Revisiting the “Rule of Thirds”

Why this guideline is problematic even as it is useful. And an alternative.

The Issue

Beginners

While there are some interesting historical aesthetic observations about pleasing proportions, the key reason this Rule found such fertile ground in photographic education is that for decades most cameras had a little focus spot in the center of the frame, and beginners would use that spot to focus on something, and then immediately snapped their photo.

Some examples of focusing screens. Image courtesy of focusingscreen.com

The Problem

I believe that this approach sets the stage for difficulty in learning composition—while it can improve some kinds of photos, more real-world scenes necessarily involve a host of objects/shapes all of which need to be composed into the frame; composition is about moving all of them around until they feel harmonious.

(L) Louis Stettner, “Lake, New York State” (1952), (R) Elliott Erwitt, “Pasadena” (1963) — master photographers with composed real-world scenes.

“Real” Composition

Teaching composition is beyond the scope of this essay, but I will say that in a visual frame, empty space has weight to it. Light and dark areas have weights. Your eyes go from bright areas to dark ones. Your eyes follow lines around. It’s nice when there is something strong to pull your attention to it, and then it’s enjoyable to have other less powerful forces to let your eyes explore and discover. I suggest there are really only two kinds of photographic compositions — (1) center-weighted, and (2) off-center. That’s it. (When subject or texture is distributed all over the frame, it’s still a center-weighted photo.) And when the Rule of Thirds is being applied, it’s really just a case of off-center composition.

A few of my central-weighted compositions.
Off-center weighted compositions: in most cases there is no “object” being shot but many visual considerations that need to be adjusted into harmony.

The Decisive Moment

The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) is credited with the expression “the decisive moment” in describing his shooting. Originally I understood this as having something to do with the quintessence of the event — that there is a perfect moment to capture and you’re looking for it. Over time I realized that what Cartier-Bresson was describing was composition; about an ineffable harmony that comes and goes all the time when looking at real-world events — many things are in motion, light and form shift constantly, and tiny movements of the photographer and camera create widely disparate looking arrangements of the things you’re pointing the camera at. And that in all the chaos, there are these brief moments when the items in frame seem to coalesce, create a pattern, before devolving back into chaos. When I give workshops I use the following video as a kind of illustration for this coming and going of pattern and form.

Magnum photographers (L) Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Heyeres, France” (1932) and (R) Sebastião Salgado, “Greater Burhan Oil Field, Kuwait,” (1991)— it would be wrong for the take-away of these brilliant images to illustrate the Rule of Thirds because it belies that the composition success was about all the elements in the frame in balance, and captured in an instant.

So How Can the “Rule” Useful?

The Rule of Thirds should not be used to teach composition — it puts students in the wrong mindset for how composition is done. But it is important to get novices out of the habit of putting something they’re taking a photo of in the dead center of the frame. It’s important to begin to teach students how to move objects around in frame. Effortlessly.

Two objects, awkwardly set on a table. Now the challenge:
Examples of placing each object in different parts of the frame, without adjusting the objects. Photographers do this sort of work all day and novices need to be as facile in purposefully moving objects around the frame. It’s not a composition exercise (yet) but it is the foundational skill that composition requires.

Conclusion

The Rule of Thirds is a remarkably efficient way to improve many photos. But to teach photographic composition I believe it undermines getting students to understand how and why to move themselves and the camera, often in very subtle ways. If photographic educators would dispense of this guideline for composition and instead use it as a tool for gaining control, I think that students will have an easier time both appreciating photos more and of course, having more fun taking pictures.

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M. H. Rubin

Living a creative life, a student of high magic, and hopefully growing wiser as I age. • Ex-Lucasfilm, Netflix, Adobe. • Here are my stories and photos.