The Rule of Thirds: A Photography Tip for Designers


By Karen Glass
One of the guidelines for evaluating the composition of a photograph is known as the Rule of Thirds. Simply put, this “rule” proposes that you divide a photograph into nine equal parts by drawing (or imagining) two vertical lines and two horizontal lines equally spaced over the image. Think of a tic-tac-toe board or the Brady Bunch family’s layout in the show’s opening credits.

The Rule of Thirds suggests that important elements of a photograph should cross these grid lines or the intersections of these lines. This creates a more balanced photograph that allows the viewer to interact with it more organically. And studies have shown that most people’s eyes go to one of the intersection points naturally rather than the center of the shot. You’ll notice that most professional photographers apply this guideline when setting up their shot composition to create more compelling images with greater visual tension and energy.

This image of a deer in a field (from Shutterstock contributor Todd Klassy) is a perfect example of the Rule of Thirds in action.


That’s all well and good for photographers. But what does it mean for designers and other creative professionals who download images from Shutterstock?

First, understanding this rule of thumb will help you identify and evaluate impactful photos when you want to pull a Shutterstock image for your designs. As you begin using the Rule of Thirds more and more when choosing images, it will become an almost unconscious design choice. You’ll find that you’re drawn to photographs that have this balance, resulting in more arresting design images for your work.

Secondly, it can help you crop images in a way that maintains their impact. Most image software programs (like Photoshop) have a cropping tool that draws a tic-tac-toe grid over a photo when you crop. This will allow you to balance and deliver an eye-catching image.

For example, let’s look at this image of a wagon in a desert by Shutterstock contributor Dudarev Mikhail. This image, which is nearly symmetrical both horizontally and vertically, does not follow the rule of thirds. However, it’s a strong composition when presented in a square shape.


Suppose your layout requires you to crop this image to fit into a rectangle. In that case, you might find the image would lose some of its visual interest if you kept the wagon in the center. Keeping the wagon at one of the intersection points of the Rule of Thirds grid helps the image still look well proportioned, even if you’re forced to crop it in a way the photographer didn’t intend.


Remember: This “rule” can be bent and broken, and may not always produce the best results. But you’ll find your image selection and cropping choices will become easier if you keep the rule in mind.

So try the Rule of Thirds for yourself! This tool should give you more esthetically pleasing images to enhance your designs.