The rule of thirds is wrong. Teaching it to photographers as the main compositional tool is as absurd as teaching a lighting lesson based on the use of one on camera flash bounced, and calling it ‘the rule of lighting’. There is no ‘rule of lighting’ because there are no rules about how you must light a photograph, there is nothing saying use of a flash will always make your picture better, and finally there are so many other techniques and styles of lighting to consider which will look the best for your vision.
There are two major issues that I have with the Rule of Thirds; first calling it a rule as well as presenting it as a rule, and second, the shortcoming of compositional value it represents by itself without further understanding.
Composition is more influenced by the point from which you shoot from than where you point the camera. Just standing in one place and expecting to create a beautiful composition by panning and zooming a camera will almost never help you achieve a great composition. Instead of just standing in one place, applying the Rule of thirds (aka the Rule) to take a picture photographers use a huge variety of techniques to create masterful compositions. They move up down, left, right, closer, further, change focal length for depth and compression, to reveal and hide parts of the picture and arrange elements in the frame. Playing with contrast of colour, tone, texture and sharpness, using the lines in an image to guide the eye around the frame as well as the physical or implied motion of objects and shapes, and finally; understanding golden golden ratio, The Rule falls so short of teaching or even suggesting that those techniques should be learned and explored.
Rules. Who really enjoys rules when creating anything? A restriction on what you aren’t aloud to do? Photographers love to throw around the term ‘creative’, but what’s creative about being told there is a compositional rule to adhere to when shooting? I’m sure the majority of experienced photographers understand that the Rule isn’t really a rule. It is a suggestion or concept, but to new photographers the mislabeled concept has great potential to be a stumbling block as they learn. But even photogs who have been shooting for years have images which display a very shallow understanding of composition based largely on the Rule
Are you starting to see why the Rule is such an injustice to the skill of great composition? But if it’s so wrong why would anyone have made the Rule or used it? The Rule comes from simplifying a deeper understanding of two big compositional concepts: the golden ratio and the ability of the photographer to guide the eye of the viewer around a picture.
First the golden ratio. The golden ratio is a mathematical concept that has very useful aesthetic implications (if you don’t know about the golden ratio Wikipedia will do a great job of bringing you up to speed). The placement of subjects, by use of the golden ratio can make a composition of a simple subject more interesting when compared with a centered subject.
And second, the way an eye moves around a photo. If the composition of a photo makes the eye of the viewer look around the image the viewer’s eye will be continually exploring the shot, picking up details. The movement around images pleases the eye, and keeps the eye looking at a photograph for a longer amount of time without getting bored, or moving to the next image. Both big bonuses. Using the lines in the image, direction of motion, patterns and ‘pointing’ objects, the photographer can control the way the eye moves around the picture, highlighting details and in general making a more interesting photograph. Movement connects to the Rule because the thirds are optimal locations for subject matter to promote eye movement. Centered subject matter has a low possibility of promoting eye movement images. While subjects close to the edges of the frame often lead the eye outside of the frame onto a different image or it will make a sense of uncomfortable tension which cause the viewer to reject the image. Photos with objects placed around the areas of thirds are likely to promote eye movement to see what else is on other parts of the frame, while allowing space to move without leaving the picture.
The Error of Thirds: shooting using thirds without neither thought nor care for a plethora of other compositional techniques one should always be considering when composing. Often the error of thirds will be blatant use of the Rule while the rest of the frame’s content isn’t helping or useful for the subject placed carelessly on the cross hairs of the tic tac toe grid. The concepts of Thirds is not wrong; many amazing photographs use thirds to aid the composition, however without consideration to other techniques the Rule will not salvage a poor composition.
The Rule should never be taught as the first or largest step of understanding or learning composition, especially at an elementary, level. Instead composition should be taught with the Rule being one unit of a larger curriculum, with more emphasis placed on a broad understanding of a variety of compositional techniques and photographing with conscious in respect to the location, interaction, and connotations carried by all visual elements.
I will leave you with a list of compositional techniques to research and explore with equal emphasis as given to thirds.
Positive/Negative space and Isolation
Contrast (tonal, texture, colour)
Movement: literal, implied, and ‘pointing’ objects.
Why did I shoot the pictures with the composition I did? See examples of non-Rule shots? Do you think they work? What about shots that use thirds; see more compositional techniques used with Thirds?
I am excited hear your thoughts on this, and even more excited to see if there is an effect on the compositional skill and consciousness of readers of my blog. Leave a comment, if you shoot in the future and these ideas come to mind and affect the way you capture I encourage you to share it with us below in the comments.