‘F’ the Rule of Thirds

No Rule of Thirds by Jay Goodrich

“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.

The Rule of Thirds Image 1

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.

The Rule of Thirds Image 2

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.

The Rule of Thirds Image 3

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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23 Comments

    Let’s just forget it or fuck it? It seems that it has done you well through out your career. It is something that shouldn’t be thrown out, it should be part of what it taught for fundamentals of photography. And that any rule of photography is meant to be broken when it should be broken.

    Thanks for the information. I visit badlands in New Mexico frequently and struggle with composition. I witness other photographers with the same issue. There is no singular strong subject. Hoodoos and other unusual landscape features cover the landscape. Other elements are all over the frame. There’s lots of texture, even values and Complementary colors that pop as the sun sets and rises low on the horizon. I need to go back now. Same issue happens at Coyote Buttes Arizona.

    Sorry you feel it necessary to use unprofessional language in a “professional” magazine article. Whatever your photo skills, your following the trend of offending (at least some)readers with poor language skills is sad. There are lots of better ways to express the thought. In leaving a comment, I am isntructed to keep the conversation polite [without] disruptive, abusive language. That should work both ways.

    Jay, couldn’t you have just said “Forget” The Rule Of Thirds. Your title is not vulgar that way. Anyway, there’s always the exception that proves the rule. It’s nice to have options. I find most of my pictorials have added impact when using it. Like I said, “most”. ~ Thx for the ideas, Tom.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the notion that a lot of photographers are slaves to the little “rules” they’ve read. In fact, I must point out that the three pics here could have horizontal lines drawn through them, dividing the pics into top-middle-bottom thirds. The sheep is the focal point in that photo, the sunrise through the trees (Beautiful!) is almost perfectly divided into thirds, and the brush shot is darn close to being 2/3 over 1/3. They’re all great captures, though.

    “Learn the rules like a pro…so you can break them like and artist”. Pablo Picasso.

    The rule of thirds is more of a ‘guide” to assist with composition. Mostly it works well, sometimes something else will give a more creative result. It’s about knowing instinctively what will work with the dynamics you are framing in an image. If you are an artist, a creative, you will have this instinct and use it without having to stomp you feet and proclaim “I hate rules!” You don’t need to use it because it’s a rule and you don’t have to not use it because it’s a rule.

    Quite the little rebel aren’t we? Vulgar language, breaking rules, flaunting convention. OK when it works I guess, but newer photographers probably ought to know the rules are see why they came about before just snapping away and then telling us they have made great images. Your sun through the trees shot is OK, though I think there could be more space at the top. Sorry but your bighorn shot doesn’t impress me at all. I don’t always adhere to “the rules” but when I deviate I better have good reason and produce a superior shot.

    “Now I have thrown the middle finger up to the standard rule of thirds mammal portrait.”

    Call it language or gesture or whatever.. It’s pretty clear that YOU meant something rude and disrespectful with that “f” and your middle finger.

    It’d be like Beethoven (or any great piano player from our past) teaching someone how to practice piano with scales and Chord progressions .. And that someone grew up and become a well known pianist for his ability in making music , for having practiced and internalizing those core scales. And one day at the end of his recital, he had the opportunity to speak to his audience – and he’d say “f” those scales which are at the core of great classic photography. “F” that foundation those great masters taught me. Especially when you use “the middle finger” .. It’s like saying f classic rules – I’m way better than any aged strong foundation and I don’t need it…Just get off the stage.. Get off your own pedastool sir..

    You are reading way too far into to this. My mission is to get photographers away from the common locations and the most used techniques. It is very easy for ANY photographer, myself included, to fall prey to the easy way out. The Rule of Thirds is an entry level concept, as is standing at Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park looking for a “NEW” sunrise. Do I shoot images today utilizing the rule of thirds? Sometimes, but very rarely because they just don’t hold the power of challenging myself to look beyond. I choose to let my surroundings dictate the photograph I take. I intentionally gave you a letter instead of a word to allow your imagination to fill in the blanks. You all want it to be a word that it doesn’t have to be. And you are all reading what I have to say. So thank you very much.

    Good on you Jay Goodrich, keep to what you believe in. There will always be people who oppose you, if you go against the grain. I believe true art is stepping out of your boundaries, do something original and interesting. I really enjoyed this read and 100% agree with what you had to say.

    I am completely surprised at the number of responses berating the title of this article!

    “F” is whatever the reader chooses it to be. Read it as “forget” the rule of thirds if anything else offends you, but you alone choose what meaning to give the letter “f”.

    I enjoyed reading this article, Jay Goodrich. You have addressed a subject we can all identify with or will identify with if we continue to take photographs.

    There are so many guidelines to help us compose a striking photograph, but sometimes we really DO need to be told “f” this rule or that, if only so we try it!! To move outside the box and to stretch our belief of what is appropriate, acceptable, or “right”.

    Shake it up, fellow photographers!!

    Enjoy what this article has to offer and leave what you don’t like behind 😀

    i have used the rule of thirds as a foundation to my photography and some of its pretty good .What I have learned is that Ive grown away from it with an evolving of the relationship between the subject and composition.If there is a critter involved what that critter is doing forms a relationship with the composition.Quick experimenting with various positions of the subject in relation to its environment is paramount.Composition is everything .

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