Rule of Thirds in Portrait Photography: Super Easy Guide

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and other related affiliate programs. We may earn fees by linking to products on Amazon and other partner sites. This means that when you click on a link and make a purchase, we may receive a commission from Amazon at no extra cost to you. We only share products and services that we use or believe in.

In the captivating world of portrait photography, the ability to craft an image that tells a story is truly an art form. One of the most effective techniques to add depth and interest to your photos is the “Rule of Thirds in portrait photography.”

This simple yet powerful rule is fundamental in visual arts, such as painting, design, and photography. Applying the Rule of Thirds, you unlock a new dimension in your portrait photography, transforming your images from ordinary to extraordinary.

Rule of Thirds in Portrait Photography

Related: What is Aperture in Photography?

Understanding the Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds Definition

The Rule of Thirds is a fundamental concept in visual composition for photography or artwork. This principle suggests that an image can be divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines.

1. Divide the frame into a 3×3 grid: Consider your frame of view as a grid of nine equal blocks. This can be achieved by drawing two horizontal and two vertical lines spaced equally apart.

2. Positioning key elements along the grid lines or at their intersections: Your image’s main features or subjects should be placed along these lines or at the points where they intersect. This technique is believed to create more tension, interest, and energy in the composition than simply centering the subject.

The Principle Behind the Rule of Thirds

Understanding the principle behind the Rule of Thirds is key to mastering its application in portrait photography. The rule isn’t just about dividing an image into nine equal parts; it’s about using those divisions to create balance, visual interest, and dynamism in your compositions.

1. Creating Balance and Visual Interest: When critical elements in a photograph align with the Rule of Thirds grid lines or their intersections, it leads to a balanced composition that is pleasing to the eye.

Our eyes naturally gravitate towards these points when looking at an image. By strategically placing your subject at these points, you create a harmonious balance between the main issue and the other elements in the frame, thereby increasing the overall visual interest of your portrait.

2. Avoiding Centering Subjects for Visual Interest and More Dynamic Compositions: While centering the subject might seem intuitive, it often results in static and less engaging compositions. The Rule of Thirds encourages photographers to break away from this default setting.

By placing your subjects off-center, you create a more dynamic, exciting composition and allow for better flow and balance within the frame. This approach gives viewers space to engage with the entirety of the photo rather than focusing just on the centered subject.

Applying the Rule of Thirds in Portrait Photography

Placement of the Subject’s Eyes

One of the most impactful ways to utilize the Rule of Thirds in portrait photography is in the placement of your subject’s eyes.

1. Positioning the Eyes Along the Upper Horizontal Line: When composing your portrait, consider aligning your subject’s eyes with the upper horizontal line of the grid. This technique draws attention to the eyes, which are often the most expressive part of the human face.

It also provides a natural space below for the rest of the subject’s face and body, maintaining a balanced composition.

2. Emphasizing Eye Contact and Expression: Placing the eyes along the upper horizontal line highlights the eyes and enhances the connection between the subject and the viewer.

Eye contact can convey many emotions, from happiness and surprise to contemplation and sadness. You can create a robust emotional engagement that elevates your portrait photography by intentionally guiding your viewer’s gaze to the subject’s eyes.

Explore the Use of Negative Space

1. Utilizing Empty Areas to Draw Attention to the Subject: Negative space, or the empty areas around and between the subject of an image, can be a powerful tool when used in conjunction with the Rule of Thirds in portrait photography.

You can draw the viewer’s attention directly to the subject by purposely leaving large areas of your frame empty. The absence of other significant elements makes the issue the most exciting part of the scene. This technique is particularly effective in creating high-impact portraits that emphasize the subject’s emotions or expressions.

2. Creating a Sense of Openness and Context: Negative space can also provide context, giving the portrait a sense of place or setting. It can help develop a sense of vastness or solitude, reinforcing the image’s narrative.

By using the Rule of Thirds to place your subject within this space, you can create an image that is both balanced and conveys a compelling story. This balanced composition invites viewers to explore the entire image, experiencing the openness and fully engaging with the context.

Highlight the Importance of the Background

1. Placing the Subject Against Interesting or Complementary Backgrounds: The Rule of Thirds isn’t just about guiding the placement of your subject; it also assists in selecting appealing and complementary backgrounds for your portraits. Positioning your subject against a background that complements their appearance, mood, or narrative can enhance the overall impact of your portrait.

An interesting background can add layers of depth to your image, inviting viewers to delve deeper into the story you’re trying to convey. However, it’s important to ensure that the background doesn’t overpower the subject. The subject should always remain the primary focus of your portrait.

2. Avoiding Distractions in the Background: While the right background can elevate your portrait, a cluttered or distracting background can detract from the subject. In portrait photography, it’s essential to avoid elements in the background that can pull attention away from your main subject.

By using the Rule of Thirds, you can carefully place your subject in a way that minimizes distractions, ensuring that your viewers’ attention remains firmly on the subject. This reduces the risk of your portrait appearing chaotic or disjointed, resulting in a more robust and captivating image.

Using the Rule of Thirds with Different Types of Portraits: The Three Main Types of Portraits

Using the Rule of Thirds with Different Types of Portraits: The Three Main Types of Portraits

1. Close-Up and Headshot Portraits

Given the intimacy of these shots, close-up and headshot portraits require particular attention to detail. When applying the Rule of Thirds, focus on the eyes and facial expressions.

Position the eyes along the upper horizontal line of the grid, aligning a look with one of the intersection points. This approach draws the viewer’s attention directly to the subject’s eyes, thus enhancing the emotional impact.

2. Full-Body and Environmental Portraits

When composing full-body or environmental portraits, the Rule of Thirds can be invaluable in achieving a balanced dynamic between the subject and their surroundings. Place the subject along one of the grid’s vertical lines, allowing the rest of the frame to capture the environment.

This not only showcases the subject in context but also creates a visually engaging image that leads the viewer’s eye throughout the full scene.

3. Candid and Posed Portraits

Whether capturing a spontaneous moment or staging a posed portrait, the Rule of Thirds can help create a compelling composition. For candid shots, anticipate the action and align your subject along the grid lines to capture an engaging moment in a visually appealing way.

Use the grid lines to position your subject for posed portraits, ensuring that significant elements like the eyes or notable props align with the intersections. Remember, the Rule of Thirds is a guideline, not a strict rule. Feel free to experiment and break it when it best serves your creative vision.

Practical Tips and Techniques

Practical Tips and Techniques

Utilizing the Rule of Thirds with Different Camera Orientations

Irrespective of whether you’re shooting in landscape or portrait orientation, the Rule of Thirds remains a crucial compositional tool. In landscape orientation, try positioning the horizon along one of the horizontal grid lines rather than in the center of the frame. This can create a more balanced and intriguing image.

If there’s a notable vertical element, such as a tree or building, align it with one of the vertical lines. Similarly, in portrait orientation, use the grid to position your subject. Aligning the eyes on the upper line often provides a compelling composition, while placing the subject along a vertical line can create a pleasing balance with the background.

The Significance of Practice and Experimentation

Mastering the Rule of Thirds requires practice and experimentation like any photographic technique. Start by consciously applying the rule to your compositions, positioning key elements along the grid lines or at their intersections.

However, don’t feel constrained by it; the Rule of Thirds is not a fixed law but a guiding principle. Sometimes, breaking the rule could create a more exciting and dynamic image. The key is understanding the rule well enough to know when to deviate from it creatively.

The Role of Focal Length and Lens Choice

Focal length and lens choice are crucial in applying the Rule of Thirds. Different focal lengths can dramatically alter the perception of space and distance in a photo, which can affect how the rule can be applied.

Wide-angle lenses, for example, can exaggerate the sense of depth and length, allowing for more dramatic compositions when using the Rule of Thirds. Conversely, telephoto lenses tend to compress space, which could make subject placement, according to the rule more challenging.

Therefore, understanding the characteristics of your lenses and how they interact with compositional rules like the Rule of Thirds can contribute significantly to the success of your photography.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Common Mistakes to Avoid

While the Rule of Thirds can significantly enhance the composition of your portraits, it’s also essential to be aware of common mistakes to avoid when employing this rule.

Overcrowding the Frame with Elements

One common pitfall in portrait photography is overcrowding the frame. While it’s crucial to consider the background and surrounding elements in your composition, overdoing it can cause the image to feel chaotic and distract from the subject. When using the Rule of Thirds, ensure that the placement of additional elements enhances the focus on your subject, not compete with it.

Ignoring the Subject’s Gaze and Alignment

Another common mistake is ignoring the direction of the subject’s gaze or alignment. The positioning of your subject within the grid should not only account for physical location but also for the direction in which the subject is looking or moving. Ignoring this can result in a portrait that feels unbalanced or unnatural.

To avoid these mistakes, always keep the focus on the subject. Use the Rule of Thirds as a tool to guide the viewer’s attention to the subject. Be judicious in the use of additional elements in the frame; ensure that they complement the subject rather than distract from it.

Finally, consider the subject’s gaze or alignment as a dynamic part of the composition, using it to create balance within the grid. With practice and conscious application, you can significantly leverage the Rule of Thirds to enhance your portrait photography.


In conclusion, the Rule of Thirds is a powerful tool in portrait photography, providing a framework to create visually compelling and balanced compositions.

It is a guide that can enhance the emotional impact of the subject, facilitate a dynamic interaction with the environment, and add depth to both candid and posed portraits.

However, it’s important to remember that rules are meant to be broken. While the Rule of Thirds can provide a solid foundation, true creativity often lies in knowing when to deviate from the norms.

Through practice, experimentation, and a deep understanding of your tools, you can effectively use – and innovatively break – the Rule of Thirds to elevate your portrait photography to new heights.

Does the Rule of Thirds apply to portraits?

The Rule of Thirds is highly applicable to portrait photography. It is a practical guideline for positioning your subject within the frame, creating a balanced and visually appealing composition.

By aligning your subject with the grid lines or placing critical elements, such as the eyes, at the intersections of these lines, you can draw the viewer’s attention and add depth to the image.

However, remember that the Rule of Thirds is not a strict commandment but a compositional tool. There will be instances where breaking this rule can lead to more intriguing and powerful portraits.

So, while it’s crucial to understand and employ the Rule of Thirds, feel free to experiment and deviate from it when your creative vision demands.

What makes a good photograph of a portrait?

A good portrait photograph possesses several key elements. Firstly, it captures the personality and emotion of the subject, enabling a connection between the viewer and the photographed individual. This emotional resonance often comes from the subject’s expression, pose, or interaction with the environment.

Secondly, composition plays a pivotal role; rules like the Rule of Thirds can help achieve a balanced and visually appealing result. However, creativity and personal style also factor into this.

Thirdly, lighting is crucial in highlighting the subject’s features and setting the mood of the portrait. It can vary from soft, natural light for a more intimate feel to dramatic, high-contrast lighting for a more intense impact.

Lastly, while often overlooked, the choice of background can significantly enhance or distract from the overall portrait. It should complement the subject and contribute to the mood without stealing focus away from the issue.

Remember, a successful portrait photograph is as much about technical proficiency as it is about storytelling and emotional impact.