Are you ready to graduate from the Rule of Thirds?

It might sound odd for a long time photographer to say this, but I’ve never paid attention to the rule of thirds. The reason is pretty simple… when I was just beginning to learn about photography I took a college course on graphic design which introduced me to many theories about composition by studying historical and contemporary art and architecture. When I became serious about photography as a possible career and began studying it in earnest, teachings and recommendations about the rule of thirds seemed quite pervasive,  but I found my previous training to be a more satisfactory way to think of compositions.  The rule of thirds actually is a more simplistic approach to these same compositional concepts I studied in college, but most photographers are not aware of the alternatives. In fact, I’m sure there are images of mine which do fit into the rule of thirds, but not intentionally.  They just happen to use a ratio of 2 to 1 (to me a more correct description of a rule of thirds composition), which happens to be one of many acceptable ratios that seem to offer pleasing visual results when used as a compositional guide  (and it often isn’t the strongest one). Occasionally I run across articles by photographers who also use principles beyond the rule of thirds, but they are rare, and even those don’t really go into good detail about alternatives.  In recent years, tools for more advanced compositional guides are being included in software and cameras, and discovering the what, why, and where of these new tools might be beneficial.

The rule of thirds isn’t as commonly referred to by artists and others involved in visual design. Google rule of thirds, and other than the wikipedia hit, most everything else takes  you to a photography site.  In fact, the Wikipedia article probably errs in not emphasizing it as a photography thing – because it is. When it does trickle into a non-photography site, it’s more because of the expanding influence of photography as a visual art and because many artists use cameras to capture scenes they want to paint, so they are influenced by information regarding photography.

The best thing I can say about the rule of thirds is it helps people understand that centered = static = usually boring.  With the exception of very symmetrical images and a few others, placing the key points of interest of your image based on the rule of thirds will be much more interesting than just putting things in the center. The biggest problem I have with the rule of thirds is it is too simplistic.  Composition in regards to arrangement and placement of items within your image isn’t just about sticking some important object at one of just a few arbitrary lines or one of 4 arbitrary points.  It is also about the relationship and spacing of many items in your image, and the ratios and proportions which are effective in those placement and spacings – including those arbitrary lines – are far more diverse than a simple 2 to 1.

A painter can easily use any guidelines including complex ones when preparing their canvas, but a photographer is limited to what the camera manufacturer provides them, and if those aren’t satisfactory then they have to depend only on their judgement.  Some cameras supply a rule of thirds grid in the viewfinder, most EVF (electronic viewfinder cameras) can display one, and most digital cameras have options for viewing them when examining the images on the LCD.  Some of the new cameras are offering other options, and the better raw processors (such as Lightroom and CaptureOne) have alternative guides available. Also a painter can move things around to manage composition on their canvas, but a photographer just can’t tell a tree or some other stationary object in nature to move a few feet to the left when  taking a picture. Despite this, there are many things within a photographers control to manage spacing of objects within the frame and in relationship to the edge of the frame which can strengthen the composition and impact of the image. As a guide, the rule of thirds supplies little help other than placing an object away from the center.  A photograph very often has several key points of interest and a strong composition allows the viewer’s eyes to move through the image, hopefully starting on a key focal point, then moving to secondary ones around the image, returning to the key point and repeating the process.  A good image engages the viewers senses as they try to understand all they see, and this process can strengthen the emotional response.  The effectiveness of this process can be enhanced or hindered by the composition.

OK, hang in there … I’m getting to my point

This may all sound complicated, but the good news is becoming aware of the importance of things other than simple object placement, such as the ratio of spacing between various elements and the edge of the print as well as what ratios are proven to be more pleasing is really the most important thing to learn. As far as “how much” or “where”, there seems to exist an innate sense in all of us to visualize pleasing compositions.  So it isn’t necessary to get a ruler out and compare how far this is from that … it’s more about being aware that those differences matter so paying attention to them and trying to make sure they are pleasing is important.  The biggest challenge might be to unlearn the rule of thirds so your inner self can find pleasing compositions, as well as be aware that other compositional guides may be even stronger than the rule of thirds.

For centuries, various people have tried to quantify this mythical concept … one which actually seems to be prevalent in the natural world around us.  The result is referred to in various ways … phi, the golden number, the golden ratio, the divine proportion. The magic number?  1.6180339 … and on into infinity.  Closely related is the famous fibonacci series, developed by mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, a series of numbers easily derived (each number in the series is simply the sum of the two previous numbers  … 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55, etc.)  Interestingly the ratio of each successive numbers is very close to phi, and after a few places is less than a few hundreths difference.

I know what your thinking … probably the same thing I was thinking when that college professor introduced it in my class …

HUH?

Remember, the number is just an attempt to quantify what seems to be a natural property.  But we can use the number and resulting ratios to understand more fully ways to strengthen our compositions, without getting mired down in all the math.  It does help to understand a little where the number comes from, why it seems so special, and how letting it influence us may make our images better. It’s also helpful to use guides to help us see its affect on our compositions, even to the point of some measuring, but more as a training process.  I believe very strongly that if we don’t inhibit or bias our natural instincts for order and harmony, this really can become a subconscious process, not a mechanical one.

Phi (pronounced  fi by most, as in fee, fi, fo, fum) is an abstract number, much like pi. It can be determined geometrically in several different ways, but a description of phi goes something like this ..

Divide a line so the ratio of the entire line to the larger segment is the same

as the ratio of the larger segment to the smaller segment:

When this happens the resulting ratio of a+b to a is 1.618 to 1, the ratio of a to b is 1.618 to 1, the ratio of b to a is 0.618 to 1 and the ratio of a to a+b is 0.618 to 1.   Once we understand how to determine the golden ratio of two lengths to each other, it becomes quite easy to create a golden rectangle. Start with any dimension, and either multiply that dimension by 1.618 or by 0.618 and that becomes the second dimension.  Once you have this rectangle, if  you make a perfect square inside of it, what you have remaining is a golden rectangle. The area of the new rectangle to that of the square is of course 0.618 .. phi. You can repeat the process theoretically into infinity. If you divide a golden rectangle this way and draw a spiral based on the results, you end up with what is referred to as a golden spiral … which is nearly identical to the beautiful shape of a nautilus shell and also describes the intricate patterns that occur inside the shell if you cut it in half. It’s also the basic shape of the human ear.

Of course, the reverse also applies, and I actually think this is more relevant to why using these proportions seems “balanced” and pleasing.  Start with a golden rectangle.  Add a square to that golden rectangle … a nice symmetrical object that is not random or abstract … which is the size of the length of the golden rectangle and you have a larger golden rectangle, which is of course 1.618 larger.  It’s sort of like starting with a solid foundation, and adding an element for balance that just happens to create the same relationship. This means compositionally we divide things into areas that have both symmetrical balance as well as non symmetrical positioning and shape. (Maybe this is a stretch but to me this makes sense as to why it looks pleasing). This can only occur when the ratio is equal to phi.  One other interesting mathematical tidbit about phi … it is the only number where you can divide one by the same number that you would add it to and end up with the same result … 1 / 0.618  equals 1 + 0.618 equals 1.618. (of course in all of this phi contains an infinite number of decimal places but rounding to the 1000th place is close enough to demonstrate the point).

Historically there is evidence indicating humans have understood and used this concept for a very long time.  Although there is no documentary evidence from historical Egypt, the pyramids exhibit an awareness of this number, be it intentional or simply the mysterious “innate” sense we humans have for it.  In my college class the text book presented the theory that the Greeks actually came up with their various proportions by using a nautilus shell … which is one of the most amazing examples of how all this seems to occur in nature.  There is some evidence that Phideas, a Greek sculptor and mathematician studied and used this proportion in the design of the Parthenon.

To me the most historically significant reference is from Leonardo da Vinci … considered by many as the greatest artist of all time. He demonstrated his understanding and use of the principle by providing illustrations for the book by Luca Pacioli entitled “De Divina Proportione” … the Divine Proportion… first published in 1509. Almost all of da Vinci’s works exhibit the influence of proportions and ratios derived from “the divine proportion”. His famous sketch of the human body in a circle indicated how he used the principles in his work when painting people, and indeed how we as humans are living examples of this ratio in nature. Painters, sculptors, architects, graphic designers and others involved in visual arts as well as mathematicians, plastic surgeons, orthodontists, and beauticians often study and apply principles from this “magic” number in relation to their work. Despite it’s wide spread acceptance in many disciplines, because of the pervasive concept of the rule of thirds, photography is the one visual art which for the most part misses the opportunity to study it and apply it.

The following is an illustration from the work of German architect Ernst Neufert, published in 1943.

 

This illustration is an example of how the ratios are very extensive.  If you take your original dimension (in the case of an image the length or width of the image) and you divide that in two parts based on phi to find it’s golden ratio, you can then take the two parts of that line, divide them the same way to find their golden ratio … and then use combinations of those lengths with each other and still have eye pleasing proportions.  In the above example, note how the longest line (red) is divided into it’s golden ratio, then those two segments are then divided (brown and blue), then those segments are divided (light green, yellow, orange  and pink) … and so on.  So as you examine your compositions, you can use simple ratios between items, or rectangles built on the golden ratio, or circles that vary in size based on the golden ratio.  You may also find your composition falls more in line with the golden spiral.  Use any two adjacent fibonacci numbers (other than the first few) and you have a golden proportion.  Using non-adjacent fibonacci numbers also provides pleasing ratios and proportions.

If you spend some time researching the use of the golden number and ratio, you will find that a significant number of visual artists and designers pay attention to and utilize principals of the golden number and the fibonacci series of numbers in their compositions.  I’m not sure why it isn’t discussed and used more by photographers, but I think that is changing.  One interesting example, apparently in a recent redesign of twitter they used the golden spiral to influence their design … check this out.  For many great examples in our modern world, check out some of the examples here and here at phimatix.net.  (This site actually sells a very interesting utility that allows you to place a guide over any part of your screen.  You can try it free for a period of time.  It’s a little challenging to work with in that it’s hard to actually click on the overlay and move it around, but once you get the hang of it it isn’t too bad.  It’s a useful tool to examine optional compositional positioning ideas).

If you find this interesting, here’s a pleasant little youtube video that graphically demonstrates how this seems to relate to the natural world …( if the embedded video is missing try refreshing the page, or watch it here at youtube’s site.

The next logical question is how can this be applied in making better images?  I have a few  suggestions.

1.  The rule of thirds actually places objects a little too far from center … not much but enough that moving them back towards the center ever so slightly will usually result in a stronger composition.

2. Try composing by what looks balanced and pleasing without any guides.  You might find it is closer to ratios derived from phi than the rule of thirds … so the challenge would be to not “fix” it by re-cropping and and composing with a rule of thirds grid.

3. After you compose your image, if you are using Lightroom or Photoshop CS6, try one of the alternate grids in the cropping tool. If you like what your are seeing, nothing wrong with using guides like this.  You also might find the little program at Phimatrix.com a fun little utility.

4. Remember the ratios can be very complex, but in the end those that look best will probably be pretty close to ones derived from the golden ratio. Much like the example from da Vinci, you will often find quite a few “ratios” within your image, and some of them can be controlled by the overall cropping and aspect ratio you choose for the image.

5. The rule of thirds is not a bad thing – it’s simply using a ratio of 2 to 1 and isn’t too far from a golden ratio (it very likely evolved because as a simple way to approximate the golden ratio).  You might find using the actual golden ratio is better.

Composition is far more than the ratios and spacings of the image and various elements with the image.  This article is only about comparing the use of the rule of thirds to other similar guidelines.  Composition involves lines and directions, implied lines, leading lines, use of space and negative space, etc. , and often involves elements such as s-curves, rectangles, circles and ovals.  Add to that tonality and/or use of color as well as many other elements and quickly it can become overwhelming.  Again … trust your instincts to see balance.  More often than not you will find your photographs incorporate many of these successful elements even though they weren’t deliberate when you took the picture.  That’s why you have to be careful about the rule of thirds inhibiting this process.  Of course you can take this too far, just like the rule of thirds.  You can’t force everything to fit inside concepts like this … things are where they are when you took the picture, and you can’t move everything around until it’s perfect.  And of course, don’t take this to the extreme and ignore the ratio of 1 to 2 (rule of thirds) … this is definitely an acceptable ratio, and there are some compositions where it is the strongest choice.

There are hundreds of websites with examples of how the golden number seems to be a universal concept with foundations in nature itself.  If you find this concept interesting, check out goldennumber.net.  If you google things like golden number, golden ratio, golden section, golden mean, golden spiral or the divine proportion you’ll find almost too much information (which is true about most things with google). You might want to search for those same things on YouTube as well. There are hundreds of videos about this concept (some better than others) .  A couple of youtube videos (out of hundreds) I like … by the BBC is “A Night of Numbers- Phi’s the Limit” , and “Phinomenal Phi” (it’s an ok video, but I love the name. I think one reason this video is interesting is about 2 minutes in she tries to explain the golden ratio in context of dividing things “approximately in thirds”, letting her involvement in photography and cinema-photography and  exposure to the rule of thirds show, even though the concept of her video is about something other than the rule of thirds.)

The image used to begin this article is a very old image of mine, taken with a square format medium format camera.  I have several variations of compositions I like with this image, including some horizontals, squares and verticals.  While I didn’t use any guides when I created this composition, the gif file demonstrates how often the golden ratio occurs in my final composition. Notice that neither of the key focal points actually end up on the intersection of a simple grid using the golden ratio, but they do end up in positions found through variations of the ratio.

In a few days, I’ll post a little video tip on how to create a golden ratio guide you can use as an overlay in photoshop.

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