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Recently I analyzed some of my favorite photos and I realized that I don’t pay any attention to the rule of thirds. This caught me a little by surprise.
I’ve always taken a very instinctive approach to composition – I tend to have a feel for when something looks right through the viewfinder and go with that rather than over-analyze what I see. So I thought it was about time that I took a good look at some of my favorite images to see what was going on beneath the surface, in terms of composition. And when it comes to the rule of thirds, I’ve realized that I don’t use it – and why.
The danger of the rule of thirds is that it makes photos look formulaic (you can read Michael Freeman’s comprehensive put down of it in Debunking the Rule of Thirds). It works sometimes, but not all the time – and when it does work it seems to me to be more through good fortune than anything else. You could pick any spot at random within the frame and sooner or later you will find a good photo with a focal point at that spot. That doesn’t mean that every photo should be composed the same way, and it doesn’t make it a rule.
The golden section
So, where does the rule of thirds come from?
I think that it’s a simplification of the principle of the golden section – a compositional guideline used by some artists (and certainly not all) throughout the ages since the time of the ancient Greeks. These artists don’t place focal points or horizons on a third, they place them according to the golden section. It’s close, but it’s not on a third. And that’s all the rule-of-thirds is – an approximation of a guideline used by some artists.
A holistic approach to composition
My approach to composition is holistic. I consider how all the elements within the frame work together to create a pleasing composition. I have an instinct for good composition that comes from many years of taking photos and looking at the work of other photographers. I tend to know when I have got the composition right when I look through the viewfinder. And I’m not thinking about the rule of thirds as I do it, but about how the elements within the frame work together.
The important thing is not so much the placement of each element, but the relationships between them and other parts of the photo, including any negative space. The correct place for a horizon, for instance, is not necessarily on one of the thirds. It depends on what you want to show in the photo, how much space other elements need, and how interesting the sky is. There’s a lot to think about, and a danger that if you compose to the rule of thirds as an end in itself you won’t take any of the other principles of composition into consideration.
Composition in action
Here is a randomish selection of some of my favorite photos. Each one is also shown with a grid overlay so that you can see how close it is to the rule of thirds. I’ve chosen these images because they are ones that I like, not because they conform or don’t conform to the rule of thirds. It would be easy to choose photos that don’t – but that’s not the point of the exercise. The idea is to look at photos that work and see if I can figure out the reasons why. You can do this with your own photos, or photos taken by other photographers.
Photo 1 – Portrait
This is an interesting photo to analyze because the model’s face is positioned close to a third. But I wasn’t thinking of that when I composed the portrait. I was concentrating on the balance between the model, whose eyes are the focal point of the photo, and the background, which is blurred because of the aperture used (f2.8). If the background had been different I may have placed him in another part of the frame.
Photo 2 – Boy in the Forbidden City
I sat down for a rest while walking around Beijing’s Forbidden City. I waited with my camera and made photos as people passed by. After 15 minutes or so this boy ran into the scene and hid behind the doorway, waiting for his family to walk through.
The boy is positioned near the edge of the frame. The photo is framed the way it is because of what you don’t see. If I had moved the camera to the right, which is what I would have had to do to position the boy on a third, then there were people to the right who would have ended up in the photo.
If I had moved the camera to the left, I would have cut off the pillar on the right-hand side.
Photo 3 – Asturian landscape
This photo is different from the previous ones in that it has two focal points – the horse on the left and the rock arch on the right. The eye moves between them as it explores the image. I guess you could say that they are placed on thirds (they are fairly close).
But what about the horizon? It’s quite close to the top of the frame. The reason for that is because the sky was grey and featureless, so I wanted as little of it in the frame as possible. I also wanted to include the flowers you see in the foreground. If I had tilted the camera up to include more sky and place the horizon on a third, then I would have cropped out the flowers.
Photo 4 – Blacksmith
This is another photo with two focal points – the face of the blacksmith and the molten metal he is about to hit with the hammer. Both are close to the vertical thirds. But this was not my consideration when I composed the photo. It was important to me to catch the moment when the hammer hit the metal and made sparks fly out. I also wanted to include the anvil and the tools on the wall behind him as they are an important part of the story.
Photo 5 – Portrait
The model’s face is very close to the center of the photo. In this portrait I had asked her to stand in front of a gray cliff with a white square painted on it. I have no idea why somebody had done that, but it made the portrait more interesting. I aligned the photo so the model’s face was framed by the out of focus square. If I had tilted the camera down to place the model’s eyes on the top third, I would have cut the top of the square off.
The point of showing you these photos and with a rule of thirds overlay is to demonstrate that I was looking beyond the rule of thirds at other principles of composition when I made the photos. The rule of thirds didn’t even enter my head, even for those images where the subject falls on a third. For me, composition is all about the relationships between the various elements in the photo, and the overall balance. These are the factors that ultimately determine where I place the main focal point.