Myths about the infamous Rule of Thirds

10myths

My name is Tavis Leaf Glover, and I’m an artist just like you, trying to create art that I can be proud of and share with the world. Though, something really hindered me in the beginning… the Rule of Thirds.

I want to shed some light on the Rule of Thirds Myths we’ve all been forcefully spoon fed during our creative infancy, which continues to linger as our compositions mature.

Perhaps we can change the future of art together if we help other artists abandon the rule of thirds and introduce them to the invaluable design techniques demonstrated throughout this article. I need your help because I can’t do it alone!

Like many other artists, I was brainwashed into thinking that the rule of thirds is an acceptable method of composing an image. I guess that depends on the standard of art you’d like to produce. Art at the Master Level, like Da Vinci, Bouguereau, Degas, Rubens, or art like a Sunday painter whose goal is to hang their painting in the local antique store… not the prestigious gallery or museum.

Paintings by Da Vinci, Bouguereau, Degas, Rubens
Paintings by Da Vinci, Bouguereau, Degas, Rubens

Without composition, art cannot flourish. And when using the rule of thirds to guide your composition, you’ll end up in a dark alley waiting to be maliciously fondled by mediocre art. This might sound harsh, but… well, it kinda is.

It’s my experience that people don’t like rules, and they certainly don’t like to follow them. They are always saying the same cliché phrase “well, rule’s were meant to be broken” or “I think it’s good to learn the rules, but then know when to break them.”

The word “rule” has a meaning that can be looked upon as negative. What I’m striving to demonstrate isn’t a rule that needs to be broken. It’s a canon of knowledge that you can choose to incorporate into your art if you wish. Your choice, simple as that.

MYTH #1: “It makes it visually pleasing”

To debunk this, we have to know what makes an image visually pleasing, and I assure you, it’s not plotting your subject on a rule of thirds crosshair. To be visually pleasing is to apply your composition techniques in a way which is clearly read by the viewer… without getting caught up on distracting elements or creating confusion by lack of hierarchy. How do we do that?

Well, we need to understand how the mind perceives visual stimuli. For this we use Gestalt psychology techniques like Figure-Ground Relationship (FGR) to clearly separate the subject from the background.

Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson showing excellent FGR.
Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson showing excellent FGR.

Or we can use the Law of Continuity, which will allow us to create a sweeping arabesque by using multiple objects.

Painting by Edgar Degas showing an Arabesque.
Painting by Edgar Degas showing an Arabesque.

We can even use the Greatest Area of Contrast to help direct our viewer’s eyes towards the main subject.

Photograph by David Bellemere.
Photograph by David Bellemere.

MYTH #2: “Pros use it”

The next myth we have is “pros use it.” Annie Leibovitz is definitely a pro, and one of the most inspirational photographers of today. So let’s grab one of her photos and simply line it up to the rule of thirds grid, then we’ll see if she used it or not.

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
Showing the Rule of Thirds Grid lines up to the Mantel.
Showing the Rule of Thirds Grid lines up to the Mantel.

We can see how the mantel lines up perfectly to the rule of thirds grid. Hmmm, I guess she did use it… but wait, how did she pose the models? How did she create such a great composition when there are only horizontals and verticals to guide us? What do I do next? I have some of the models on the rule of thirds, but where do I go now? How do I position their arms, legs, dress, and gaze? This is where we introduce dynamic symmetry.

This is a Root 4 Rectangle with its Basic Armature (two diagonals, four reciprocals, horizontals and verticals).
This is a Root 4 Rectangle with its Basic Armature (two diagonals, four reciprocals, horizontals and verticals).
A Root 4 rectangle can be divided into four smaller Root 4 rectangles.
A Root 4 rectangle can be divided into four smaller Root 4 rectangles.

In order for Annie to properly pose the models, she uses dynamic symmetry. That’s basically a fancy term for grid system.

This is a 1.5 rectangle with it’s Basic Armature (same size as many camera sensors) and 3 can fit inside a Root 4 rectangle.
This is a 1.5 rectangle with it’s Basic Armature (same size as many camera sensors) and 3 can fit inside a Root 4 rectangle.
This is the complete grid system.
This is the complete grid system.

To put it simply, a grid system is something we can use in our photography to help us organize our composition. We can use the diagonals, verticals, and horizontals to help us create rhythm and unity throughout the image… whether it’s a painting, photo, or sculpture… dynamic symmetry can be used for all of them.

“Laocoon & His Sons” is a Greek sculpture that was constructed by using Dynamic Symmetry.“Laocoon & His Sons” is a Greek sculpture that was constructed by using Dynamic Symmetry.

We could get really involved into explaining this system more, but let’s not lose focus of the main purpose, which is to expose the rule of thirds for what it is… a watered down rule that has brain washed us all into thinking it’s worth sharing with the world.

MYTH #3: “It moves the eye around the image.”

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Plotting your subject on a point without consideration for the whole will not help create movement within your composition.

Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover
Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover

When we learn of another Gestalt psychology technique called the Law of Continuity, we’ll discover several tools we can use to create movement and unity, which will move the eye around the image. The most visually pleasing one is an Arabesque.

Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover
Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover

This is a curvilinear element you can incorporate into your art to create a beautiful sweeping movement throughout the image. Master painters used these extensively throughout their work.

Painting by Vincent van Gogh showing an Arabesque.
Painting by Vincent van Gogh showing an Arabesque.

Another technique used to create movement is called a Coincidence. This is defined as edge-to-edge relationships, which unify multiple elements and can create movement side to side and up and down.

It’s not a solid line as you might think when you hear the term “leading lines.” It’s broken, hidden, and a magic trick which we can use to allow the mind to easily close the gaps.

Painting by Caravaggio shows how he hides his lines by understanding the Law of Continuity.
Painting by Caravaggio shows how he hides his lines by understanding the Law of Continuity.

In this photo we can see the edge-to-edge relationships Annie Leibovitz creates by using the limbs of the models.

Photograph by Annie Leibovitz showing Coincidences.
Photograph by Annie Leibovitz showing Coincidences.

We can also see it in this painting of the Mona Lisa by Da Vinci, and in this complex composition by Bouguereau.

Paintings by Da Vinci and Bouguereau showing Coincidences.
Paintings by Da Vinci and Bouguereau showing Coincidences.

MYTH #4: “It gets the subject out of the center.”

First off, who decreed that the center of a frame is so bad? Why are we lead to believe this?

Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover
Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover
Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover
Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover

There’s a Gestalt psychology technique called the Law of Symmetry, which basically means the human mind is always trying to find balance in visual stimuli. So if we use the rule of thirds and place the subject off center, then we will need a counterpart to help us balance the image. If there’s no counterpart, then we’ve just created horrible balance within our composition.

Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover
Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover

There is vertical balance (which I call breathing room), and there is horizontal balance (which I call gazing direction), and we must understand how to control each of these in order to create a properly balanced composition.

Painting by Bouguereau showing proper balance from top to bottom.
Painting by Bouguereau showing proper balance from top to bottom.
Painting by Degas showing proper balance from left to right.
Painting by Degas showing proper balance from left to right.

Here’s a photo I created which has the main subject centered, but is properly balanced because vertical and horizontal balance was considered.

Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover showing how Balance can be properly achieved from top to bottom and left to right.
Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover showing how Balance can be properly achieved from top to bottom and left to right.

It took me years to erase the damage the rule of thirds caused on my compositions. I was always placing the subject on one side or the other without consideration for the image as a whole.

Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover before learning design and Gestalt psychology techniques.
Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover before learning design and Gestalt psychology techniques.

MYTH #5: “Basis for a well balanced and interesting shot”

We already covered the Law of Symmetry, which covers the proper balance of an image, but what we didn’t mention how the rule of thirds gives birth to unwanted negative space. If we are generically placing our subject into one of the crosshairs without consideration of the whole, then we won’t have a counterpart on the other side of the composition and we’ll have negative space that takes attention away from our subject.

Photograph showing how the rule of thirds creates unwanted negative space.
Photograph showing how the rule of thirds creates unwanted negative space.

.Negative space can be properly used to create a feeling of isolation or loneliness, but to use it without sophistication is a rookie move.

Photograph by Gregory Crewdson using Negative Space to enhance his story.
Photograph by Gregory Crewdson using Negative Space to enhance his story.

MYTH #6: “It’s a great starting point for beginners”

In my own experience, the rule of thirds only lead me down a dead end road. I thought of it as revolutionary at first and I was boasting its powers to photographers who were just starting out.

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Later I found myself at a plateau and not able to understand how to properly compose an image because the rule of thirds was guiding me.

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Dynamic Symmetry Grids are just as easy to use as R.O.T.
Dynamic Symmetry Grids are just as easy to use as R.O.T.

If new artists start with the grid of dynamic symmetry instead of the rule of thirds, they’ll be able to later take advantage of the diagonals, which they can create rhythm with… by posing the model, or applying paint strokes. The available diagonals within the rectangle will limit the number of directions you use, called a gamut, which will create a more powerful composition…rather than the spokes of a bicycle tire.

Painting by Bouguereau showing how he creates rhythm in the model’s pose based off of his grid system.
Painting by Bouguereau showing how he creates rhythm in the model’s pose based off of his grid system.

MYTH #7: “Artists from the Renaissance, or Greek artists, created the rule of thirds”

The rule of thirds was first documented in a book by Smith (around 1797), and if you take a look at his painting, you’ll see that he wasn’t a master at all.

image38

Da Vinci would be rolling in his grave if he heard anyone say he was using the this. The amount of schooling, studying, and practice he put into his compositions, and someone is going to water it down to something as simple as the rule of thirds? No way!

Da Vinci, along with other master artists, Greek included, used dynamic symmetry, the golden section, and other design techniques like arabesques, gamut, coincidences, radiating lines, figure-ground relationship, ellipses and enclosures.

Painting by Bouguereau showing different design techniques.
Painting by Bouguereau showing different design techniques.

MYTH #8: “The human eye naturally gravitates to the intersection points”

Photograph of a generically placed tree and horizon line.
Photograph of a generically placed tree and horizon line.

I truly wish composition were this easy. Place your subject in a crosshair, and BAM, you’re automatically controlling the viewer’s eyes. Not so fast! What about the fact that we are drawn to areas of high contrast?

When we make our subject the Greatest Area of Contrast (GAC), won’t we look there first…no matter what position they are in?

Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover showing the Greatest Area of Contrast and a Counterpart.
Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover showing the Greatest Area of Contrast and a Counterpart.

Another thing that pulls our eyes is something I call Edge Flicker. It refers to high contrasting elements near the edge, which greatly distract the viewer from your subject.

Creating a hierarchy of contrast and keeping the edges free of distractions will help you control the way your viewer’s eyes move around the composition.

Painting by Whistler showing no Edge Flicker when Adjusted.
Painting by Whistler showing no Edge Flicker when Adjusted.

MYTH #9: “Cropping to the rule of thirds after shooting a photo is a great way to save an image”

Cropping a poorly composed, badly lit image will not save anything. That’s starting at the end and working backwards.

Try not to crop. Get it right in-camera to save precious pixels.
Try not to crop. Get it right in-camera to save precious pixels.

Learn composition and Gestalt psychology techniques so you know what to look for, how to solve visual problems, and get it right in camera. Don’t sacrifice precious pixels for the rule of thirds. Your creativity deserves better.

MYTH #10: “The power points, or golden points, create tension”

Placing your subject on a third is not going to create tension as we’ve learned so far.

Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover showing how cropping doesn’t create tension.
Photograph by Tavis Leaf Glover showing how cropping doesn’t create tension.

If we take a look at a Gestalt psychology technique called the Law of Proximity, we’ll see how visual tension can be created. Like this painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel…they are clearly unified by their proximity, but another thing to notice as we view this is visual tension created by the fact that they are almost touching, but not quite. It’s the moment before impact.

Painting by Michelangelo
Painting by Michelangelo

Or this photo where the man is almost within reach of his dying wife. It’s that close proximity that creates the tension.

Photography by Tavis Leaf Glover
Photography by Tavis Leaf Glover

When considering the Law of Proximity, distance can create negative space, which in this photo creates a tension in the room.

Photograph by Gregory Crewdson using negative space to create tension.
Photograph by Gregory Crewdson using negative space to create tension.

Conclusion

So many tricks and techniques can be applied to create a remarkable composition, which communicates clearly to your viewer. Abandon the rule of thirds. Leave it behind and adopt the dynamic symmetry grid which is just as simple to use, but can leave many more options open for you as your art progresses.

Painting by Toulouse Lautrec.
Painting by Toulouse Lautrec.

If you found this information useful, please share it with your friends. Help me tackle this rule of thirds beast, kill it, and introduce better techniques to others who are in need of powerful composition. Learning powerful composition is the only path to becoming a master of your craft.

Some things you should know about a Bokeh

The first 10 things to know about Photography

There are no fixed rules in photography, but there are guidelines which can often help you to enhance the impact of your photos.

It may sound clichéd, but the only rule in photography is that there are no rules. However, there are are number of established composition guidelines which can be applied in almost any situation, to enhance the impact of a scene.

These guidelines will help you take more compelling photographs, lending them a natural balance, drawing attention to the important parts of the scene, or leading the viewer’s eye through the image.

Once you are familiar with these composition tips, you’ll be surprised at just how universal most of them are. You’ll spot them everywhere, and you’ll find it easy to see why some photos “work” while others feel like simple snapshots.

RULE OF THIRDS

Imagine that your image is divided into 9 equal segments by 2 vertical and 2 horizontal lines. The rule of thirds says that you should position the most important elements in your scene along these lines, or at the points where they intersect.

Doing so will add balance and interest to your photo. Some cameras even offer an option to superimpose a rule of thirds grid over the LCD screen, making it even easier to use.

Lighthouse with rule of thirds grid

Notice how the building and horizon are aligned along rule-of-thirds lines. Image by Trey Ratcliff.

BALANCING ELEMENTS

Placing your main subject off-centre, as with the rule of thirds, creates a more interesting photo, but it can leave a void in the scene which can make it feel empty. You should balance the “weight” of your subject by including another object of lesser importance to fill the space.

Road sign with building behind

Here, the visual “weight” of the road sign is balanced by the building on the other side of the shot. Image by Shannon Kokoska.

LEADING LINES

When we look at a photo our eye is naturally drawn along lines. By thinking about how you place lines in your composition, you can affect the way we view the image, pulling us into the picture, towards the subject, or on a journey “through” the scene. There are many different types of line – straight, diagonal, curvy, zigzag, radial etc – and each can be used to enhance our photo’s composition.

Road winding through mountains

The road in this photo draws your eye through the scene. Image by Pierre Metivier.

SYMMETRY AND PATTERNS

We are surrounded by symmetry and patterns, both natural and man-made., They can make for very eye-catching compositions, particularly in situations where they are not expected. Another great way to use them is to break the symmetry or pattern in some way, introducing tension and a focal point to the scene.

Chapel entrance

The symmetry of this chapel is broken by the bucket in the bottom right corner. Image by Fabio Montalto.

VIEWPOINT

Before photographing your subject, take time to think about where you will shoot it from. Our viewpoint has a massive impact on the composition of our photo, and as a result it can greatly affect the message that the shot conveys. Rather than just shooting from eye level, consider photographing from high above, down at ground level, from the side, from the back, from a long way away, from very close up, and so on.

Man sitting on beach photographed from above

The unusual viewpoint chosen here creates an intriguing and slightly abstract photo. Image by ronsho.

BACKGROUND

How many times have you taken what you thought would be a great shot, only to find that the final image lacks impact because the subject blends into a busy background? The human eye is excellent at distinguishing between different elements in a scene, whereas a camera has a tendency to flatten the foreground and background, and this can often ruin an otherwise great photo. Thankfully this problem is usually easy to overcome at the time of shooting – look around for a plain and unobtrusive background and compose your shot so that it doesn’t distract or detract from the subject.

Female violinist

The plain background in this composition ensures nothing distracts from the subject. Image by Philipp Naderer.

DEPTH

Because photography is a two-dimensional medium, we have to choose our composition carefully to conveys the sense of depth that was present in the actual scene. You can create depth in a photo by including objects in the foreground, middle ground and background. Another useful composition technique is overlapping, where you deliberately partially obscure one object with another. The human eye naturally recognises these layers and mentally separates them out, creating an image with more depth.

Sheep in field will misty hills in the background

Emphasise your scene’s depth by including interesting subjects at varying distances from the camera. Image by Jule Berlin.

FRAMING

The world is full of objects which make perfect natural frames, such as trees, archways and holes. By placing these around the edge of the composition you help to isolate the main subject from the outside world. The result is a more focused image which draws your eye naturally to the main point of interest.

Lake framed by hills either side

Here, the surrounding hills form a natural frame, and the piece of wood provides a focal point. Image by Sally Crossthwaite.

CROPPING

Often a photo will lack impact because the main subject is so small it becomes lost among the clutter of its surroundings. By cropping tight around the subject you eliminate the background “noise”, ensuring the subject gets the viewer’s undivided attention.

Ceramic ornaments of characters hugging

Cut out all unnecessary details to keep keep the viewer’s attention focused on the subject. Image by Hien Nguyen.

EXPERIMENTATION

With the dawn of the digital age in photography we no longer have to worry about film processing costs or running out of shots. As a result, experimenting with our photos’ composition has become a real possibility; we can fire off tons of shots and delete the unwanted ones later at absolutely no extra cost. Take advantage of this fact and experiment with your composition – you never know whether an idea will work until you try it.

Lone tree in field illuminated with golden light

Digital photography allows us to experiment with different compositions until we find the perfect one. Image by Jule Berlin.

Composition in photography is far from a science, and as a result all of the “rules” above should be taken with a pinch of salt. If they don’t work in your scene, ignore them; if you find a great composition that contradicts them, then go ahead and shoot it anyway. But they can often prove to be spot on, and are worth at least considering whenever you are out and about with your camera.

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