The Rule of Thirds

The Las Vegas, Nevada, strip is an adventure in photography.
The Las Vegas, Nevada, strip is an adventure in photography.
I made this portrait in 1984 with my Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. It can be argued that we like the Rule of Thirds because it mimics the human face, but from that day until this one, I never used a "rule" of any kind to make portraits. I followed my heart.
I made this portrait in 1984 with my Nikkor 105mm f/2.5. It can be argued that we like the Rule of Thirds because it mimics the human face, but from that day until this one, I never used a “rule” of any kind to make portraits. I followed my heart.

Photography is a much more complex visual puzzle than its pervasiveness implies. Sure, everyone is a photographer, but not everyone is an artist. I might give the ratio of artists to everyone else as about 99:1. For every 100 people taking pictures, 99 of them are making pictures of their grandkids or the sunset or the deer in the pasture or the soccer match, while one of them has a real eye for the subtleties of imaging: composition, exposure, lighting, emotion, intimacy, storytelling, etc.

This isn’t a criticism of you and your pictures. The devil is in the details, and most people who want to take pictures are at the start of the journey toward art. If anything, this is a call to action. Look at images. Look at art. Look at the work of the masters. We all started in the same place. Maybe it’s time to put your camera down for a minute and look at the light, look at the human faces, feel the emotion of the moment. Time to grow?

What did I see when I made this image? Light, shadow, the looming shape, a messenger and potential harbinger, but no "thirds."
What did I see when I made this image? Light, shadow, the looming shape, a messenger and potential harbinger, but no “thirds.”

One of the more specious ideas about art, and thus photography, is that you can use tricks and rules to push your photography into an artistic state. One of the most common examples of this is the Rule of Thirds.

I saw this on a kiosk in a visitor center in a National Park. It isn't bad advice, but it isn't inspirational advice either.
I saw this on a kiosk in a visitor center in a National Park. It isn’t bad advice, but it isn’t inspirational advice either.

The conventional wisdom about the Rule of Thirds is that images are stronger if you divide your image area nine even squares, then try to place significant compositional elements within those squares. To me, the Rule of Thirds isn’t just bad advice, it is a restriction on creativity and self-expression that tells us to make images according to someone else’s vision of who we are. It isn’t a good route to the end goal of photography: storytelling.

You can reverse-engineer lots of photographs into the Rule of Thirds, but like this one, they didn't start with it.
You can reverse-engineer lots of photographs into the Rule of Thirds, but like this one, they didn’t start with it.
A wide angle lens on your wish list might be a solution in search of a problem if you imagine it will change how you compose photographs. Instead of a lens, consider movement and light.
A wide angle lens on your wish list might be a solution in search of a problem if you imagine it will change how you compose photographs. Instead of a lens, consider movement and light.

Consider a technique that I regard as far more valid than the Rule of Thirds: leading lines.

I use leading lines all the time, since I need to tell a story to an impatient readership, and want to keep them “engaged,” as we say in  marketing. I love the way we employ wide angle lenses for this, creating compositions that direct the viewer to the middle of the frame.

None of this matters if you cling to the idea that a piece of equipment will do this for you.

Instead of debating 18mm vs 35mm or large format vs APS-C, consider getting into better shape, being healthier, and once you are there, consider giving up your fear and prejudice and make a point to go the places you want to photograph.

Every photography makes suggestions. This one uses leading lines to suggest, "what's at the end of this path?"
Every photography makes suggestions. This one uses leading lines to suggest, “what’s at the end of this path?”
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2 Comments

  1. Likewise, I break the thirds all the time, but I’m always composing. Ever since I saw Modrian my visual default is a grid. He rocked my world when I looked. Love that guy.

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  2. I think Rule of Thirds is fairly useful but I too think it locks everybody into a kind of herd mentality and, like all rules, was made to be (sometimes) broken. I pay attention more often to it in post production than in actually shooting. I do think that it is helpful to place the subject of the photo slightly off-center, right or left, and that the eye does fall naturally on certain areas of the frame, but slavish devotion to Rule of Thirds can kind of take the air out of creativity. For me, the most important “line” is the horizon line, and how much “top” (sky, clouds) or “bottom” (reflective surfaces, green grass) I can fill up the frame with.

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