The “Rule of Thirds” does not mean what you think it means.
One of the first things every photographer is taught is that placing a subject off-center in the frame makes for a stronger composition than placing the subject smack-dab in the middle of the frame. We call it the “Rule of Thirds”, and if we follow this rule we have a good chance to introduce some dynamics to the image.
This may be a good practice most of the time, but it’s a misreading of the phrase “Rule of Thirds”. There is no rule that we are obliged to follow. It’s an unfortunate, accidental pun in our language that gave it this particular meaning. “Rule” in this case isn’t synonymous with “law”, it’s a shorter version of the word “ruler”, as in that thing on your desk you use to measure length. If you’ve ever heard of a slide rule, it’s the same word.
Your ruler it has a bunch of evenly spaced lines on it to mark length, probably in inches or centimeters. Instead of measuring inches, what if the ruler measured divisions of itself? What if it only had two marks on it, dividing itself into three equal length portions? This is a ruler divided in thirds, or to say it even shorter, a rule of thirds.
Using this definition, the Rule of Thirds isn’t prescribing a law that a photographer can choose to either follow or break. It’s the mental overlay of a ruler which defines three zones of the image. Applied in both the horizontal and vertical directions, the intersections of the lines locate points where, if the subject were placed at one of those points, would make a stronger image.
Even if you think this is just semantic fussiness, the simple fact is that dividing an image into thirds (1:1.67) is a simplification of the Golden Ratio (1:1.618). That’s the real position for maximum impact. So as a rule or a ruler, dividing in thirds is just an approximation, so no need to be all that exact.
A popular application of the rule in landscape photography is to put the horizon line a third of the way into an image, yielding 1/3 sky and 2/3 ground, or 2/3 sky and 1/3 ground. Placing the horizon line right in the middle is considered amateurish- you decide whether to emphasize the sky or the ground, but don’t give them equal time- choose which one deserved more visual weight.
In these two images, I deliberately placed the horizon in the middle to try and show that bisecting the image can still be interesting. In the image at the top of this post, I am attempting to draw a comparison between the texture of the clouds and the texture of the water. With a 90 second exposure time, they start to look a bit like each other. I even flipped the photo upside down, and it takes a second see it as “wrong” because of the lack of visual cues to orientation. In this case, I am weighing them both and finding them to be equal in visual weight.
In this image, I threw out both rulers. Not only is the horizon line in the middle, but the cliff can’t decide if it takes up half the width or 2/3 of it. That lighter outcropping to the right of the tunnel is placed right in the center. Once again, I’m trying to include some interesting sky and water in the frame, and the only way to do that is to place the horizon through the center. As for the cliff, I tried to make the lighter outcropping the most stable part of the image and balance the boulders against the empty water. Cropping out the water on the right would have produced a more square format, and I wanted to preserve the horizontal shape of the frame to show the cliff in its environment.
Could I have done a more traditional treatment of these images? Of course. But I’m not breaking rules or rulers out of ignorance, I’m breaking them intentionally in order to reach something deeper. You can decide for yourself if I succeeded.
All Images Copyright © Michael Klayman 2013, All Rights Reserved.
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