on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Compositional Controversies

Part 2: Rule of Thirds

Joe Cornish

Joe Cornish

Professional landscape photographer. His personal website is www.joecornishphotographer.com/



(Golden principle, useful guide or intellectual strait-jacket?)

The Rule of Thirds (RoT) may well be the best-known, most-loved and revered, and equally hated and reviled ‘law’ in art and photography. There is plenty written about it, and some of this can be found on the internet, e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rule_of_thirds. But in my personal opinion, very little evidence exists that it is anything other than a prescriptive hint at the utility there is in understanding proportion, and relationship.

I have come across examples of work where photographers have applied the RoT literally, and slavishly. This then becomes a lamentable formula that encourages the practitioner to seek out scenes and subjects that can conform to the RoT. The very idea that composition should be constrained and orientated this way, especially regarding a subject as dynamic, complex and unpredictable as landscape is as absurd as it is ineffective. Looking through a wide range of pictures that might be seen as moderately successful, some might appear to conform to the RoT, but in all likelihood as many or more will not do so.

Those that do conform may only do so by chance; dividing any four-sided figure into nine equal parts, giving four intersections, has a reasonable likelihood that something significant in the image will appear to coincide with third divisions and their intersections (the hallowed ‘points of power’).  

Looking through a wide range of pictures that might be seen as moderately successful, some might appear to conform to the RoT, but in all likelihood as many or more will not do so.

Objects, and/or horizons might possibly coincide with the third dividing lines, vertical or horizontal. Pictures that do happen to have these attributes may be taken by proponents of RoT as ‘evidence’ of its vital significance. I suggest that it is evidence of the proponent’s knowledge that RoT exists, nothing more.

It seems to me that it is an orthodoxy which, if said often enough becomes a paradigm, accepted unquestioningly. But the arts (and the sciences) should never be constrained by orthodox thinking. And in colour landscape photography especially the subject matter itself, and the complexity of relationship between colour values, tone, texture and lighting considerations makes any reliance on such prescriptive thinking redundant. 



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