Rules are made to be broken, they say. Not necessarily true; if the past two years has taught us anything, it’s the importance of following the rules in particular during a time of emergency.
In photography it’s arguably another matter. By breaking the rules we can sometimes create the most impact. But I’m a firm believer that in order to effectively break a photography rule you must first understand it.
So this year for my Friendly Friday ‘theme’ I plan to present a series of photography challenges looking at the various so-called rules of photography. And I’m starting with probably the best known.
The Rule of Thirds
Wikipedia defines this as proposing that:
an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.Wikipedia
This isn’t a new idea or one limited to photography alone. Back in 1797 an artist called John Thomas Smith was the first to write about a ‘rule of thirds’ attributing its origin to Sir Joshua Reynolds:
Analogous to this “Rule of thirds”, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two. … I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far-extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever.John Thomas Smith
The rule of thirds in action
Most modern digital cameras have a setting which imposes this grid on the viewfinder or screen, making this ‘rule’ easy to follow.
Look at this example and the positioning of the elephant’s eye on the intersection of two of the lines:
And this one; the horizon runs roughly along the lower horizontal while the church tower follows the left-hand vertical:
In this shot the tree is aligned with the left-hand vertical and the horizontal lines split the landscape roughly in line with the foreground, middle distance and far mountains/sky.
Of course it isn’t an exact science. We’re talking about a rough placing of key subjects; you don’t have to get a tape measure out! Here are some more examples from my own archives, some more ‘precise’ than others. And as you’ll see, the rule can be applied to portrait format shots too.
At Wat Phou temple ruins, southern Laos
Also taken at Wat Phou
On the edge of the lake below Amber Fort, Jaipur, India
By Gadisar Lake in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan
A riverside town in Senegal
Tending young rice plants in Vietnam
Steps in Lucca, Italy
Pagoda in Kyoto, Japan
Breaking the rules
Sometimes however you can create a greater impact by breaking the rule. Placing the main subject dead centre in your image for a symmetrical effect can create a sense of peace, useful for some buildings and statues, for instance.
Buddhas in Luang Prabang temples, Laos
Allowing the horizon to split it into two equal halves can do the same, while placing it close to the top or bottom edge of the photo can add drama. Here are some more examples from my own archives.
Te Pito Kura, a sacred site on Rapa Nui
Wahiba Sands, Oman, at sunset; with the horizon right at the top the dunes almost fill the frame and take centre stage in a twist on the classic sunset view
Sunrise at Souimanga Lodge, Senegal; the low horizon puts the emphasis on the sky and the rising sun
Ahu Tahai, Rapa Nui; placing the moai low down in the image makes it look more vulnerable – no longer the all-seeing ancestor but one looking rather anxiously at the sky as if unsure of his role in a modern society.
I composed this shot like this to provide contrast with the majority of my moai images where they dominated the scene , as they were intended by their ancient carvers to do.
Over to you
So what do you think? Does this rule matter? Does it help us to take better photos? Or is it an unnecessary constraint, best ignored?
For this first Friendly Friday photo challenge please show me some examples of when you’ve followed this rule, or when you’ve broken it. Or share some of each, as I have done. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts and seeing your photos.
I’ll be sharing more thoughts on photography’s ‘rules’ of composition in future Friendly Friday challenges. Meanwhile next time your host will be Amanda of Something to Ponder About, so look out for her challenge in two weeks’ time!