on our honeymoon there), and the water was as still as glass. It was so beautiful, we braved the cool weather (Scotland in November is not balmy) to sit up on a balcony and take in the gorgeous views.

Lovely, eh?


Not only is the scenery great, but it actually sticks to the rule of thirds almost perfectly! See how the blue sky composes the top third of the photo? The horizon lines up right on the bottom line, and the water fills the bottom third. A lifeboat frames the photo on the right, and it’s oar is lined perfectly along the right grid line.

rule of thirds grid

So, I get that is nice and all, but why does this matter?

Visually, we look for patterns and order when looking at photographs. When photos are orderly, and it’s subjects line up along the grid, our attention is drawn into a photo and it is more aesthetically pleasing.


The Talisker Distillery (which makes a fabulous, richly peated single malt if you’re a fan of such things), is tucked alongside a hauntingly beautiful loch on the Isle of Skye in a quaint small town. The weather on Skye was quite dramatic- which made for stunning changes in light that entertained us well for the hour and a half we waited to take a distillery tour (I misread the map, and took us to the opposite side of the island- we had to dart along a sketchy-at-best single track road through the rugged, hilly terrain- dodging lorries full of whiskey barrels and freshly cut trees and darting dangerously close to perilously perched cliffs… all to miss our scheduled tour by five minutes).

I actually took this photo with my Canon Powershot point and shoot. Really. (the others on this page are with a DSLR)


Note the windows line up along the bottom grid line, the dark and shadowy part of the building frames the right, and the road pulls the viewer from the center bottom up through the left side of the photo to the sleepy, small town you otherwise would overlook.

If this was slightly pulled out, there would have been a little more road in the photo, which would have pulled the viewer in from the bottom center grid in an even more dramatic fashion.

rule of thirds 3


This photo shows a great way to use a frame in the foreground. The rocks are featured prominently in the bottom of the photo, the sky in the top. Talisker is featured on the right, and the loch on the left. The road, distillery name, and windows all draw the viewers interest towards the small town. The horizon is aligned along the top line, and the rolling hills along the peninsula succumb to the clouds to the left.

rule of thirds 2


The Rule of Thirds can also work well to help you compose interesting and dynamic shots of people.


While not a perfect example, little man’s eye and lips are positioned along the gridlines, and his cute smooshy face is featured prominently in the middle of the grid. The top and bottom thirds of the photo are darker and frame his adorable little face. If I was just a little closer, both his eyes would have lined up along a gridline- and if I was a little further away, his eyes could have been positioned on the same line- but as is, your attention is drawn directly to the center of the photo, exactly where I wanted the focus to be.

rule of thirds 5


So, what does this all mean for craft photos? Well, it can help you find new ways to look at your subjects. Imagine the grid when taking shots, and try to align the lines in your subject along gridlines. Frame your subject with dark or light backgrounds/foregrounds, stick subjects in the middle of your shots, and place any horizons along gridlines. Just don’t freak out about it too much.

The picture below, while horizontally sticking to the rule of thirds (the subjects are aligned along the center of the photo), doesn’t really line up vertically (the top and bottom gridlines). But you know what? This is one of my most pinned photos, and most linked to! Sure the project is easy and fun, but we all know dynamic photos drive Pinterest.

So what was more important in this photo? How did I get to this shot? Simple- I didn’t care about the rule of thirds, I just tried to fill the frame. In our niche blog world, simply filling the frame can be more important that worrying too much about having perfectly aligned photos. I tried to make everything centered- a good idea in craft photography- but I didnt worry about the horizon  or lid lines.


This would look a lot better if the lids were lined up along the top and bottom lines, respectively- and it was tilted a bit so they didn’t drop off the grid lines.


The horizon (where the table meets the wall) is for the mot part lined up along the bottom line, but if it was tilted slightly it would be perfectly aligned. While the tops of the blue bins meet the corner edge of the pink bin in the middle of the grid, it would be much more “by the rules” if the middle of the pink bin was in the center of the center grid, and the tops of the blue bins were arranged along the bottom line.

If I had spent a little more time on this photo, set up a tripod and used a camera level, it would have been a much higher quality. But let’s be honest- there just isn’t a ton of time in a day full of a busy mommy. So if you have the time, go for it. If you don’t, get in close, fill the frame, try to keep your photo centered- and pay attention to all the other concepts of composition. In the right lighting, even a poorly composed shot can look pin-worthy.


Don’t beat yourself up over trying to imagine a grid. Now that you know about the rule of thirds, try to incorporate it into some of your photos to find new ways of composing your shots.  Photos that don’t follow the rule aren’t broken, hard to view, or bad. They are just composed differently. We might call the Rule of Thirds a “rule”, but think of it as more of a “tool” to getting more dynamic shots. Combine it with the other aspects of Composition, and you’ll have a fabulous shot!

This is where crop can be your best friend. You can crop, tilt, and adjust your photos to fit into the rule of thirds in post-production. Even more of a reason not to worry! (Of course, trying to follow composition guidelines while shooting saves you a lot of time and frustration- but with the wonders of lightroom and photoshop, you can always make them work).


Photoshop Tip:  To see a grid in photoshop, press control K to open up the control panel. Click on guides, then grids & slices. Change the sections for the grid as follows: gridline- every 100%, subdivisions- 3. Then accept changes. Click control ‘ (apostrophe) for the grid to appear! (For mac, hit command instead of control). Boom! Your own little way to find where your photo lines up. If you’d like to know how I got the red gridlines, email me at sweetcsdesigns (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll send you the photoshop action!


Coming up next week in the Composition 101 Mini Series is a look into lines. You’ll see how lines can guide your viewer’s attention and pull them around the photo- and what types of lines to avoid in photos!

If you enjoyed this photography post, please add Sweet C’s to your RSS feeds, or add me, and Sweet C’s Designs on G+! Larger networks help me find new opportunities and help offset some of the costs for running this blog.

I add new photo tips on Mondays- please let me know if you’d like a specific topic covered!


2 thoughts on “Composition 101: The Rule of Thirds”

  1. WOW! that was so interesting! I know so little about photography, it’s totally accidental when I end up with a great shot of anything. I didn’t even know a thing about the rule of thirds before reading this post- very cool, I’m going to think about that next time I’m taking pix! thanks

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