How to Create a Rule of Thirds Grid in Photoshop CS6

About the rule of thirds:

The rule of thirds is a basic method that guides artists in composing two-dimensional works. For instance, this method is often used in fine art, photography, cinematography, printed media, and other creative visual works. In the the tutorial in the next section, we will look at creating a rule of thirds guide in Photoshop.

The rule of thirds consists of dividing your graphic, image or frame into nine equal parts (3 x 3). It includes dividing the image up both horizontally and vertically. The intersection points of the two vertical lines and two horizontal lines stay equidistant.

Great movies and books contain a myriad of factors to help them vie for your interest. In effect, by writing a plot that creates tension or conflict, the audience’s interest gravitates toward figuring out the uncertainty of the outcome. You become drawn in.

It’s similar to placing a subject off center in any given image. We naturally expect the subject to be in the center of our vision. However, we become disinterested because it is what we anticipate. Placing the subject outside of the center area introduces conflict and generates visual interest.

Let’s begin the tutorial in the next section – starting with the setup phase.

NOTE: If you use your grid for other purposes, take a screenshot of your settings or write them down before making changes. You could also try a layer-based overlay or an action-based implementation.

Pre-work steps:

Photoshop CS6 Preferences dialog box for Guides, Grid and Slices.
Photoshop CS6 Dialog Box with Guides, Grid & Slices Settings.
  1. Launch Photoshop.
  2. Open the grid settings dialog box by going to Edit -> Preferences -> Guides, Grid & Slices… in the menu. A Photoshop CS6 dialog is shown above.
  3. Look at the Grid area box. Choose the color by using the color selector on the right side or the dropdown. I usually use the default for color photos. If you do a lot of black and white work, you may entertain using a nice light blue or magenta to make your rule of thirds guide show up in Photoshop.
  4. Next, you have the choice of Lines, Dashed Lines or Dots. Choose the one that helps you to keep focus on the your artwork and not be too distracting.
  5. The best way to visually divide a Photoshop image into vertical and horizontal thirds, no matter the resolution or ratio, use a percentage (33.33%) and a subdivision of 1. Click OK.
  6. Finally, the grid must be toggled on/off in order to utilize it. We will explore how to accomplish that in the production steps in the next section.

Production steps:

  1. Now that everything is setup, let’s try this method on an image. The way I like to do this is figure out the target ratio and resolution. Let’s create a new image by clicking File -> New… or pressing Ctrl+N.
  2. Make it a ratio of 3:2 and 300dpi. So this would be something like 1800×1200 pixels @ 300dpi for a 6″ x 4″ photo layout. Once you set everything up in the dialog box, you can click OK. A new blank image will appear and it may contain gridlines or may not.
  3. If the gridlines do not appear by default, toggle the gridlines so that they show by clicking View -> Show -> Grid or press Ctrl + ‘.
  4. Open up your source image. Drag the layer into the new image.
  5. Resize/arrange the layer image (Ctrl+T) if it is too small and move it around as you inspect a final position. Take care to line up focal points of interest on one or more intersections of the grid. Wait to apply the transformation when you are satisfied with the composition. Applying a transformation will cause resampling damage each time it is executed, so make sure to keep these transformations to a minimum! Later versions of Photoshop (CS6 or later) will open images as Smart Objects by default depending upon your settings. In those cases, it is not as critical to be concerned with the resizing process. So check if the layer has a Smart Object indicator in the Layers Palette.
  6. If you have executed a transformation, press Enter to apply. Otherwise, once everything is composed to your liking, you can save and export the image.

Related to the rule of thirds in Photoshop:

Sometimes your compositions may call for fifths, sevenths, or ninths, etc. In these cases, all you need to do is replace the percentage in Step 5 of the Pre-work section with 20% for fifths, 14.29% for sevenths or 11.11% for ninths. These percentages and others can be calculated by multiplying the desired fraction by 100. (e.g., fifths: 100 x (1/5) = 20(%) )

More information on the rule of thirds.