Alibony Lessons for Photoshop Elements, Lightroom, and Digital Photography

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Basic Design Principle: Rule of Thirds


July 31, 2013

The rule of thirds is a basic principle in photography and graphic design. Use the rule of thirds to compose a photograph or place important objects on a canvas. Imagine a grid laid out on top of your image, dividing your photo in thirds horizontally and vertically. Position important objects at the intersections of the lines.

Rule of thirds grid

Framing or cropping your photos to conform to the rule of thirds can enliven your images. The following examples show the results of judicious cropping.

Avoid Centering the Subject

Do not center the subject in the frame. Instead position the subject in the top third or lower third section of the frame, or the left or right third section of the frame. Also, remove extra space when cropping and try to fill a third of the frame with your subject. The family of geese now straddles the lower third of the frame.

Before After
Before example: avoid centering After example: avoid centering

Scan the Horizon

If your photo has a horizon line, do not center the horizon line in the photo. Place it on either the top horizontal line or the bottom horizontal line. Note also that the Statue of Liberty now is aligned with the left vertical line.

Before After
Before: horizons After: horizons

Trim Recognizable Objects

Remove any unneeded space from the photo and do not be afraid to show only a portion of a recognizable object. The right side of the flower has been trimmed to allow a better placement of the flower and butterfly in this photo.

Before After
Before: trimming After: trimming

Watch the Eyes

In close ups, try to line up the eyes of your subject to the top third line intersections. My cat, Abby, posed for this photo.

Rule for eyes

Rule of Thirds Grid in Photoshop Elements


In Photoshop Elements 10 and 11, the Crop tool contains overlays for three composition aids: Grid, the Rule of Thirds, and the Golden Ratio (also known as the Golden Mean). 

In earlier versions of Photoshop elements, there are two ways you can overlay a rule of thirds grid on your photos:

  • Use a custom shape.
  • Set the grid preferences.

Photoshop Elements contains a custom shape you can use to overlay a rule of thirds grid on your image.

  1. Select the Custom Shape tool.
  2. From the Shape drop-down list on the options bar, select the Tiles shapes, then select the rule of thirds grid shape.
  3. Draw the grid shape on your image.

My preferred method for overlaying a rule of thirds grid is to set the grid preferences and view the resulting grid. To set grid preferences:

  1. From the Edit menu, select Preferences, then Grid.
  2. In the Preferences dialogue, set the Grid Line to 33.33% and the Subdivisions to 1.

    Grid preferences
  3. Click OK.
  4. From the View menu, select Grid.
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Updated on July 31, 2013