Beyond the Rule of Thirds
Beyond the Rule of Thirds
The following is an piece that I wrote a few months ago but didn’t publish. A couple of the ideas expressed have made an appearance in shorter posts on this blog though. In other words, if some of the writing seems familiar it is because it is.
Beyond the Rule of Thirds
Just in case there is anyone who doesn’t know what the rule of thirds is here is a quick recap; Picture a tic-tac-toe grid over an image. The more significant parts of the image should fall underneath the lines of the grid. The most significant parts of the image should be under the intersections of the grid. That is about it really. Hard to believe when thinking about all of the words that have been written on the subject in publications, instruction manuals, websites and just about everywhere else. If anyone hasn’t stumbled across this particular wisdom within a month or two of purchasing their first camera I would be surprised. Herein lies a problem though:
What should be a useful guide or problem solving tool has become a millstone around the neck for many photographers. They were either taught, or chose to believe that an image could not have merit unless the various compositional elements conformed precisely to the rule of thirds. Camera manufacturers adding the tic-tac-toe grid to the viewfinder certainly has not helped matters. If a composition is not instinctive then it is likely to be stilted and boring and viewing through a grid is a guaranteed way to this end.
I suspect that all photographers come to a point in their development where they find that their images all start to look similar. The photographs individually may display a level of competence but excitement or whatever it is that makes for exceptional photography is lacking. This comes about because of a too great dependency on the compositional rules. It is not hard to see how this dependency comes about:
A working knowledge of the rule of thirds along with various other rules and conventions, allows the new photographer to make a very fast jump from bad photographer to OK photographer. This leads to the assumption that more of the same will inevitably result in a jump from OK photographer to good photographer. Unfortunately it does not work that way. A grasp of the basic rules such as the rule of thirds will certainly be enough to stop a bad photograph from happening but they will never be enough on their own to produce a good let alone a truly memorable photograph. For this to happen we need to go beyond the rule of thirds and all of the other rules that are taught to novice photographers.
Photography is about communicating something to a viewer and that something should be more than ‘ I understand the rule of thirds’. As a photographer, you have to communicate what it was that made you press the shutter. It is the successful communication of whatever it was that made you press the shutter that will take a photograph out of the OK category and elevate it into the good or even exceptional one.
Knowing what makes you, the photographer press the shutter is not as straight forward as it sounds as some hard mental work is required. An example will help to illustrate this:
You may see and want to capture a beautiful sunset but unless you can decide exactly what it is about the sunset that makes it better than other sunsets you will get at best an OK photograph for your troubles. It is not enough just to want to capture it because of the beautiful colors; The thinking has to go deeper. Which color or combination of colors specifically makes this sunset special should be the type of question asked. This allows for the best framing, cropping and composition to highlight the specific colors. Of course the original draw may not have been primarily the colors, it may have been the pattern made by the clouds or an interesting skyline. The same logic still applies, find the best framing to show the pattern in the case of the former and the absolute best stretch of skyline in the case of the latter. The extra impact that this approach will give the photograph cannot be overstated. It is fair to say that no good photograph comes from just pointing the camera at a scene that looks promising and pressing the shutter and no bad one comes after the photographer has worked out exactly what it is about the scene it is that appeals.
There are two main parts to the image making process, the first is the actual taking of the shot and the second is the editing otherwise known as post production. Photographers attitude to these parts of the process vary enormously, some think that the shot should be perfected in camera, so to speak, with only the bare minimum of post production work while others regard the post production side of the equation as an equal one to the shot taking itself.
Personally, I see the editing process as an integral part of the image making process and, even at the time of shooting, am even thinking in terms of how I can further highlight the thing that made me take the photograph in the first place. Increasing contrast to emphasize compositional elements, increasing grain to increase a sense of mystery or even shifting color hues to really make a particular color stand out are all perfectly legitimate strategies as far as I am concerned.
It is worth noting, however, that there is no right or wrong with regard to the how much processing is too much debate. Some photographers prefer the straight out of the camera approach (SOOC) and others see nothing wrong with using whatever technology is available to change and manipulate the original image. Historically there are famous photographers on both sides of the equation.
The SOOC school of thought is best represented by the Modernists, photographers such as Paul Strand and Edward Weston among others. These practitioners believed that the photograph should be as close to reality as possible even going to the lengths of using as small an f/stop as possible for the maximum possible depth of field. In other words, even bokeh was to be avoided.
The Pictorialists on the other hand, used all sorts of techniques to make photographs look more like paintings. Manipulation of the negative in the darkroom and smearing various substances on the camera lens were considered perfectly legitimate. Many of the Modernists started out on their respective photographic journey’s as Pictorialists.
In these Post Modern times what is OK or not with regard to image manipulation is pretty much up to the photographer. There is no real consensus and long may this state of affairs continue.
Ideally the various rules of composition should be learned to the point where they are completely instinctive, the photographer’s thoughts should be 100% on what he or she sees through the viewfinder and not on mathematical grids, equations or the suchlike. If this is all a little abstract here is a very simple test; The next time that you are near a large body of water or in a fairly flat landscape frame and shoot the best image that you can from any given position. If you consciously adjusted the camera angle to get the horizon to be a third the way up or down the picture you have work to do. If you didn’t do this and your brain just seemed to say ‘yes’ when the right framing was achieved then you are on your way.
(On a related note, if you use an in-camera level indicator or one of those spirit levels that sits in the hot shoe stop get rid of them now. You will be surprised just how quickly getting a horizon level to within a fraction of a degree becomes instinctive and therefore one less thing that you need to think about).