“You learn a lot of things on the way to 500. None more important than this… ~ The Knockaround Guys.
The rule of thirds is probably the first and quite possibly the most popular compositional tool out there for photography. I don’t really know anyone who hasn’t started to become a decent photographer who hasn’t followed it, but like Vin Diesel said in The Knockaround Guys, “You learn a lot of things on the way to 500.” And as you progress as a photographer you too should learn to ‘F’ the Rule of Thirds. One of the largest issues we are faced with now is that even our cameras give us viewfinder and live view options to divide those viewing locations to our images up into a grid of nine little rectangles. This promotes an almost automatic placement of our subjects within the rule. And if you have ever taken a workshop with me you will quickly learn that I hate rules. Stop signs, speed limits, no parking zones – all mere suggestions in my world.
Limits Your Creativity
This is a very simple concept. I want you to listen very closely. If you compose using the rule of thirds, you are no different than the photographer who goes to Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park to photograph sunrise. There are hundreds of people every day during peak season who do this. They all have the same composition. They never change their position. They never look around for what is new and inspiring there. So if you are using the rule of thirds to compose you truly are no different than those following the hundred year old destinations of Ansel Adams or William Henry Jackson. Give us something new. Give us something to be jealous of. Create your photograph based on the situation you are being presented with at that moment in time. Put emotion and feeling into it, instead of some stupid rule.
I took the above image at Oxbow. Is it important that it was taken at Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park? Nope. What is important to me is that the image tells a story. The sun is coming up through the trees creating dramatic shadows. You know it is spring because of the lime colored green grass, but then there is a hiccup. Frost! A freezing sub-twenty-degree morning at the end of June in the forest – it doesn’t happen every day, not even in the ice box that I choose to live.
Doesn’t Work With All Subject Matter
Yes the rule of thirds will work when you are adding subject matter like an animal or person to your composition, but what happens when you discover an abstract? Or a pattern? Now all of a sudden you have to figure out what makes it into your two by three ratio rectangle and what doesn’t. You will probably freak out, have some kind of aneurysm, and never attempt to create a photo along these lines again. This will immediately put you back into that world of the rule of thirds and you will continue running the hamster wheel of death with your photographs.
Begin to challenge yourself. It is okay to try and fail, but to never attempt anything different will never change anything. Last week I gave you some ideas on what to do when you are having trouble with your photography. Re-read those tips, then come back here and begin to look at different subjects and even the same subjects in different ways.
Looking at a typical subject that falls into the rule of thirds with many photographers…I very easily could have placed the bighorn on a rule of thirds intersection and been done with the image. I chose to get low though, to shoot through the rime covered plants and intentionally put the animal high in the frame. Now all of a sudden you feel as if you are the predator. Even the body position of the sheep matters to me. Notice how his legs look as if he is ready to run. Even his posture looks as if he is concerned. He was actually looking at a heard of elk that were behind us and he was in the process of turning around to continue eating. I just followed his movements and fired off a series of images as that movement occurred. Now I have thrown the middle finger up to the standard rule of thirds mammal portrait.
There are Better Techniques Available
If we begin to utilize other concepts for the creation of our photographs, we quickly forget about the rule of thirds. Let’s touch on creating a composition using the principles of design. Thoroughly analyze what you are looking at in your viewfinder and make specific judgement calls as to why each element is where it is within the frame you are about to create. Design allows you to discover elements out there to help create a stronger composition.
Think about elements like line, shape, value, texture and color, and then figure out if the scene in front of you can be made stronger by adding (or detracting) one or more of these design elements into your photograph. The above photograph has absolutely nothing to do with the rule of thirds yet is successful because it highlights Texture (the trees & shrubs), complimentary color (the blues & yellows within the shrubs), and even value (contrast between the different plant species).
Now go out and try to build a compelling image without using the rule of thirds, because I can tell you what I have learned in the creation of way more than 500 compositions (fights) now, is that nothing is more important than following your heart (what you have learned along the way). If you think about designing that photograph, you will inevitably walk away with an image that looks very different from the majority of the photographers following the other masses of photographers to the proverbially rule of thirds watering hole.
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