I have never liked the phrase “rules of composition.” To me, it seems too formal, suggesting that such a complex topic as composition can be boiled down to a few quick tips. So, in a blatant attempt to out-do John Sherman’s provocative “Is Nikon’s New 500mm FL Too Sharp?” title, I have aimed this article at the heart of photography school’s most basic lesson in composition: the rule of thirds.
A brief warning – the rule of thirds frustrates me more than it probably should, and I wrote this article while I normally would have been sleeping. If you find the rule of thirds to be helpful, please do not take this article to be an attack on your style of composition. Everyone is different, and I wholeheartedly support any method that helps you take the photos you enjoy.
1) What is the rule of thirds?
Most people reading this already know about the rule of thirds. It’s simply a grid that divides a rectangle into nine equal parts, as shown below:
The rule of thirds is intended to be a guide for successful composition – it suggests that you place your subject along one of the four lines, or ideally at one of the four intersection points.
2) An Ambiguous Subject
It’s easy to analyze certain photos for the presence of the rule of thirds – specifically, those with a relatively small and obvious subject. If you take a photo of an isolated bird in flight, for instance, it should be pretty easy to tell if the bird (or perhaps the bird’s eye) intersects with the rule of thirds grid.
Often times, though, I find that my subject is too large to fit definitively on the grid, even if it technically crosses one of the thirds. This issue seems to be more common for landscape or architectural photographers who deal with larger, less-defined subjects, but it certainly affects all genres.
Look at the photo below:
Now look at the photo with a rule of thirds grid for comparison:
As you can see, the mountain does indeed intersect with the top 1/3 line. But it also extends significantly above and below – in fact, the top 1/3 line intersects just as much as any other line from the top quarter to almost the center of the photo. Although the subject technically does cover part of the 1/3 grid, it would be a mistake to think that this photo is an example of the rule of thirds.
Even then, this photo is easier to compare with the rule of thirds than many of my others. What happens if you’re photographing an abstract or multi-subject scene? Is it even possible to compose such a photo using the rule of thirds? I don’t believe it is – if your subject isn’t relatively small or well-defined, it is almost impossible to tell whether it fits the rule of thirds in the first place.
You could argue that the above photo fits the rule of thirds – at the very least, some of the trees intersect with the vertical 1/3 and 2/3 lines. Yet, elements of this photo would intersect with any vertical line drawn across the frame, and the main subject (the glowing tree near the middle-right) doesn’t fit with the rule of thirds at all. This isn’t a particularly unusual photo, either – nearly every time you take a wide-angle picture of a forest, the rule of thirds can be made to fit the scene arbitrarily.
3) The Ambiguous Grid
In the section above, I discuss how easy it is to force a photo to fit the rule of thirds, assuming that its subject is large or vague enough. But what if the subject is easily definable, but only barely off one of the third lines? Look at the photo below:
The damselfly’s eyes in this photo certainly seem to fit the rule of thirds. But what does the all-powerful grid say?
Okay, the eyes are slightly off of the 1/3 intersection. No big deal, right? This photo almost entirely complies with the rule of thirds.
However, if this is your thought process, the “rule of thirds” becomes “rule of what looks roughly like thirds.” So, there’s a gradual transition – the farther away from the 1/3 markings you place your subject, the less clear it is that your photo fits the rule.
To account for this flexibility, the modified rule of thirds grid below would recommend that you place your subject in the red zone:
But that’s not entirely right, because most people wouldn’t recommend putting your main subject along the absolute border of the photo. Let’s modify the grid again so that it looks like this:
Now we have the rule of lumpy donuts. If you put your subject roughly within the ring-shaped red area, you should have no trouble convincing other photographers that your photo follows the rule of thirds.
Every rule-of-thirds lesson I have heard concludes the same way:
“By the way, there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes, you will want to compose your photo in a way that doesn’t fit the rule of thirds. That’s okay! As a photographer, you have the ultimate say in the appearance of your photo. Don’t be afraid to break the rules if your photo looks better a different way.”
Or something to that effect.
Now, the ambiguous rule of lumpy donuts is now growing even vaguer: “Generally, put the subject within this donut-shaped grid. But if the photo looks better some other way, don’t be afraid to abandon the rule.” Perhaps the genius of the rule of thirds is that it recommends that you put the subject wherever you want in the frame. If this is the case, I agree with it completely.
5) Outgrowing the Rule
Some photographers defend the rule of thirds by saying that it is a helpful learning tool for beginners – over time, good photographers will stop relying on it to compose their photos. The suggestion here is to learn the rule of thirds, then abandon it later.
Of all the arguments for the rule of thirds, I agree with this one the most. I do believe that, at some level, the rule of thirds is an easy way for beginning photographers to see the power of composing a subject off-center. Certainly, most beginners frame their photos with tightly-centered compositions – perhaps the rule of thirds helps these photographers realize that off-center subjects can be just as beautiful.
On the other hand, if you want to teach beginners that off-center compositions can look beautiful, why not just say that instead? If the rule of thirds is a middleman between beginners and their knowledge of off-center compositions, I fail to see why it is necessary in the first place. If you want to help beginners think creatively, which method would be more effective – teaching them to take rule-of-thirds-based photos, or teaching them to take photos where the subject is off-center? Both would have a similar effect, but one is far more limiting than the other.
Thus, I don’t really subscribe to the learn-then-outgrow view towards the rule of thirds – considering that there are other ways to teach the concept of off-center composition, I don’t believe that the rule of thirds is worth learning in the first place.
6) The Golden Ratio
All this talk of the rule of thirds, and I have yet to mention its infamous cousin – the golden ratio. The golden ratio of 1.618 : 1 is an approximation of the following:
½ (1 + √ 5 )
This number matters because of the Fibonacci sequence, where every subsequent number is the sum of the previous two: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, and so on. If you divide a given Fibonacci number by the previous one, you approach the golden ratio. For example, 89/55 rounds to 1.618.
I commonly hear people say that the rule of thirds is a simplification of this golden ratio, which is why it “works.” To that, I offer two counterpoints:
One: if the rule of thirds is an approximation of the golden ratio, it’s a pretty bad one.
Look at the grids below (rule of thirds in red, golden rectangle in blue):
If the rule of thirds is widely intended to be this far off, why isn’t it taught as such – and why do in-camera compositional grids typically divide the frame into thirds, rather than into the golden ratio? Not to mention that this additional grid makes the donut even more lumpy and ambiguous.
Two: it probably doesn’t mean anything anyway.
I know that this point is controversial. After all, the golden mean/ratio/rectangle shows up in nature all the time, right? And if the Greeks used this number as the basis for the Parthenon, it must have some intrinsic value.
Unfortunately, the answer is that it probably doesn’t.
As an example, consider two of the most popular claims of the golden ratio: it appears in galactic spirals and nautilus shells. Although both of these examples typically follow logarithmic spirals, the golden ratio is just a single special case of logarithmic expansion – rarely are the specific angles in galaxies or shells the same as those of the golden spiral, in part because galaxies and shells already differ among themselves. If spiral galaxies don’t all have the same angles, how could they possibly be modeled off the golden spiral? The details are too specific for me to cover here, but you can read more information on the Logarithmic Spiral Wikipedia page.
Granted, the golden ratio is an interesting mathematical quantity, but I see no reason that it should have any effect on the human perception of natural beauty – especially considering that it doesn’t appear in the natural world all that often.
And even the Parthenon doesn’t embody the golden ratio, despite the pictures you may have seen. It is possible to superimpose almost any rectangle over the Parthenon and claim that it magically fits your desired ratio – there are enough “starting points” along the Parthenon to do so – but the most obvious rectangle in the Parthenon (shown below) has a ratio of exactly 9 : 4, or 2.25. This is far from the golden ratio of 1.618.
The other possible rectangle on the Parthenon is the one formed by the now-collapsed triangular façade at the top. This is the rectangle that most people mistakenly label as fitting the golden ratio. If the red rectangle in the image above were extended to cover the tip of the façade, as well as the lowest step (then extended to the outer edges of the façade), its ratio becomes about 1.71. Yes, this number is somewhat close to 1.618, but the ancient Greeks were a smart group of people – if they had wanted the Parthenon to embody the golden ratio, they wouldn’t have built a rectangle that is “almost” right. Most of the diagrams you see online use thick enough lines and generous enough spacing to correct for this 5% discrepancy, but the differences are much larger in the real world – the Parthenon is almost seventy meters (225 feet) wide.
It is worth mentioning, though, that the golden ratio does appear in some corners of the natural world – or, at least, the Fibonacci sequence does. For example, when leaves spiral around a stem, they often do so at a fraction of a circle that can be expressed by two Fibonacci numbers – such as 1/2 or 5/13. But even then, this spiral isn’t the same as the golden ratio – it just uses two numbers from the same sequence.
I think that spirals in general are beautiful, which makes it easy to assume that the golden spiral is special – without a doubt, it does look nice. But in the four diagrams below, can you even tell which one is the golden spiral? If so, does it look significantly more beautiful than the others?
Ironically, thirds appear in nature far more frequently than does the golden spiral – and halves are the most common of all, at least in animals. Does this mean that the ratio of 1/2 is inherently more beautiful than the ratio of, for example, 17/23? Honestly, I’m not sure if this is even a logical question.
I truly hope that someone can prove me wrong here – this topic always has fascinated me – but until then I’m tempted to file the golden ratio’s artistic nature away with homeopathy and aluminum hats.
Update: This section generated quite a bit of feedback in the comments, both for and against my arguments. One of the best contributions comes from reader John Acurso, who found a wonderful video from Stanford University that covers the golden ratio quite thoroughly. Give it a watch if you have time – the video goes through each of the golden ratio’s popular claims one-by-one, debunking most of them (see the 28 minute mark for a discussion on the Parthenon). There is a lot of misinformation on the golden ratio, so it’s great to see a video that shows the other side of the coin. Thanks, John!
Yes, of course, this whole article is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Every photographer I know understands that a photo’s value has nothing to do with how well it matches to an arbitrary grid of thirds, and I would be surprised to meet anyone who believes otherwise. Similarly, I know that most people agree that the best way to compose a photo changes depending upon the specific scene in front of the camera.
The danger is that photographers use the rule of thirds by default. This habit paves the way for sloppy compositions – placing the subject off to the side even when a centered composition would be best, for example. And even though all photographers know that the rule can be broken, some rarely put that knowledge into practice.
Thus, I believe that it is a bad long-term idea to teach the rule of thirds as a cornerstone of composition in the first place. Perhaps the rule of thirds can show a beginner the power of off-center framing, but I think that the rule loses its value at the moment it it limits a photographer’s creative process (which I believe occurs whenever a photographer actively considers using the rule for a given photo). The rule of thirds forces you either to follow it or consciously break it – which limits your creativity almost by definition.
I want to see someone teach basic composition without even mentioning the rule of thirds, as if it doesn’t exist at all – because perhaps it really doesn’t. Although it is nice to think that you can improve your compositions through a simple trick like this, such an easy fix never really works in the long run. Eventually, to move beyond the basics of composition, you will have no choice but to wander into the intangible. Why hinder this process with creativity-reducing rules?
And if all of that isn’t enough of an argument, consider this final point: the rule of thirds is the best way to compose your images just like everyone else. Even if the rule does have special properties, the value of uninhibited visual creativity is impossible to ignore.
The rule of thirds isn’t all that useful, but that doesn’t mean you’re completely in the dark in terms of composition. The problem with the rule of thirds — and the reason why it became so popular — is that it is easy and concrete. Composition, in general, can seem very abstract, without any good way to tell what will look good and what will fail completely. Even photographers who are very, very skilled may have a difficult time composing their photos successfully, since there simply aren’t very many good resources out there to lay out everything about the creative side of photography. But, if this topic interests you, all is not lost. Specifically, if you’re a landscape photographer, I strongly recommend looking into our eBook, “Creative Landscape Photography: Light, Vision, and Composition.” Frankly, eBooks in general don’t have a good reputation, but I hope that you’ll give this one a chance. Every bit of information it contains is designed to be as accurate and tangible as possible, in a field where accurate and tangible tips can be remarkably difficult to find.
Are you a stickler for little details? Well, if you’re a photographer, you had better be. Discovering the rule of thirds is a big milestone for any photographer. Suddenly, you realize that all you ever did before was center your subject right smack dab in the middle of the frame, because that’s where the camera’s focus grid is located. Makes sense right? The rule of thirds took you to new heights in your photographic journey, moving your subject off to one side or another in your frame, or to the top or bottom. But don’t some of these photos look a bit crowded being so close to either side of the frame? Sure it works in some cases, but what if there was still another rule you could incorporate into your photographic repertoire?
Enter Fibonacci’s Ratio…
Also known as the Golden Mean, Phi, or Divine Proportion, this law was made famous by Leonardo Fibonacci around 1200 A.D. He noticed that there was an absolute ratio that appears often throughout nature, a sort of design that is universally efficient in living things and pleasing to the human eye. Hence, the “divine proportion” nickname.
Since the Renaissance, artists and architects have designed their work to approximate this ratio of 1:1.618. It’s found all over the Parthenon, in famous works of art like the Mona Lisa and the Last Supper, and it’s still used today. The divine proportion has been used by companies like Apple to design products, it’s said to have been used by Twitter to create their new profile page, and has been used by major companies all over the world to design logos. It’s not talked about in most photography circles because it’s a somewhat advanced method of composition and can be confusing to a lot of people. It’s so much easier to just talk about the “rule of thirds” because it’s exact, precise and easy to follow.
This ratio can be used in many ways to compose a photograph. Lightroom 3 even has a golden ratio overlay option when you go to crop on image. This way, you can line up a grid of the golden ratio to coincide with lines or points of interest in your photograph. At this point, you may be quite confused. If you are, please take a few moments to watch any one (or all) of these videos that seek to explain this ratio.
Video 1: Natures Number: 1.618
Video 2: Nature by Numbers
Video 3: Golden Ratio
Ok, hopefully that made things a bit more clear? By now you should know that this is NOT a conspiracy theory or fuzzy math. This is a real aspect of composition that has been used by historical famous artists and architects, and Fortune 500 companies. When applied to photography, this ratio can produce aesthetically pleasing compositions that can be magnets for the human sub-conscious. When you take the sweet spot of the Fibonnaci Ratio and recreate it four times into a grid, you get what looks to be a rule of thirds grid. However, upon closer inspection you will see that this grid is not an exact splitting of the frame into three pieces. Instead of a 3 piece grid that goes 1+1+1=frame, you get a grid that goes 1+.618+1=frame. Here are a few examples a Phi grid placed over some images that I’ve used it on in the past…
In the above example, I placed the slightly more dominant eye of the horse on one of the Phi intersections. Consider that if I had placed a rule of thirds grid over this photo and lined the eye up with that, the head would be crowding the left side of the frame. In this photo, the head isn’t center, it’s not crowding either side. It’s just right, would you agree? Let’s take a look at another…
This one is slightly different. If you’re a REAL stickler for details, you may have noticed that there is a slight difference between the intersecting lines of the Phi graph, and the sweet spot of Phi itself. In this image, I made sure to align the head of my subject within the spiral and placed the left eye approximately over the sweet spot. Ok, moving on…
In this photograph, from Key West, I lined up the horizon with the top line of the Phi grid. In my opinion, when you line up the horizon with a rule of thirds grid, the separation is too…obvious. I think it would leave a bit too much of what isn’t the subject in the image. In this photo, the sky and clouds are the perfect compliment to what I’m trying to convey in the photo: The church on the bottom right, and the famous Duval street on the left. But with any more sky than is already present in the photo, the viewer might think the sky is actually the subject. Here’s one more…
In this example, I used multiple lines on the Phi grid for my final composition. I lined up the doors with both vertical lines, as well as the bottom horizontal line. This provided for a perfect amount of ceiling to lead the viewers eye to the door. Here’s a few more examples without the grid. See if you can imagine the grid over the images and determine why the image was composed the way it was.
Hopefully, this article has shed some light on a somewhat mysterious subject in the world of photography. Fibonacci’s Ratio is a powerful tool for composing your photographs, and it shouldn’t be dismissed as a minor difference from the rule of thirds. While the grids look similar, using Phi can sometimes mean the difference between a photo that just clicks, and one that doesn’t quite feel right. I’m certainly not saying that the rule of thirds doesn’t have a place in photography, but Phi is a far superior and much more intelligent and historically proven method for composing a scene.
If you’d like to start incorporating this powerful composition tool into your photography, you’re in luck! I’ve included a PNG overlay of both the Fibonacci Spiral and the Fibonacci Grid. Just click this download link to start using them. These overlays are for use in Photoshop. Just place them into the file you are working on, then scale them to the correct size of the image.