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Give the Bird to the Rule of Thirds

June 7, 2010

If you’ve ever read a photography “how to” book you are no doubt familiar with the rule of thirds.  If not, here’s a brief explanation.  Imagine two horizontal and two vertical lines running through your viewfinder, dividing it into equal sections.  Where those lines intersect are the sacred “sweet spots”.  If you were to compose an image using the rule of thirds you would place your main subject at one of those intersections.  Simple enough, right?

Back when I was a newbie photographer I obsessed over the rule of thirds.  Never would I compose an image with the main subject smack dab in the middle of the frame.  Blasphemy!  But here’s the thing: the rule of thirds is a guideline, a suggestion.  It is not an absolute. 

I’ll be the first to admit that more often than not using the rule of thirds as a compositional aid will result in the most dynamic photo.  I no longer obsess over it but I’ve been at this photography thing for 11 years now and building compositions is a lot like breathing – it’s just automatic.  I arrange the elements within my images such that main subjects are right there in the “sweet spot”, even though I didn’t make a conscious decision to put them there.  Every once in a while though, I get a little rebellious.  Every now and then, I’ll center my main subject.

When is the right time to give the rule of thirds the bird and create a centered composition?  I don’t really know.  The best answer I can offer is to say, “When it just feels right.”  Yeah, I know – how very new age of me.  The reality is that photography is not a science.  It is an art.  Even in today’s high tech digital world, where cameras are nothing more than small handheld computers, what comes out of them is art.  By it’s very nature, art is subjective.  We all see the world through different eyes and what I think is a masterpiece, you may consider a master piece of crap.

I think the best way to learn when the time is right for a little breaking of the rules is to experiment.  When you’re working a composition try using the rule of thirds.  Then break the rules and place your subject in the center.  Most of us use digital cameras and it doesn’t cost a single penny to click the shutter.  Be liberal with that sucker!  The more you photograph, and the more you experiment, the more adept you will become at recognizing when a centered composition is the right choice.

Take a look at the two images in this post.  What do you think of the compositions?  Was centering them the right choice?  If so, why?  If not, why?  What would you have done different?  Let’s get a lively discussion going.  Maybe it’ll give a newbie the inspiration to offer a middle finger salute to “the rules” and start experimenting with centered compositions?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 7, 2010 9:48 am

    Reflections are one thing that get me flipping the bird to the thirds guideline. Grabbing one shot with the rule and one at a 50/50 is some what of good habit. Sometimes I get home and wish I took both views but it doesn’t always happen.

  2. Bill Brennan permalink
    June 7, 2010 1:09 pm

    I do not feel like giving the bird to the rule of thirds. It has its place when it can be used effectively. Agree that it is a guide and is not intended for use 100% of time.

    Bill Brennan

  3. June 8, 2010 2:47 pm

    The rule of thirds is a good general rule of thumb but it’s just that…general. There are other compositional techniques that lend themselves equally well to great images. Leading lines, repeating patterns, contrasting items, I could go on and on. Mostly, I agree with your statement that a composition is right when it “feels” right. Learn as many effective compositional tools and techniques as you can and let the subject determine which is appropriate.

  4. June 9, 2010 2:53 am

    The rule of thirds is a platitude taught in Art 101 or Introduction to Photography. As Bill Bean says there are other techniques to learn and then forget once they become second nature and you can use the creative, intuitive mind to take an image further. Galen Rowell writes a good deal about this. Also, my father pioneer landscape photographer Philip Hyde often quoted Edward Weston who said in relation to composition that rules are made to be broken. Edward Weston also said, “Composition is merely the strongest way of seeing.”

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