I’ve wanted to write about the idea of rules in the visual arts in general and photography specifically for some time now. Some rules frequently bandied about include the Rule of Thirds, the Golden Ratio, the Golden Triangles and the Fibonacci Spiral. While each of these so-called rules individually suggests a unique way to organize the elements within the frame, they all have one thing in common: the attempt to simplify and quantify composition in the visual arts.
Using rules like these oversimplifies how to compose and place elements within the frame. I fear one rule, in particular, is resulting in photographers churning out predictable, boring images by the boatload. To add insult to injury, this rule also pops up frequently in photo contests, image critiques, camera viewfinders, and, inevitably, when the discussion turns to the topic of composition. It is so ingrained in the photographic community that it is even printed as a scoring criterion in some photo competitions.
I am, of course, talking about the “Rule of Thirds” here, and for the remainder of this post, I will go into more detail about this so-called rule and why I think it needs to be abolished.
The first mention of the concept of the rule of thirds was by John Thomas Smith in 1797. In his book Remarks on Rural Scenery. By most accounts, John Thomas Smith was a failed sculptor and a poor engraver whose few surviving pieces won’t turn any heads. By any measure, he was not much of an artist.
The following excerpt is the first know reference to the rule of thirds – with the full text here.
Analogous to this "Rule of thirds" (if I may be allowed so to call it), I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two: Again, two-thirds of one element, (as of water) to one-third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one-third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives.
Before getting into some of the problems associated with the rule of thirds, I have often wondered why this concept seems so widespread in the photographic community. I think there are three reasons.
First, making an image happens in a fraction of a second once you press the shutter. This generally leaves little time to think about and organize the elements within the frame. On the other hand, having the rule displayed as guiding lines in the viewfinder makes it quick and easy to line up the various subject matter along one of the lines, and you’re done. Call it lazy photography if you like.
Second, photography is an art form that is deceptively easy to pick up and learn by studying actual technical rules, which have their origins in the immutable laws of physics. For example, the change of F-Stop from 2.8 to 4 will decrease the light by ½ and increase the depth of field – no matter what lens or camera you use. Similarly, the exposure triangle is all about the physics of light and, as such, is immutable.
Third, the sheer number of times the rule of thirds pops up in photography further legitimizes its use – it has become so ingrained that we take it as the gospel truth. It has become the ubiquitous QWERTY effect of photography, and I fear it can never be eradicated.
The Issue with the Rule of Thirds
There are several issues with this so-called rule, starting with the name. First, as soon as we start using the word “Rule,” it immediately becomes something we are compelled to follow – as in the Rule of Law, for example. At this point, proponents of this rule will argue that it is not a hard and fast rule but more of a guideline – and then, in the same breath, continue to refer to it as the “Rule of Thirds.” If it is genuinely a guiding principle, change the name to the “Idea of Thirds” or perhaps even "Guiding Suggestions for Using Thirds.” Continuously referring to this, as a rule, further reinforces the idea that this is something immutable that we should not tinker with.
Second, with so many people consistently using the rule of thirds in their photography practice, we end up with some predictable and boring results.
The adage, if the only tool you have is a hammer, you see the whole world as a nail
comes through when photographers consistently use this rule with most of their work. I get it; people like using it because it is both easy and convenient, and since it is endorsed and sanctioned everywhere, you will never get faulted for using it. In fact, you are more likely to be criticized for not using it - further emphasizing how ingrained it has become.
Third, the most damaging aspect of the rule of thirds is that it crams all composition into a single approach eliminating other potentially more exciting ways of creating an image. It does this by shortcutting the creative process of exploration by allowing us to select the quick, endorsed way out instead of forcing us to play around with the subject matter in different ways to better illicit our subject. Using the rule of thirds makes us lazy photographers, and it is time to fight back.
Okay, you convinced me – now what?
A topic I have not touched much upon yet, but it will be coming, is the idea of visual mass or perhaps visual attractors. Due to how our brain is wired, some objects, shapes, colours, and scenes naturally demand more attention from our Reticular Activating System. This part of the brain works as a filter, and its role is to prevent information overload by filtering incoming stimuli to discriminate irrelevant background stimuli. Without this system, you would likely not be here to read this article, as mastodons would have trampled your ancestors while they, your ancestors, were busy worrying about the sound of the blood rushing through their blood vessels in their inner ear canal.
My point is that different objects, lights, colours, recognizable shapes, and just about anything else we put in the frame will cause a certain level of attraction in the viewer, making your images stand out better. Using the idea that some components carry more visual appeal minimizes the need for using the rule of thirds while at the same time providing you with much more flexibility in terms of where you place various objects in your frame. In simple terms, objects with a more visual appeal, can help balance you composition as they carry more weight.
There is much more coming on the topic of visual attractors, so stay tuned. For now, I suggest you start by turning off the rule of thirds in your viewfinder; if it is turned on, and deliberately try not to shoot using this rule for a few weeks. Instead, look at the individual elements within your frame and try and place them in ways which you find the most pleasing. This will take more work and probably slow you down some. However, you will gain a new appreciation for what you like as you start making more deliberate choices about your composition.