Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rule of Thirds?

SOMEONE ASKS ABOUT the significance of the Rule of Thirds, a simple compositional rule found in painting, drawing, and photography. Unless he is given proof, he thinks it is mere mythology, and so can be ignored.

Read the conversation here, on Digital Photography Review.

Flooding on Smallpox Island parking lot, at sunset, near Alton, Illinois, USA

Basically, the Rule of Thirds states that the major compositional elements of an image ought to be placed one third of the way between the edges of the image.  For example, the horizon in a seascape or sunset ought to be a third of the way from the top or bottom. What is the justification for this?

The principles of classical harmony are of great significance in music, design, and architecture, and were explicitly used from remote antiquity — and ended only with radical modernism.

I agree that much of the language associated with the rule seems to be excessively fuzzy, and purported uses of the rule often seem unconvincing. However, this does not mean that the rule has no merit, and certainly can be used where there are strong compositional elements that can correspond to it. Good composition can improve an image, and good composition often includes simple rules such as this one.

The argument for the rule can be made top-down or bottom-up. Certainly the use of simple ratios of small numbers — the basics of classical harmony — can be justified by mathematical means, especially when we consider the stability and order of harmonic systems and compare them to the instability and disorder of inharmonic systems. Also, we can consider human psychology at its lowest impulses, which seeks out good things for life via their implicit order. Certainly, artists who are revolutionaries produce jarring compositions — which violate the rules of classical harmony — to cause anxiety in the viewer, which proves the rule by its negation.

However, the rules of classical harmony do not state that the Rule of Thirds is an ideal. Rather, this system has a number of ratios, with 1:1, 2:1, 3:2, and 4:3 being considered the most pleasing, and with 5:4 and 6:5 following in value. Note that harmonious ratios are small - between 1 and 2, and are created by dividing one small number into another.

Artist and lecturer David Clayton, on his website The Way of Beauty, discusses this topic in his article, Using Boethian Proportion for Better Web Design. Clayton states that the common emphasis on the Golden Ratio — which is irrational and is not a ratio of small numbers — has only been considered important since the Renaissance, and is not directly involved in good proportion.

Unless the photographer has complete control over his subject, as in a studio, the photographer will likely have less need for classical harmony and the Rule of Thirds; rather, the subject itself is of greater importance. This does not mean that harmony is unimportant, but rather that it is of lesser importance and ought to serve the higher thing. Conversely, if an artist wants to represent the order and harmony found in the cosmos or a higher order of being, then the use of classical harmony is very important: this was commonly found in traditional non-representational abstract art which has been practiced since antiquity.

Ultimately, we ought not to merely promote rules, for this leads to legalism and its inevitable rejection. Rather, we ought to seek the meaning behind them. Here, both the ancient philosophers and modern scientists would agree.


Tina aka Snupnjake said...

Hmm. I thought the rule of thirds had you divide the image into 9 squares and that you wanted the focus to be drawn to wear the lines cross. Are there different variations of the rules of thirds?

PS. Can you increase the font?

Mark Scott Abeln said...

I thought I said that: "the major compositional elements of an image ought to be placed one third of the way between the edges of the image."

I increased the font size from 13 to 16 pixels!

Tina aka Snupnjake said...


I think I misunderstood. I thought you meant it only had to be 1/3 of the way between one edge instead of both edges.

I think I got it know.

So is there one place that is particularily disharmonious?