#650. Are the rule of thirds and golden hour ruining your photography ?

By pascaljappy | How-To

Sep 29

TLDR. Yes. If you let them overrule your conscious thinking.


First, a distinction :

A rule is meant to be obeyed.

A recipe is a set of steps to be followed to obtain a result that falls within acceptable distance of ideal.

Armies follow rules. Chefs adapt recipes.

It’s up to you to decide how you want to live your creative life.



Secondly, how valid is a repice / rule / recommendation that’s made out of context and doesn’t clearly state its purpose?

You will sleep no more than 4 hours a night” is a great rule if I want to deprive you of all ability to think for yourself or challenge my decisions. It may not be quite so great if you’re an artist trying to think creatively.

So pre-dawn and golden hour are a recipe. In the hands of a talented photographer who understands why they exist, they can lead to wonderful results.

They can not be considered general rules, though.

It’s commonly believed that photographs made before the sun is up are better. Which is, obviously, utter rubbish. Name one memorable photograph from any of the influential photographers that was made before sunrise. I’ll name 20 that weren’t.

Photographing before sunrise is just easier. The lower dynamic range makes the final image more predictable and golden rays will add a warm fuzzy feeling to an otherwise boring photograph.

But what if I prefer my photographs to look like the one above or below ? Clouds are another great way of keeping dynamic range in check. Yet most togs pack it up when rain comes in.


And what’s wrong with high dynamic range scenes ? Is Daido Moriyama to be denied his high contrast ?


Although we are diurnal animals, we have somehow developed a craving for that nocturnal fantasy look that comes with predawn shooting. And some superb imagery has been achieved by that school of thought, though I wonder whether it isn’t simply more by virtue of statistical likelihood (everybody’s doing it) than by the actual merit of the method.

If the warm purity of a spring sunrise is an important part of the story you are telling, then by all means, set the alarm to sparrow on a crystalline April morning. Otherwise, why not consider alternative lighting that might better suit your mood or intentions ?



Ditto the rule of thirds. Please don’t forget the ‘h’.

Where do I start with the questions ?

  • The third of what? A square frame? A 16:9 frame?
  • What do I place at the “third”? The main subject? By size? By importance to the story?
  • Does this work in colour as well as B&W?
  • Does this work for low contrast as well as high contrast?
  • Does this work for light as well as dark?
  • Most importantly, what does the result do?

Isn’t it ever nice when the subject is centered ?



What do I put in all the rest of the frame if I move my subject to the side ?



Deciding where to place the main subject requires thinking about what the main subject is … Is it the phones, below? Can’t be the men themselves, you can’t see a single face in the photograph. The instruments? You see the phones a lot better. What if the story is about maintaining traditions? What third do you put that (maintaining traditions) on, in the frame?



So no, ‘mafraid not. The rule of thirds just doesn’t cut it as a solid base for improving your photography. Unless you understand the complex field it is trying to summarize in three simple words, it’s probably doing more harm than good.

I could add “don’t use your smartphone” (as I did, below) to the list or harmful recommendations. But enough heresy for one day, right ? πŸ˜‰



Why hit on these two rules in particular ? Partly because they are two of the most frequently heard, partly because they deal with two of the 3 most important aspects of good photography : timing, composition, lighting.

Interestingly, you rarely hear about “rule of XXXX” to help beginners with timing. It’s just hard. And “practise, practise, practise” doesn’t have a sexy vibe to it. No Likes, no RTs, no shares.



Thing is, with great ranting comes great responsibility. Nature abhors a vacuum and destroying myths is no good if you’re not chilling willing to provide alternative brain food.

Which I am. But it’s difficult.

Distilling the 7 or more years of studying and practise that arts students go through to become fully fledged artists, and which I’ve never been through myself, into something that fits the attention span of homo webus is a bit of a lost battle.

But I’ll start publishing practical information very soon and, in the mean time,Β  will leave you with what it still the best starting point on the Internet : Ken Rockwell’s Fart for great photographs πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚


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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    As Oscar Wilde once said – “I can resist anything except temptation!” Why DO you put such thoughts in front of me, Pascal? πŸ™‚

    Rule 1 – “rules are meant to be broken”. Otherwise, creativity withers and dies. Remember when the “rule” said “shadows are black” and the French Academy absolutely panned all the Impressionist painters? I’d FAR rather have a Monet or a Van Gogh hanging on my living room wall than one of those sombre black shadow jobs that resulted from compliance with “the rule”.

    Rules aren’t rules anyway. In this context they are “suggestions” – “guidelines” – “a useful starting point”. to stimulate your creativity and set you off down the path towards creating a picture. They MAY take you to your destination – but they might not, too, and that’s just about as likely as success.

    One “rule” that I refuse to take any notice of, is the one that self-styled classicists trot out, to deal with things like water – and get smooth seas with no suggestion that there might be any waves in the ocean – or waterfalls that look as though someone is pouring a thin custard over the edge. I prefer reality – if I want fantasy I’ll watch a cartoon on TV.

    So – bring on the angry horses – let’s see what this posting produces, Pascal – I think you are in for a busy 24 hours, answering all the responses you receive. πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Oh, drat, I forgot the mandatory long-exposure !!!! How remiss of me, thanks for pointing it out. I guess that falls in the category of timing. So it can be super interesting to deconstruct time (Sugimoto) or just a tiresome recipe for uninspired landscapes.

      Rules are for herding. The more rules we follow, the more predictable we become and the easier to sell to. But we, at DS, are freedom fighters. No rule of thirds under our watch πŸ˜€

      That said, inspired photographs produce really lovely shots using all of these techniques (I’m thinking about occasional contributor Boris, for instance). The nuance is in the word ‘inspired’.

      Bring it on, guys.

    • Adrian says:

      I’ve grown to hate the “rules are made to be broken” phrase, as it is often parroted by those who think they are “mavericks” or “artists”. It often comes out when you offer some constructive advice: One example I remember was suggesting that something very bright behind a human subject distracted attention from the person, who was obviously the subject, explaining that the human eye is often drawn to the brightest thing in the frame, which caused tension between the actual subject and the bright thing. On no…”rules are meant to be broken”. I also remember seeing a typical modern street photo, with someone cut off at the side of the frame, the main subject out of focus, the horizon at a strange angle, and badly exposed. It was obviously the result of the “drive by shooting” technique practiced by some (another term could be random snaps), so I politely suggested a little more attention to composition, exposure and focus might help. Oh no…rules were made to be broken.

      Pascal quite rightly points out that there are not photographic rules, there are guidelines. They are there to try and help when maybe you are not sure how to approach a subject, but only when there are appropriate.

      There seems to be a lot of suffering opinions about what “golden hour” even is! I always thought it was the time in the late afternoon when the sky and ground illumination matched, just as the sun went down. Others seem to think its late afternoon when the low sun gives golden light. Pascal talks about pre dawn! Difficult to have a time based “rule” when we don’t even agree what time it relates to!

      I actually do prefer using the time when the sun is very low to equalise sky and ground illumination, it helps prevent blown out skies in high contrast locations. Another approach is to use filters or some of Sony’s in camera filter apps. Ot even just to keep the sun behind you to give natural polarising effects with wide lenses. These aren’t rules, just techniques, that can be given as guidelines to deal with certain situations.

      But please don’t say “rules are meant to be broken”, as that sometimes seems to be the mantra of the uninitiated who think random experimentation is better than learning techniques.

  • Adam Bonn says:

    Rules are to broken, but only if you understand them first…

    PERSONALLY I think that’s the grail of artistic endeavour – understanding and having control over what you’re doing.

    If you accidentally kick over a table that has many open pots of paint on it, then net result might look like a Pollock, but that’s not actually the same thing.

    Similarly finding out that a shot you took just happens to be the perfect rule of thirds or better yet, a diagonal criss-cross of Baroque genius is heart warming, but really not the same as you going out and seeing that shot for what it is.

    For me… Rules don’t work because you read about them, or watch a YT vid where someone draws loads of lines over the HCB shot of the kid on the bicycle and tells you what a genius composition it is and why

    (Although please do read those articles and watch those vids)

    Rules work because you understand how they work AND how they relate to your own work and what you want to show, which sort of means how you want to direct the viewer’s eye.

    If one’s photography is a simile for where’s wally? then for sure make yourself some new rules

    But don’t get too caught up in sinister diagonals, and that some chap on the internet told you the horizon must never be in the centre

    No, instead make like Pascal’s excellent examples here and tell your own story, and when your story telling works, try and understand why YOUR storytelling works

    IMHO, that’s the only rule

    But that said – be as broad as you can…. after all a classically trained singer with a wide range, might decide to sing in a punk rock band, and never be on key once. But they’re singing off key because it drives the song, not because they can’t carry the tune.

    You might not hear the difference between the singer above and a different singer, who’s in a punk band simply because they cannot hold a tune. But the difference is there and it will be nuanced in the quality of the songs (because the singer than can really sing, will have the ability to add more into their sound)

    So yes Pascal – great article and I’ve basically just parroted it back to in the comments.

    But we’re all friends right? And if men didn’t mansplain to each other we’d have very little to talk about πŸ™‚

    • Adrian says:

      Mastery of an art or craft is the ability to understand how to use techniques to create the result that you want, often without having to consciously think about them, because you “know” what you want and how to achieve it.
      If we think of “rules” as techniques, it takes all the emotion out of it, and removes the need for facile “rules are made to be broken” by those who don’t understand the techniques in the first place.
      It’s the difference between deliberately placing a subject cut off at the edge of the frame for artistic intent (you broke the “rule” about cutting off things at the edge of the frame for artistic reasons), and just happening to have something cut off at the edge of the frame for no deliberate reason, but trying to explain it away by saying “rules are made to be broken”.
      As you say, only if you understand the rule and when to use it in the first place.

      • Adam Bonn says:

        100% agree Adrian,

        I also think that for many people, you must get through mastering the technique stage in order to just “know”

        There’s wonderful story (urban legend?) about Ayrton Senna, once having an out of body experience whilst driving the F1 car, that he wasn’t driving at all in fact he was floating above the car watching himself drive

        But of course in actual fact he was driving, and not just to the shops – he was actually driving to a world championship standard whilst using repeatable process to be perfectly on line, every corner, every lap, every time.

        This IMHO is what is meant by those tired old cliches about 10,000 hours of practice and your first 10,000 shots are your worst

        It’s about seeking to understand how it all works, so that you can work it how you want with little conscious effort and to just ‘know’ which frees your mind up for other things

        And for all but the once in a generation truly gifted, this takes effort and perseverance and patience.

        I suspect that most gifted people are actually “merely” (sic) extremely talented and have combined that talent with the effort and time to appear to those that haven’t as gifted

        (and NO I’m NOT saying I live in this world – in fact speaking PERSONALLY I tend to find that the more I learn about anything, the more I understand that I’m not that good at it!)

        When people fob “you” off with but I meant to do that bad frame – honestly and just break the rules

        They to my ear, just sound like little used car sales folk desperate to use any line to engage the viewer and it’s painfully transparent (IMO / YMMV)

        But back on point…

        IMO Pascal is right, merely copy/pasting rules into your own work is holding you back – even if the rules are sound… it’s the same as if you copy/paste a bit of software code from the net, the code may be golden, it may work great – but don’t kid yourself you’re a coder, and if for some reason the code stops working you’ll have no clue how to fix it. Because you’re not a coder!

        • pascaljappy says:

          “the more I understand that I’m not that good at it”

          Amen brother … I started a new sport last year and every practice session is like that. I know I’m much better than a year ago but all this does is show me how much further I am from mastery that I originally thought. 30 years of photography have changed nothing to the feeling. The more I see what guys like Leiter produced, the more inaccessible it all feels in spite of the accumulated work.

          Ugh πŸ˜‰

        • Adrian says:

          Early I my career a colleague told a story about a history we graduate who had been recruited with him to an IT coding job. They always got clean a compilation of their code because they deleted ant lines of code that threw a compiler error.

          Nothing to do with photography, and not even that relevant, but the story sis make me laugh.

          For most people mastery takes time and practice, although it may be easier for some because they minds are wired in a way that makes it easier for them to learn. For many, mastery can be aspired to, but may never come. One of the ways I know I have progressed as a photographer is realising that I have achieved things without a great deal of conscious effort, which shows some understanding or “mastery” of technique. Sometimes, when we try hard and consciously, the results don’t come – which only shows how far we have yet to go

          • pascaljappy says:

            It’s extremely difficult to go into the field and think your way to a great photograph. Probably impossible. The reason why some people seem so gifted (everything comes easy to them) is that they have done a lot of hard work behind the scenes to understand what they did well and what they didn’t.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Early on, I felt I was missing something and started reading various books on composition. They were rather hard to come by, 50-60 years back, but “treasures” when I stumbled on one. They introduced me to all sorts of guidelines – the rule of thirds was the first, and it is based on a lot of sound “reasoning” or appraisal – not sure if it’s intellectual reasoning or psycho analysis of humans or simple a study of how we look at things. I found them very helpful. Which of course they ARE. That’s why people put them out there, for youngsters (as I was, way back then) to learn from and develop with.

        Artistry is no different from anything else. There has to be a starting point. Books, lectures, rules, whatever, on composition are intended to provide it. Where it leads, where people take it, where they go from there, is undoubtedly a question rooted in personal choices. Whether the eccentricities that brings into play are appreciated is for others to decide.

        I’d hate to think the “rules” became despised, as the French Academy’s views on the colour of shadows eventually were. I don’t see a parallel between the “rules” and that set of circumstances.

        And I do think that sometimes people over indulge in “reasoning” and “analysis”. We are, after all, basically viewing another form of art – not the same as sculpture, not the same as oil or water colour painting, and certainly on a different canvas from music. But it’s still art – still “beauty in the eye of the beholder” – still subjective. And hopefully creative.

        And that’s the nub, for me – as long as the “rules” help creativity I’m supportive – I would hate to see creativity sledged for the sake of any wooden and inflexible application of the “rules”. For heaps of reasons – like, for example, not every cam has the same picture format – or because sometimes when we’re composing a shot we KNOW, already, that it’s going to be cropped, because the frame and the subject aren’t a match.

        How I cook and how you cook may be – and likely are – quite different. What’s important, to me, is that the ingredients are selected with care, they are properly prepared, nicely cooked and attractively presented. Inevitably, differences arise – I scarcely ever “follow” recipes, but I’d be lying if I tried to suggest that I wouldn’t spend half my time in the kitchen simply floundering, if it weren’t for the recipes.

        Translate that back to photography – so I can shut up and leave this discussion to the rest of the group πŸ™‚

        • pascaljappy says:

          I think the rules are a great awareness tool. Absolute beginners realise there is more to photography (or any other creative endeavour) that the mindless snapshot and that some basic building blocks can be learnt. Passed that initial awakening, the use of these out-of-context rules soon disappears and deeper thought needs to come into play.

          • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

            That’s a very good description of what happened to me – first, flying on instinct – then, discovered books on composition and improved heaps – and after that, my rebellious nature took over and I left the water wings beside the swimming pool, as I sailed off into the sunset.

    • NMc says:

      I thought you were only supposed to break the rules after they were mastered not just understood; anyhow if you have mastered the rule you can probably have good go at answering Pascal’s questions.

      Just don’t blame the rule if you use it poorly or inappropriately, or feel the need to troll one rule, technique or theory because you can’t get it to work, or you prefer to use another.
      Regards Noel

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    To follow? No!
    To always turn your back on? No…
    To try? No, but…
    To experiment with? Yes, when you feel like it.
    And to bend, squeeze and turn upside down while experimenting after your first straight forward tries.
    ( Just to widen your experience.)

    When the aspiring photo beginner sometimes feels lost, should he or she look for some rules (or inspiring photos) to play with? No, not really, perhaps occasionally just for the fun of it…
    And if he or she stumbles over some rule while uninspired?
    No, not unless he feels “Ah, I never thought if that..” – that’s a good sign for playing around with it, or perhaps it was a photographic idea found in another’s work.

    NOT to forget the danger of following too far, you will have to unlearn again if you want to find your own road, and unlearning is MUCH harder than learning!
    – – –

    Yes, Ken Rockwell’s “FART” is a good starting point.

    And I’ve found a lot of good reads on the philosophy of – and in – photography (and on photography in general) in Ming Thein’s blog archive.
    – – –


    Stravinskij said (in his book “Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons”), that the stricter the rules were that he set himself for composing, the freer he worked. (Quote inexact.)

    Elisabeth Schwarzkopf said in an interview on singing Mozart, that it was difficult because it had to sound so easy.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Kristian. It’s a proven fact that creativity is stifled by too much freedom. Give people a blank page and they struggle to produce something interesting. But add constraints and that’s when the best work gets done.

  • Cliff Whittaker says:

    I’ve been doing photography for 57 years. For myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that my first rule of photography is that there are no rules. But, some techniques work better than others sometimes (but not always) in some situations. I like to think that I can mostly recognize the difference now. But I’m not always certain about that. I like to experiment… sometimes. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    • pascaljappy says:

      Exactly. I’m pretty sure you have developed enough experience to know intuitively what technique works best for you in a given context. That’s invaluable experience that you have integrated in your own particular way and that gives you your own distinctive style. That’s the dream πŸ™‚

  • NMc says:

    As mentioned above by others just it is called a rule, not a law [pedantry button now switched off]. The rule of thirds was never intended to be the rule above all other rules, it did not promise you a rose garden either [smarty-pants dial now turned to 0] When it comes to the rule of thirds I don’t think I have ever read an article or book that did not include discussion about the types of issues raised in the previous comments; but perhaps that says more about my intelligence or selected reading matter. πŸ˜‰

    I think a better way to start answering your rhetorical questions is to positively talk about what the rule of thirds can do, at least if you were trying to discuss this with someone who is just beginning. I would say that the rule of thirds starts you thinking about graphic composition in the following ways;-
    β€’ The subject will not always look best in the centre.
    β€’ The main subject does not need to be centred on an intersection point.
    β€’ Having β€˜something’ graphic near 2 or more of the intersection points can be a good way to fill an image.
    β€’ The β€˜something’ could be part of the subject, a secondary figure/ subject, an item that describes context or an element that has a contrast in tone, texture or colour.
    β€’ It is not about geometric accuracy, there are no prizes for getting a composition element dead on a point.
    β€’ Any compositional device, rule or theory can be misused to ruin a photograph, when that happens it is always the fault of the photographer.

    From some understanding about how the rules of thirds can work, it is much easier to start to understand and analyse things such as balance and dynamics. So in conclusion, and possibly an answer to your question, if the rule of thirds is a good starting point for someone understanding their composition then it’s existence is fully justified, regardless of whether you use it consciously or you moved beyond it to compose images more holistically in real time.
    I am really looking forward to your follow up article/s.
    Regards Noel

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Noel, all of this is true. What bothers me is that it helps you compose without providing much insight into a deeper WHY. In many cases, a single subject should be centered. In other cases, it shouldn’t. It really depends on your intention as the author of the photograph. Are you trying to include some context ? Are you isolating the subject from the background ? Are you trying to create something that feels static and balanced or something that feels out of kilt ? I’ve almost finished the follow-up. Hopefully this will spur enough discussions to provide more value than a single rule πŸ™‚

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Very good point, Pascal. It’s not the “how”, it’s the “why” that we should be chasing. Absent any other thoughts, all of these “rules” are a help – a starting point. But they are no substitute for thinking what we’re trying to do, seeing what’s there to explore & exploit.

  • Fabrizio Giudici says:

    When I started seriously the approach to photography, I immediately understood I had big problems with composition. It was frustrating, at the point that I even thought photography wasn’t for me. Before giving up I studied the rule of third and started applying it: up to the point I preset the viewfinder of every camera of mine to show the grid. It was refreshing, because I started producing something meaningful – it defeated my frustation.

    That’s why my metaphor for rules is swimming armrests: if you don’t have an innate attitude for swimming, you need them for learning to swim, otherwise the thing might scare you. As you learn swimming better and better, you can use rules less and less. At some point, you realise that swimming armrests have turned into a hindrance: you can’t swim fast, you can’t submerge, you even get more fatigued than needed. That’s the moment of dropping them. For me, the thing happened just a few years ago, and I removed the grid from the viewfinder. I still apply some manual procedure (such as inspecting the borders of the frame to avoid including distracting stuff), but I’m trying more and more to perceive the image as a whole. I even pre-programmed a button to totally declutter the EVF when composing.

    Still, swimming support can be still useful if you enter some unknown area of the sport (e.g. swimming in cold or turbulent waters, such as in a stream). So, from time to time, I still apply some rule when I realise I’m in a new context.

    Last but not least, I turned the approach to rules upside-down: instead of using them before the shot, I often use them after the shot, to evaluate what I’ve done. In this perspective, rules which involve curves (e.g. spirals) or visual paths are more insteresting that the simple thirds, and in some cases I reckon that they made the shot. This, for instance, made me understood that only a tiny percent of my compositions rely on those elements, and I have to improve in this area.

    PS “Armies follow rules” – I understand the point in the context, but it’s not even true: armies are lead by strategists, and the good ones didn’t always blindly follow rules. Rules are for subordinates, even though in some rare cases you learn about some hero that did the right thing because it did the “wrong” thing. After all, they say “the art of war”, not “the technique”.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Aha, I think you make a very valid point here !!! Rules are most interesting after the shot. They can be used to analyse your work and learn for yourself how they fit in your particular world view. When someone applies them before the shot, they are following blindly. When you use them after the shot as a guide for introspective analysis, they open up a new world that helps you formalise your evaluation of your own work.

      Good point about armies and strategies. It is said that Napoleon, after a great victory, stood on the tomb of Frederick the great of Prussia and said “If you’d been alive today, I wouldn’t be standing here today”. My guess is that strategic geniuses like Hannibal of Frederick of Prussia had a deep understanding of human psychology and that’s what we should look for in photography to go beyond the simple use of rules.

  • Fabrizio Giudici says:

    … because _he_ did …

  • Pascal, it seems we’re connected. You recently wrote about losing inspiration and I’m currently quite bored by my usual routine and try to seek new challenges. And for this topic, I disabled 3Γ—3 guides on my camera just last week to free myself composition (I enabled it only a year or so ago because my horizon was always slanted).

    Now I rather correct my horizon in post then ending up with so many rule-of-third compositions that just happen when you have these lines and intersections visible all the time. In general I suggest to remove (almost) any kind of distracting overlaying data during shooting (histogram, zebra, focus-peaking).

    However, composition is a very complex topic and for beginners it’s easier to start with some guidance. After some years of practice, gut feeling sets in and you know without thinking which composition supports which message within milliseconds.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Yes, composition is hard to learn because it doesn’t follow simple rules and it’s easy to get lost in the millions of suggestions found in books and online. I believe some deeper understanding of the psychology of vision is necessary to integrate the building blocks and am working on a very simplified version of this for the coming days. Watch this space πŸ˜‰

  • philberphoto says:

    Well, it depends what rules we are talking about. Other people’s rules, or our own. I never break my own rules, they serve me too well…:-)
    More to the point, there was a Meetup in Paris with a theme of “break all the rules”. The results were extraordinarly interesting, some of them downright fabulous. And in my shoots since then, I find a freedom from form and rule that I din’t knw I had in me…

    • pascaljappy says:

      Power to the meetup πŸ™‚ You once wrote about the benefits of photography as a duo, a meetup provides that much more opportunity for exchange and discovery. Particularly an anarchist one that encourages you to break all the rules. Heck, even I might be tempted to join that one πŸ˜‰

  • OK, this might be arguable but I think that 4 out of 7 of your images use the rule of thirds. Rule of thirds is not only horizontal but also vertical. The main subject is set to a third of the image. And the main subject is not the whole subject but the part were your eye is drawn to. You can figure it out by looking away from the photo and then quickly looking at it and wait where your eye stays fixed.

    In the first image it’s just below the peak of the rock that is about 1/3rd of the vertical space. In the second image, it’s the tree trunk not the red leafs (negative space). The third image is abstract anyways and not even centered. It’s a little bit off right to me. Rule of thirds is not the only composition rule. Centering is another. It creates calm and dullness. That’s why it works well here and with a little bit off-centering, it supports the floating character. Same for the fourth image: The oddness of the subject is only supported by a non-dynamic, centered composition. The fifth image is rule of third and supports the movement of the musicians. The main subject is the hip of the third man from left. Because you decided so: He’s in focus and the brightest point. The sixth photo is no real composition. The eye wanders around looking for the subject or intention. It has too many points of interest (through contrast) to really make it chaotic but no strong subject. That’s why it doesn’t work well, IMO. The last one is rule of thirds again and has very nice lighting. I would just crop the top part with its distracting and unnecessary background.

    And that’s the point with these rules: They make sense. But it’s not just one rule but several and of course you can’t follow all of them at the same time. Furthermore, these rules are mostly applied in post and during culling. They can help you to define why some pictures work and some not. They are the logical reasoning for your gut feeling. It’s a theoretical layer on top. That doesn’t change your photo, but makes you understand what’s going on. I’m pretty HCB & co. didn’t drawn any of the lines mentally over their images during shooting. But afterwards for culling. Probably not figurative but through is experience and gut feeling. And if you asked him why he choose this photo and not that one, he would argue with leading the eye, spaces, opposites, and all the stuff that is actually in these rules.

    Btw. These rules are not only for photography but also for design, architecture, horticulture, marketing … it’s everything that we want other people to interact with.

    In my opinion, the only take-away with these rules is: There’re more rules then rule of third or golden hour. Get to know them, apply them and make it work for you.

    Concerning your questions:
    The third of what? A square frame? A 16:9 frame?
    Of the medium, independently from the aspect ratio. BUT some aspect rations work better with certain composition techniques then other. For example square format works very well with centering – but not only.

    What do I place at the β€œthird”? The main subject? By size? By importance to the story?
    The main subject. Most likely the most important (let’s say catchy?) one for your story.

    Does this work in colour as well as B&W?
    Sure. Composition is independent from color but color and contrast affect composition. You have to bring all things together.

    Does this work for low contrast as well as high contrast?
    Of course for the viewer to recognize the subject, higher contrast (or color difference) make it easier (see your woods image). But in general it also works in low contrast.

    Does this work for light as well as dark?
    Yes, both. As long as you don’t have a pure white or pure black images, you can do composition. Composition can only be done when you have at minimum 2 elements to move around your frame. One of these two elements is the background.

    Most importantly, what does the result do?
    The rule of thirds is quite a neutral composition, almost a little bit boring but simple and just works. It adds a little bit of dynamic and tension to your frame but doesn’t go into either extremes. That’s why it’s so common and can be applied to so many motives.

    But remember rule of thirds is not the only rule. There’re many more and very often you haven’t applied just one rule but several. And they all need to work together.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Steffen,

      this illustrate how difficult it is to use these rules. Unless a subject is obviously THE central subject, it’s very difficult to even say *where* it is located. To me the bush and yellow lamp spot are more or less in the middle. In both cases, it’s the colour contrast that draws my eye to them. But you may be more interested in the trunk than the leaves. The musicians have phones in their pockets, which creates an interesting contrast between modern life and maintaining century old traditions. The focus is on the guy without the phone but depth of field is large enough to let both phones play an active role. All of this is subjective.

      That’s why I never follow rules dictated by others in context totally different from mine but prefer to move one step up to study more general principles that help me structure my experience and learn what I enjoy and why. That’s the topic of today’s post #652, the follow up to this one.

  • Bruno Chalifour says:

    One does not apply rules for the sake of applying rules (I would rather, and probably more accurately regarding the “rule of thirds”/rule of thumb (as I call it) call them “guidelines”); one does not break rules for the sake of breaking rules either. That being stated:
    1-the “guidelines” resulting from centuries of visual arts and esthetic research and practice cannot be dismissed that easily lest one should throw away the baby with the bath water. What was good enough for Picasso in his Guernica, is probably good enough for a few of us. A little humility here! ;o)
    2-these guideline do help beginners organize and balance their images faster and more easily. They also help the general esthetic of their images and the experience the viewer has of them… why dismiss them and condemn one’s first step with a camera to a long and lonely walk in darkness and frustration?
    These “guidelines” are just tools. One first “apprentices” them, then have them in one’s toolbox and use them, tweak them when required, when it makes sense for their photograph and what they want to share through it. Once one has learn to put one foot before the other with help, photo guidelines being crutches too, one can walk, then run and eventually jump (and ignore steps)… but without the first steps, no jump… here is what my experience has been and what I have learnt from it.

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