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In two earlier articles I looked at ways that the rule of thirds gets you thinking about composition, and ways that you can move beyond the rule of thirds to get a deeper understanding of composition.
Today I thought it would be interesting to look at a couple of alternatives to the rule of thirds.
This is slightly tongue in cheek, as my suggested alternatives are not about composition as such, but rather your entire approach to photography. The idea is to get you look at photography in a new way.
Alternatives to the rule of thirds
In my ebook Mastering Composition I looked an alternative to the rule of thirds put forward by photographer Cole Thompson.
“A great image is comprised of one-third vision, one-third the shot and one-third processing.”
How does this work? Here’s my take on it.
Vision: What do you want to achieve? What look do you want in your photo? What story are you trying to tell? This is part of vision.
It’s also understanding the role of photographic composition, an appreciation of beautiful light and an eye for interesting subjects. Go deeper and it’s also about having a strong sense of the way you see the world (your world view).
Throw your unique life experiences into the melting pot as well and hopefully a sense of visual style starts to emerge.
The shot: On a basic level, this is understanding what focal length to use, and how aperture, shutter speed and ISO combine to give you both the correct exposure and creative effects. On a deeper level it’s where your technical skills and eye for a photo combine to express your creative vision.
Processing: Once you’ve made a photo, what do you do with it next? This is where you open a Raw file in Lightroom Classic / app of your choice and start adjusting tonal and color values to make a finished image. The idea is to get the best from your Raw file and express your creative vision.
Regardless of whether you apply a light touch or get Photoshop heavy with composites, complex masking and sky replacements, all images are processed. Even straight out of the camera JPEG files are processed (it’s just done by the camera not the photographer).
Another rule of thirds alternative
I’d like to put forward another version of the rule of thirds.
“A great image is comprised of one-third composition, one-third lighting and one-third choice of subject.”
Subject: You’ll get the best photos when you photograph something interesting. It might be a beautiful landscape, a cultural celebration or a portrait of an interesting person. The more interesting the subject, the better your photos are likely to be.
It’s a simple idea but a hard one to put into action. Photojournalists are experts at finding interesting subjects and getting access to them. Successful photographers need to learn to think the same way.
You don’t need access to hard to get at people or to travel to distant countries to find an interesting subject. There are plenty of subjects close to home.
For example, Swiss photographer Samuel Zeller photographed plants behind glass for a long-term project called Botanical that became a book (more details here and here).
Samuel’s a pro photographer but this idea is open to anybody. Most of us could put this idea into action without traveling too far from home, or having difficulty getting access. The difficult part is thinking up the idea, then committing to the project and taking action to get the results.
Composition: Once you’ve got an interesting subject, you need to understand how to arrange the elements of the scene in the frame to get an interesting result. As you might imagine, this is much easier with an interesting subject than a boring one.
The traditional rule of thirds is one aspect of composition. It also includes more advanced concepts like using line, negative space, simplicity in composition and tonal contrast.
Light: Great photos need beautiful light. You’ve found an interesting subject, and you’re skilled enough to make an interesting composition of it. The final part of the puzzle is photographing it in beautiful light.
If your subject is worth photographing, it’s worth doing when the light is most beautiful. This is often as simple as visiting a landscape during the golden hour, or asking somebody you’re making a portrait of to stand in the shade rather than the sun.
The reason these alternatives work is because they give you a different paradigm (mental framework) for looking at photography.
They shift your focus (pun intended) from what you think is important about photography (i.e. use the rule of thirds every time) to what is actually important (find an interesting subject and photograph it as beautifully as you can).
The alternatives in action
Let me finish with two photos that show how these ideas work in practice.
I made both these photos one evening at a nearby beach.
First, Cole Thompson’s alternative of vision, the shot and processing.
Vision: I used an infrared camera to make black and white photos. My idea was to try and capture the fading light of a late summer’s evening.
The shot: I used a wide-angle lens (23mm APS-C) for good depth of field (f8 both photos) and to create a sense of depth in the images.
Processing: I used Lightroom Classic to convert the photos to black and white. I developed both photos in a similar style so that they look as if they belong together. I increased Clarity to bring out the textures in the grass.
Next, my alternative of subject, composition and light.
Subject: I found an interesting subject to make photos of (sand dunes on the beach).
Composition: The choice of a wide-angle lens helped convey depth. I did this by dividing the frame into three sections – the grass at the front (taking up most of the frame), then the semi-silhouetted fence posts at the top, and the sky behind.
Light: I made the photos in late evening as the sun’s light faded from the sky. The result is that the grass is lit by a soft light, and the sky is bright and clear.
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Who am I to judge. Looking at the left hand dune picture I don’t find much of interest. Most of the grass is pointing the same way and the fence is very static with it’s upright post. However the other picture I see all sorts of interesting things. There seems to be a gap in the grass in the bottom right hand corner and I wonder why. The grasses are not so uniform and the fence I find full of questions. Why is it falling over and neglected? One of the posts is almost on the ground and nobody seems to care. Sorry I could drone on and on but I just find that picture full of puzzles that could hold my attention for some time.
Hope my comment does not offend.
Hi David, no offense taken, it’s always interesting to hear other people’s opinions.