Photography’s Rule of Thirds and Why It Works

By Warren Lutz, Contributing Writer


Great photography, like all great art, often seems subjective. But imagine if there was a magical way to compose a great photo, every time. Imagine a technique you could follow and never go wrong. That’d be pretty cool, right?

Amazingly enough, there is a technique, and it’s called the Rule of Thirds. In fact, it is among the most important and influential theories in the history of the visual arts. And it’s certainly not a new concept. Renaissance painters used it. Sculptors and architects use it. But exactly what does the rule say?

The Rule of Thirds, Defined

When you look at an image, imagine that it is divided into a nine equal sections or squares, three across and three down, like so:

Example of an image using the rule of thirds.

Pay attention to the lines. When the rule has been applied to a photographic composition, the most important elements in that photo—whether it’s a tree, a person, a race car, whatever—will likely be positioned along these lines. Meanwhile, the most dramatic elements of the photo will usually be placed where the lines intersect.

Eyes are typically placed at, or near, an intersection. In a landscape, or product shot, the natural horizon or product will usually rest on a horizontal line. When there are full bodies, the body will rest on a vertical line.

All things being equal, a photo that follows the Rule of Thirds will be more appealing and attention-grabbing than the photo which does not. Once you recognize it and start looking for it, you’ll find the rule applied in movies, graphic design, magazines and of course, photos. You’ll also begin to notice that images that have a composition that does not follow this rule will feel uncomfortable, unorganized, or awkward.

The Trick Behind the Rule

Studies have shown that our eyes are naturally attracted to lines, and when you have an image that incorporates implied lines, our eyes will seek them out. Because the Rule of Thirds is anchored in the use of lines, it keeps our eyes moving. Thus a photo in which the rule has been applied often feels more interesting, more alive. Compare that to an image in which the subject is perfectly centered. There’s nowhere for the eye to wander nor nothing else for the eye to consider – so it’s naturally a more boring shot.

The other benefit behind the Rule of Thirds is that, because the lines help lead the eye,  the audience wil look at the image longer. And we all know that the longer you can keep your customer’s attention, the better results you’ll have with your marketing materials.

Creating Drama in Photography

The other great thing about the Rule of Thirds is that an experienced photographer can use it to create and heighten drama in photos to mirror your marketing message. In fact, when combined with other elements, such as lighting and color, a good photographer can create an almost limitless palette of dramatic tones. Experienced photographers can also spot opportunities to bend or break the rule to create even more visual tension or interest in the shot.

Let’s say a photo may have one or more primary subjects in addition to secondary objects in either the foreground or background, or both. Certain subjects can look more powerful or less powerful, depending on which lines they are placed along and how they relate to other objects in the shot. Good photographers are keenly aware of these dynamics, and once they understand your message, they can intuitively frame shots to create moods and “implied action” that reinforces the tone you’re after.

Why ETMG Follows It

The Rule of Thirds supports a very common marketing goal: Attract and keep the attention of your audience. It works whether we are working with photos or with graphic design, illustrations, motion graphics or video—yes, it even works with corporate headshots—pretty much any type of visual content can be improved by using the rule.

Now that we’ve let the secret out of the bag, take another look at some of your favorite marketing or advertising images and try to determine whether they followed the rule, too. We bet they did!



Rule of Thirds in Photography

The Rule of Thirds: A Simple Way to Improve Your Images

The Rule of Thirds – Placing Your Subject Off Center

How to Use the Rule of Thirds for Awesome Shot Composition

Image: released in the public domain

Further Reading:

The Future of Multimedia and Visual Storytelling [INFOGRAPHIC]

Using Public Domain Images for Your Blog

ETMG Photography Samples available on


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