I often hear people dismissing compositional rules, especially the Rule of Thirds. However, there is an excellent reason why rejecting them can often lead to failure. Therefore, adopting them will make you a better photographer.
Understandably, people balk at the use of the word “rule.” They want to reject them because they think photography, like all art, should be free of constraints. Others believe some compositional rules are commonplace and dull. However, there are clear explanations for why they work and why you should accept them.
How We See the World
Our brains are amazing. They interpret a vast amount of data that flood into them from our eyes and other sense organs. That data is converted into electronic and chemical signals that are, in turn, transformed into something we can understand. This process raises a fascinating point; what we see is not reality, just our limited experience of it.
Let’s take the color of the sky as an example. We know it as being blue. But that blue doesn’t exist anywhere but in our minds. What exists are countless photons vibrating at a wavelength of around 400 nanometres, that’s 1/2,500th mm and 666,000,000,000,000 times a second. The blue we see is just our brains’ interpretation of that. A tiny shift in the wavelength to 7,000 nanometres, 0.007 or 7/10,000th of a millimeter, and our brains interpret those photons as red. So, red itself doesn’t exist outside our minds either. Nevertheless, it is incredible that the accuracy of our eyes and brains can differentiate those minuscule differences in frequency and wavelength.
Moreover, our minds expect white to be white, no matter the light under which it is viewed. Bright daylight is tinted blue. The auto white-balance setting in our brains makes us perceive daylight as white when it isn’t
If colors don’t exist, then does anything? Certainly not in the way we comprehend them. Everything we touch, feel, hear, taste, or smell is our brains’ interpretation of reality.
Additionally, our brains filter out irrelevant stuff. Walking down a busy high street, we never notice every person passing by. If I were to ask you to describe someone who just walked past two seconds ago, you probably could not do it. Our brains organize the world around us, so we notice the important things: the faces of our loved ones, the car heading our way as we cross the street, and the shiny new camera in the shop window.
Therefore, we can conclude that the rules of composition only exist in our heads too. They merely help our brains organize the subjects in a picture. If we present a photo layout in a way that makes the world look familiar, it is easily understandable and becomes more acceptable to our minds.
The Rule of Thirds and Why it Is an Appealing Aesthetic
It is common for novice photographers to deride the rule of thirds. Nevertheless, it works as one of the ways we can make sense of a photograph, and there’s a very good reason why.
Using landscape photography as an example, the Rule of Thirds works because of how we look at the real world; we see more ground than sky.
Our eyes have a vertical field of view of around 60 degrees up from our line of sight and 75 degrees below. Furthermore, when walking, we mainly focus on a point about 20 feet ahead of us, not on the horizon. Consequently, we see about two-thirds land and one-third sky. That makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, as we are less likely to be predated from above and more likely to trip over something on the ground. It is why advanced motorists must be taught to look at the road far ahead, so they have time to react, whereas our instinct is to look much closer.
The Rule of Thirds doesn’t just work vertically. If we hold our right arms out in front of us and point at something, our hand isn’t aligned with our noses but about a third of the way in from the edge of our vision. So, placing the subject a third of the way from the side of a photo feels natural to us too.
The rule of thirds feels comfortable to the human eye because its familiarity is easy for the brain to accept.
Should We Break Away from the Rule of Thirds?
If you climb to the top of a hill or a very tall building, the proportion of sky to land changes dramatically. The sky appears much larger in proportion to the ground. It makes us feel isolated and small compared to our surroundings. The same feelings can be related in our photos by raising the camera and including more sky or space above the subject, thus making the subject small and insignificant at the bottom of the frame. Conversely, if we walk down a street surrounded by tall buildings or visit a place surrounded by mountains, we see little sky. It can feel oppressive and claustrophobic.
The emotions of someone who has their head in the clouds or, the opposite, being down to earth reinforces this idea. Imagine the feelings you experience staring up at the sky and how different it feels looking down at the ground. Most people will imagine their mood being uplifted by looking upwards or disheartened by looking down. Your photos can convey those feelings by changing the camera angle to point up or down.
So clearly, the Rule of Thirds isn’t the only approach to composing a photo.
Using Leading and Lead-in Lines
Humans are unique in that if someone else points at something, we can follow the line of their arm and finger to the direction they are pointing. Other animals can’t do that. If you point at something wanting your dog to look at it, it will look at your hand instead. However, even the most basic mammals understand paths and where they will lead. Like mice, bats, fish, and ants, we naturally follow lines on the ground that point toward the distance.
Equally, we use lines in photos to draw our eyes into and around the scene. Our clever brains can even create lines that don’t exist. We perceive a series of aligned objects as a line and follow those as surely as we do a continuous road disappearing into the distance.
Why the Golden Ratio Works
You probably have seen the Golden Section spiral. Nando Harmsen’s excellent recent article illustrated it. Its design is built around the mathematics of the Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers.
1+0 = 1
1+1 = 2
2+1 = 3
3+2 = 5
5+3 = 8
8+5 = 13
And so on.
This sequence appeals to the human mind because it comprises so much of the natural world that is familiar to us. The spiral of a snail shell, the patterns of seed heads in sunflowers, the way tree branches split, the arms of our galaxy, and the shape of the human skull and body are all constructed according to the mathematics behind the sequence.
Those appealing proportions have been used since prehistoric times; Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Epidauros theatre and the Acropolis of ancient Greece, and Prehispanic Architecture in Southern America are all said to have features that correspond to the golden ratio. We can only speculate whether this was a deliberate design feature or accidental in each case. But even if they didn’t necessarily know the mathematics behind it, there are sufficient ancient examples to recognize that their designers found the proportions pleasing.
The same mathematical ratio appears in the ancient poetry of India dating back some 2400 years, plus in some of the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Even our DNA corresponds with it.
Because of its familiarity, it is pleasing to the human brain. Should aliens arrive here from a distant galaxy where the laws of nature are different, they might not find our seashells, flowers, architecture, paintings by great masters, or photos by Cartier-Bresson so agreeable. But we do.
Why Using Established Compositions Is Important
These are just a few examples of compositional techniques that work; they are by no means the only ways we should lay out the subjects in our pictures. However, there are reasons why these and other techniques are appealing, and it all comes down to how our brains make sense of the world.
We can break all the rules and go out of our way to create uncomfortable images using unusual compositions. That is creatively satisfying, but fewer people will appreciate what you have done because they won’t necessarily understand why it jars.
Moreover, moving away from established compositional rules can distract you from the message you are trying to convey in the photo. Adopting an unusual layout doesn’t help tell the photo’s story unless it fits with the narrative.
The photo’s subject and the story you are trying to convey are the most critical factors of a photograph. Composition is just a framework we can use to help relate the story we are telling. If employing an uncommon design that isn’t as aesthetically pleasing, the viewer may give that more weight than the photo’s contents.
However, if you use an accepted framework like the rule of thirds, the viewer won’t be aware of it but will notice what you have photographed. Using a compositional technique, like the rule of thirds, might not be exciting, but that’s the point; it isn’t a distraction.