The most common way to teach beginner photographic composition is the “rule of thirds” – in short, divide the screen into equal thirds vertically and horizontally, and then place your point of interest on one of the crossing points to get the most pleasing image possible.
I’ll grant you, if you look at many, many photos, which are very good, they will indeed have aligned some aspect of the key issue in this way. But I don’t think it’s a good basis for teaching composition.
“Composition” here claims that the photographer has some graphic design skills and that all visual elements of an image are basically objects that can be moved – either externally (“Hey Joe, move to the right”) or internally (“if I’m tilting the camera to the left, the subject shifts to the right”).
This third approach works best when the frame is general homogenous with a single important object in a visually uniform frame – while you can position this subject pretty much anywhere you like. “I want to photograph this dog, where do I place him in the frame?”
They tell us that centered is boring and amateurish; Using the rule of thirds certainly adds sophistication. The rule (and most proponents would prefer to call it a “guideline”) works because, visually speaking, there isn’t much to compose within the context of the subject. And in this case, yes, shifting the subject to the side tends to be appealing. More on that in a moment.
While there are some interesting historical aesthetic observations about pleasing proportions, the main reason this rule has found such fertile ground in photographic education is that for decades most cameras had a small focal point in the center of the frame, and beginners used that point to focus used on something and then immediately took her picture.
This resulted in countless images with a face (often the nose) or subject dead centered in the frame and positioned somewhat awkwardly, not to mention that all of your shots were pretty dull and identical. When you need to focus this way, it’s very difficult to rethink and move the subject into the frame after you’ve focused.
Even advanced modern cameras that offer numerous focus points and the ability to manage them still use center focusing by default, and the autofocus feature can be tricky to handle when beginners have off-center subjects.
In these circumstances, the rule of thirds seriously helps the novice and forces them away from the knee-jerk composition of keeping the subject’s nose awkwardly centered under the spot of focus.
I believe this approach sets the stage for difficulties in learning composition – while it can improve some types of photos, more real scenes necessarily involve a variety of objects/shapes, all of which need to be composed into the frames; Composition is about moving them all around until they feel harmonious.
Painters are certainly concerned about proportion because they have to make literally thousands of decisions about what is included in their artwork and how it is represented. But the photographic composition is not so forbidden. And it’s rarely about placing any a Thing everywhere, but the aesthetic harmony of a group of objects in a specific framework. Move a single object and it’s likely that all objects will have to adjust to regain harmony.
The rule of thirds belies what actual composing is all about — compositional skills begin with subtle control over where everything fits into the frame and recognizing the feeling you get when they’re in harmony. Teaching this “feel” is more difficult than teaching a “rule” – so almost nobody does it. And the hope is that if you shoot enough, you’ll just get to it. But many people don’t do this. The rule of thirds limits creativity, and images can be just as boring and formulaic as “dead center” compositions.
Teaching composition is beyond the scope of this essay, but I will say that in a visual framework, empty space carries weight. Light and dark areas have weights. Her eyes shift from light areas to dark ones. Your eyes follow lines. It’s nice when there’s something powerful to draw your attention to, and then it’s nice to have other less powerful forces for your eyes to explore and discover.
I propose that there are really only two types of photographic composition – (1) center-weighted and (2) off-center. That’s it. (If the subject or texture is spread throughout the frame, it’s still a center-weighted photo.) And when the rule of thirds is applied, it’s really just a case of off-center composition.
All real-world objects in photographs have irregular “weights”—objects are not large, disparate geometric circles, but complex shapes and patterns of light and dark—spread across a specific area of the frame’s visual space. Yes you can feel The focus of a photograph, and that energy is either in the center of the frame, somehow balanced by other lighter things on the sides, or off-center and balanced by objects or space on the other side.
It’s not the literal balance of objects – which means I have something big here, so I’m offsetting it with something over there. It’s a nuanced set of visuals and the balance is a feeling. This is why the rule of thirds works so well — people put the key issue aside and leave room for context, juxtaposition, or harmony on the other side.
On a neutral background, the center-weighted shot can feel dull, especially when the subject is fairly obvious (a face, a dog, a flower…). So there are many good reasons to move the subject to the side – but it’s not 1/3 and it’s not exact. It’s just enough that the frame is balanced, and that depends completely on the topic and the other things in the frame.
The crucial moment
The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) is credited with the expression “the decisive moment” when describing his photographs.
Originally I took it to mean that it had something to do with the quintessence of the event – that there is a perfect moment to capture and you go looking for it. Over time I realized that what Cartier-Bresson was describing was composition; about an indescribable harmony that constantly comes and goes when looking at real events – many things are in motion, light and shape are constantly changing, and minute movements of the photographer and camera create very different looking arrangements of the things that you are sets the camera up. And that in all the chaos, there are those brief moments when the objects in the frame seem to merge, form a pattern, before merging into chaos again.
When I give workshops, I use the video below as a kind of illustration of this coming and going of patterns and shapes.
There is no one perfect moment of harmony, but many moments that come and go and it is the photographer’s job to ‘capture’ those moments, either through luck or anticipation or quick action… it’s not easy. Especially in a world with moving objects – for example from street photographers or photojournalists – it is crucial to be able to capture them.
The photojournalists of the Magnum Photos agency are known for being talented both in the journalistic part and in the aesthetics of real compositions: capturing those “decisive moments”. Your photography is a composition in the real world. It is not built on a foundation of thirds.
How can the “rule” be useful?
The rule of thirds should not be used to teach composition – it puts students in the wrong way of thinking about how composition is done. But it’s important to get beginners out of it habit putting something they are taking a picture of in the dead center of the frame. It is important to teach students how to move objects in the frame. Effortless.
To break the students’ natural instinct to wrap the rectangular frame around their centered subject, the grid of thirds is like target practice. And I suggest it’s best used as a kind of drill – here’s a cursory suggestion:
preparation and launch: Here is a single apple. The moment I show you the apple, I call a position in the frame and your job is to focus on the object and then move it to that spot.” Use the 1/3 grid on a screen , to conveniently talk about the goals in the frame. It’s easy to place a single object on any crosshair; then –
Now the challenge:
The exercise (where it gets tricky): There are two objects and you want to place them on different quadrants. This way you will learn how to move your body and camera, how to use parallax and how to manipulate things in the world (photographically) without touching or interacting with them.
Here are examples of placing each object in different parts of the frame without adjusting the objects:
Photographers do this type of work all day, and beginners need to be just as easy at purposefully moving objects around the frame. It’s not a composition exercise (yet), but it is the basic skill that composition requires.
The rule of thirds is a remarkably efficient way to improve many photos. But teaching photographic composition, I think, undermines teaching students how and why to move themselves and the camera, often in very subtle ways. If photo educators would ditch this compositional guideline and instead use it as a tool to gain control, I think students will find it easier to appreciate photos more and, of course, have more fun taking photos.
And don’t get me started on the golden section…
About the author: Michael Rubin, formerly of Lucasfilm, Netflix and Adobe, is a photographer and host of the Everyday Photography, Every Day podcast. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. To see more from Rubin visit Neomodern or follow him on Instagram. This article was also published here.