The rule of thirds is so important in photography that Photoshop Elements has given us a tool to help us compose our photos in conformity with the rule.

The rule of thirds is of those fancy guidelines that “professional” photography teachers will say that your photos need to follow. The premise is that most photos will be more interesting if the subject isn’t centered. And there is something to it, for sure.

Next time you watch a movie, pay attention to the subject of each scene. If there’s just one main subject, odds are that she won’t be centered. Same for two subjects. One will be one third of the way in from the left side and the other will be one third of the way in from the right. Or maybe they’ll both be on just one side.

So, what is the rule of thirds, exactly? Imagine that there is a tic-tac-toe board laid over your photo. There are 4 points at which the horizontal and vertical lines intersect. Your subject should be at or close to one of these four intersections.

Take this photo, for example.

rule of thirds before crop

It’s pretty obvious that the girl is centered in the bluebonnets. And the crop tool in Elements shows a rule of thirds overlay to confirm this. To display it, activate the crop tool (shortcut: C).

Make sure your tool is configured like mine in the screen shot below. (I divided the settings bar into 3 sections to make it easier for you to read.)

rule of thirds crop tool settings

Crop Tool and Rule of Thirds Settings

Working from the top left corner:

  • Make sure that the crop tool (rather than the flower-shaped cookie cutter tool) is selected.
  • The drop down menu is for changing the aspect ratio. The aspect ratio relates to the shape of your photo: 4×6 vs. square vs. 8×10, for example. I rarely use anything other than Photo Ratio when cropping. If I decide to print the photo at a different aspect ratio, I will crop it at the print lab. Read this article for more info about Aspect Ratio.
  • If you need to change the orientation of the image (from horizontal to portrait or vice versa), click on the double arrows between the Width & Height fields.
  • Crop Suggestions – based on your chosen aspect ratio, Elements will calculate some “ideal” crops for your photo. You can see that it does place my subject near the intersection of the top right rule of thirds in some suggestions. Hover over the crop suggestion to see a preview of it, including the rule of thirds overlay. If you want to use one of the suggestions, simply click on it.
  • Resolution – you can ignore this field. Really. You aren’t changing the photo’s resolution when you use this tool to crop. Need more clarification on resolution? Here you go.
  • Grid Overlay – starting in Elements 13, your options are None (no grid), Rule of Thirds, or Grid (way to busy for me!). Some prior versions of Elements offered the Golden Ratio as well.



rule of thirds overlay before crop

The photo above shows my uncropped photo with the Rule of Thirds overlay. My subject’s sweet face is between the two vertical lines. The photo below shows a potential crop where she is aligned with the top right rule of thirds intersection. I arrived at this crop by using the corner sizing boxes to change the size of the photo and by clicking and dragging to place her where I wanted in relation to the grid.

rule of thirds crop adjusted

To accept that crop, I clicked the green check box.

Below is my final crop. In this version, the photo is more about the subject and less about the flowers. And that professional photography teacher would tell me it was a better photo. I personally like both versions.

Without a doubt, some photos are better centered and some are better following the rule of thirds. And some could go either way. That’s when artistic intent becomes important. As long as you consciously analyze which composition works for your photo, your decision is right.



rule of thirds after crop

Which version do you like best? Post a comment below to help me decide!

The takeaway is that it’s good to compose to the rule of thirds unless you have a reason to compose otherwise. Luckily, if you forget to compose following the rule of thirds on camera, you can use Photoshop Element’s crop tool to recompose.