The Rule of Thirds Is Overrated

The Rule of Thirds Is Overrated

The rule of thirds is completely overrated. There, I said it. Nope, I am not going to take it back.

The day when I first picked up my camera and looked through my viewfinder to find the grid of thirds, I quickly thought to myself: "well, this seems to be a little too simple and predictable." Every image with the composition or focus point lined up the same. I struggled to work out how artists took this principle and then crafted works of art from it. The simple answer is that they did not. The rule of thirds is the dumbed-down version of the actual compositional grids used by artists. It took me years to find this out, but once you go down the rabbit hole of composition and learn the truth, it is hard to look at an image the same again.

Before I blow your mind with the actual compositional grid, let's just quickly take one last look at the rules of thirds, say bon voyage, and abruptly push that simpleton out of our lives.

Here we go, drum roll, please! Ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to introduce you to the Armature grid.

For centuries, painters and artists alike have used this grid and other compositional techniques to create their masterpieces. As you may have noticed, the rule of thirds is still lurking in there, but it is mainly an empty foundation the grid is built upon. The rule of thirds is a pushbike, and the armature grid is a Ducati.

So, how do you use the grid? Well, multiple compositional techniques can be used in conjunction with the grid, and I will not be able to cover them all, so I'll cherry-pick a few, and the rest you will have to research yourself. The grid utilizes dynamic symmetry, which guides your images along in creating a balance between the elements and unifies the pieces together. 

One way of using the grid is to make use of the two large diagonals in it, the baroque diagonal and the sinister diagonal. The baroque goes left to right; it is the more natural of the two, because we read that way. But what if you wanted to create an image that felt off? Maybe you want to create a sense of confusion. Then, this is where the sinister diagonal comes in. Because it goes against our natural way of reading an image, it creates an uneasy feeling.

To go one step further, you would compose your models or composite your elements to flow with all the diagonals of the grid, locking them into the grid.

Look at this image I created years ago. All three people lock into the grid, creating a sense of compositional unity. I colored in red where they are locked in. 

Which brings me to gamut. Gamut is the rhythm of an image. It is the repetition of a number of angles created by the image. It is something that most people will not recognize but will subconsciously pick up on. If you look at the image here, you can see where the gamut in this image is. As it was an early image, some are a little off. And this is where looking and reflecting on your work becomes important. With a little adjustment to the guy on the left, we could have a home run of matching gamut.

The last technique I will go into is radiating lines. Radiating lines is one of the compositional techniques to bring unity to your image. The lines are like branches from a tree, all radiating out from a common point. If they share the same line, then it relates them and creates unity. Hopefully, you can now see how everything is connected. Composition is not just one technique; it is many techniques used together that create one unified piece of work.

So, here is your homework. There are many more compositional techniques. I will list them here, and it is your task to go out and research the:

  • Arabesque
  • Coincidences
  • Ellipses
  • Enclosures
  • Aerial perspective
  • Greatest area of contrast
  • Edge flicker

Now, I wish I could say I learned this all by myself, but I did not. I was taught by my friend, Tavis Leaf Glover. He runs a website called Canon of Design, where you can learn all the techniques I have mentioned and more. Class tip, the homework will be really easy if you search here. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Yannig Van de Wouwer's picture

This book is a recommended read, very elaborate: "Michael Freeman - The Photographer's Eye". The content is much more interesting than the title ;)