How to make your iPhone photography more striking with the "rule of thirds"

Make your iPhone photography more striking with the “rule of thirds”

You've got yourself an iPhone equipped with arguably the best camera this side of a high-end point-and-shoot. It's so good there's a whole movement that's sprung up around it called "iPhoneography", or photography with the iPhone. It proves the old saying, "the best camera is the one you have with you", and in this case, that camera is also pretty darn good. But it takes more than just a great camera or lens to produce great photography. That's where iMore's new iPhoneography segment comes in. We're going to go over all the basics and work together to transform simple snapshots into photographic art.

And if you're already a seasoned photographer or iPhoneographer, we welcome you to join us. Sit in on the articles and in our new Photography Forum, lend us your eye, and share with us your experiences.

Now on with our first project! One of the most important, yet most difficult, elements in creating beautiful photographs is composition - where your subject is placed and how it's related to its surroundings. A great starting point for developing this skill is to understand the rule of thirds.

What is the rule of thirds?

how to use the rule of thirds

Take a close look at the vertical lines in the image above. These two lines divide the image into thirds. Similarly, there are lines that divide the photo horizontally in thirds. Together, these lines form a grid over the photo and divide the image into 9 equal parts. The rule of thirds is simply a guideline that states that a photo is compositionally more interesting if the important elements of the image lie on one of the grid lines or their intersections. In the above photo, I have placed my daughter on the far right vertical line.

how to use the rule of thirds

Luckily for you, the iPhone has the option to turn on this grid so that you don't have to estimate where the lines fall while taking your photo. To do so, while taking a photo just tap options and switch the grid to on. Until you feel comfortable with your ability of using the rule of thirds, I recommend leaving the grid turned on.

Landscapes and horizons

how to use the rule of thirds

When photographing landscapes, it's important to make sure the horizon is not in the dead center of your photo because it is compositionally boring. Using the rule of thirds on the horizon will instantly improve your results. Make sure the more interesting piece, the sky or earth, is what makes up two thirds of your photo. In the example above, I chose to highlight the sky. Notice that I used the rule of thirds twice, both on the horizon and sun. I decided to change things up a little in this next photo.

how to use the rule of thirds

After taking a few photos with the horizon on the bottom third of the frame and the sun on the left grid line, I wasn't too thrilled with the results and felt my pictures were a little bland. The sky wasn't particularly interesting on this day and there wasn't anything that made my photos special. So instead of making the predictable decision with the horizon on one of my horizontal lines, I placed the sun on the bottom grid line. In fact, in the above image, the sun lies on the intersection of the bottom and left grid lines. By pure luck, a bird decided to fly into the frame and I waited until he was flying past my right grid line to snap the photo. These two changes suddenly made this photo a lot more interesting.

I made a simliar decision for the following photo.

how to use the rule of thirds

When taking photos of sunsets, it's alway more interesting to involve a silhouette, so that's what I decided to do with this tree. Most of the time, you would want your silhouette to fall on one of the grid lines, but it wasn't working with this tree -- there was something awkward about it. So, instead, I decided to use the rule of thirds on the sun. Again, it's lying on the intersection of the bottom and left grid lines and the photo came out great.


how to use the rule of thirds

The important element of just about every portrait is your subject's eyes, so make sure the eyes fall on one or more of the grid lines. When shooting in portrait orientation, you may want to center the subject with the top grid line passing through your subject's eyes. When shooting in landscape orientation, take advantage of both horizontal and vertical grid lines by placing one of your subjects eyes on the intersection of two grid lines.

Rules are meant to be broken

how to use the rule of thirds

Keep in mind that this so-called rule is only a guideline and does not need to be followed to a tee. For example, if there is a lot of symmetry in your scene you may want to highlight the symmetry by centering your subject. Or perhaps moving your subject even further off center will have a greater impact and improve your photo. Be creative and don't limit yourself.

Now go out and shoot!

Now that you know how to use the rule of thirds, here's your first assignment: go out and practice. Turn on the iPhone camera's grid and shoot, shoot, and shoot some more. Then head over to the Photography Forums, ask questions if you have them, and share the great shots you got demonstrating the rule of thirds. Go!

We can't wait to see them!

How to get more help with iPhone photography

Leanna Lofte

App and Photography Editor at iMore. Mother, wife, and math instructor. Follow her on Twitter @llofte and send her apps to consider for review at

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There are 34 comments. Add yours.

Aatoo says:

Nice! Great write up, and love Lila's shots!

ricnmar says:

Very nice!! I sure wish I had a beach to try these tips out on! I guess I will just have to plan a trip soon. : )

OMMBoy says:

These tips can be applied to anything ;)

Brindawithani says:

Great photos Leanna! Thanks for the quick lessons!

FlopTech says:

Excellent story Leanna! Classic rule-of-thirds composition really does work most of the time. It's something that should become instinctive for photographers.

iamlynda says:

Great write up! Thanks for the tips!!

Carioca32 says:

Very nice post. Too bad that the Golden Ratio, so prevalent in nature and in the work of the great masters, got boiled down to the rule of thirds and no one even cares to mention it any more.
Not the author's fault though, the Golden Ratio boils down to almost a third anyway, although it can be used in many more ways than a simple grid.

Leanna Lofte says:

Baby steps :) The golden ratio will get a post of its own!

sting7k says:

Golden ratio is much more advanced. Let's get people to understand the basics of rule of thirds first so I stop seeing boring photos of everything centered all over the internet. Nice write up Leanna.

Joebin says:

Thanks for the tips Leanna! I'm fully-addicted to iPhoneography and Instagram (@jojomon5) I have a couple of friends who are photographers, who occassionally remind me of the basics, then you just laid down the fundamentals on iMore. Great stuff. Thanks again! Going to check out the forum now.

Wayne says:

She's missing Colorado, right? Nice shots of Lila, she's cute!

applejosh says:

Nice write up. I really wish I was on a beach right now. And not one that's snow covered.

ibeddiev says:

I am dying to know if the photos were taken in Carpinteria Beach. Looks like where my family and I go. Great article too.

Leanna Lofte says:

Carmel Beach in California!

Adnan says:

Eleanor is just adorable!!Wasn't it crazy that it snewod this weekend before Halloween?!! I live West of D.C. and we got about 3 inches! Luckily most of it has melted so the kiddos can trick or treat toorrow. :)

9thwonder says:

i need a post about how to make iphone pics NOT look really grainy indoors. Almost all the pics above are outdoors but most pics i've taken in my life are indoors and i'm surely not going to move everyone outside just to take a pic. i barely take them anyways. But like i had people over during the xmas holiday and we gathered inthe kitchen and took a pic. Most looked grainy and worse then my 6 year old canon powershot.

OMMBoy says:

In a nutshell, pics shot indoors with a cellphone tend to be grainy because of the auto-ISO. As a matter of fact, most indoor pictures shot with cameras set to auto-ISO will render a pic with lots of grain. There are two ways to prevent this from occurring:
1) Add more light! Turn on as many lights as you can in your home. You might find that even with all the lights turned on, there will still be some noticeable grain, but not as much as before.
2) Apply noise-reduction to the image in post-processing with software. Adobe Photoshop Express for the iPhone has a noise-reduction feature, but it's a $4.99 in-app purchase which I haven't tried yet.
Good Luck!

nameRequired says:

Great article. Totally using the rules from now on.

aamir syed says:

this is genius. a lot of people need to know about this feature. something i've been using since i first got my iphone 3 years ago. with instagram and all these other apps, everybody thinks they are a real photogtapher. it's not the photo that makes you, it's the eye. good write up.

DarshOne says:

first rule of any composition, learned this while studying painting

dtrm7891 says:

Thanks for the tip! I can't wait to use it!

Shaozhi says:

Thanks for the great tips! I just turned on the grid feature of my Camera+ app.

friendlyhuman says:

This tips will really help me out. To become a iphoneographer.

Freiteez says:

I feel like I'm in high school again with my film and photography classes. Great writeup Leanna!! I was just in Carmel too! Haha

Justin says:

Great article, Leanna!!

danrol says:

Great Post! Can I transkate this post to russian and repost? I'll put links in article ^^

R2 says:

Gosh this was so helpful! Please keep this up! I have to say that iMore's quality has gone up, WAY up in the passed year or so! I absolutely live this blog now.

Victor says:

I don\'t make it down to Olathe much, but I\'ll keep the Iron Horse in mind next time I\'m down there. Thanks for the suggestion, I enjoy tnriyg out new places.

david cooper says:

can you turn the grid on for video?

jesse james woodworking says:

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Genecar says:

The people cinplaimong and saying it's just a larger touch. They need to demo it in stores like Best Buy and check out the apps built for iPad. Once they do, they'll realize there's so much more to it that the ipod Touch's screen real estate can't offer.

Gabriel says:

I don't use an iPhone, but this is a great write up. Thank you for the info.