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In my ebook Mastering Composition I was careful not to criticise the rule of thirds too much as I’ve received criticism for that in the past. It’s a surprisingly emotional issue and I don’t understand why some people (hopefully a minority) get so worked up about it.
Most of you will be familiar with Michael Freeman, a prolific photographer and author who wrote one of the best books about composition you can buy in The Photographer’s Eye. I subscribe to his newsletter and in the latest issue he wrote a little about the rule of thirds.
Here’s some of what he has to say.
“…we’re doing photography, not engineering, and rules are designed to make things accurate, predictable and repeatable—pretty much the opposite of what you’d want from an interesting, surprising photograph.”
“…this rather silly instruction to make divisions a third of the way into the frame has been followed with mediocrity by artists and photographers who lack imagination.”
“It should be obvious that if all photographs were composed like this, they would just be similar and boring.”
“It’s probably the worst piece of compositional advice I can imagine.”
That’s a fairly comprehensive dismissal of the rule of thirds.
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Alternatives to the rule of thirds
So, if the rule of thirds is useless, what is the alternative?
The rule of thirds is really about placement. The question is in which part of the frame should you place the main focal point (or points) of your photo? The ideal placement depends on many factors, including the balance of the various elements you have chosen to include in the frame, and the visual relationships between them.
One of the reasons the central composition in the above photo works is because the buddha head ornament is red and every other item in the photo is not. There's a strong color contrast that makes the center of the frame the natural place for the buddha head ornament.
The only way to gain an understanding of these factors is to read as much about composition as you can, and then to think about what you have learnt when you’re creating photos. With digital cameras, it is easy to work the subject and take several photos with the main subject in different parts of the frame.
Play with it – what happens when you place the subject in the centre of the frame as opposed to a third? What happens if you move it to the edge? Or move in close to fill the frame? Or move backwards to include more of the space around the subject? What happens if you switch from a wide-angle lens to a telephoto? How do all these things affect the placement of the subject?
Then follow up by analyzing your photos after you have taken them to see why the ones that worked were successful and why the ones that didn’t work didn’t.
You should also spend some time looking at and analyzing the work of photographers like Steve McCurry (who I mention a lot in relation to composition because he’s so good at it). It’s a learning process, and your eye for what makes a good photo will improve with time.