A few weeks ago, I came across a Reddit post where someone asked for a simple technique that would improve their photography skills. The most upvoted response was “use the rule of thirds.” Tragically, the rule of thirds has become one of the most widely accepted myths in photography, and one of the worst habits you can find yourself trying to break. If you’ve never heard of the rule of thirds, count yourself lucky, skip this blog post, live well, be awesome, and never let anyone tell you what it is. The rest of you? Keep reading.
Look, I get it. Some subjects placed right in the center of the frame are boring or awkward. When you’re starting out, there’s so much to learn and a ton of tech to keep straight in your head. Adopting something simple like the rule of thirds helps some beginners at least think about composition before snapping the shutter — and that’s good, right?
Sorry, I have to disagree. There are no shortcuts to experience and developing a bad habit will actually make your work suffer longer.
Once you start leaning on a crutch like the rule of thirds, your own sense of composition will atrophy…you don’t even know you’re doing it after awhile, and most photographers never kick the habit. Photography as an art form is therefore diminished by it.
The rule of thirds is not only responsible for homogenizing photography, but cinema as well. When I first saw some of Wes Anderson’s films, I was immediately startled by his composition. Some characters were perfectly centered, some scenes were symmetrical. It was visually striking. I realized we had all been living in a rule of thirds stew. Every cinematographer had been taught the rule of thirds in film school and continued to use it in their careers. Now we’re all so accustomed to this style of composition we frame up our own shots the same way because it feels comfortable.
How do we escape? The way I see it, compositional rules are the tools the logical part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) uses to crush the creativity generated in our lizard brain (amygdala). So the solution is to stop thinking about composition and just compose. You may need to fire off a few frames to get the rule of thirds shots out of the way, but keep shooting. Force yourself to re-compose the scene in defiance of the rule of thirds. Center your subject or go for a strong diagonal. Do something different.
Lately, most of my shots were made with a desire to capture several competing elements in the scene. I want the drama of the sky and I need all those waterfalls near the bottom of the frame, too. Or, I want foreground space to invite the viewer, that dead shrub is too close to the bottom, but those clouds are amazing, and there’s an awesome ridge in the background, can I get it all in? My shots seem to be more of a tug of war between elements rather than a desire to place anything at an arbitrary point in the frame. After decades of work, I still make the mistake of placing a subject one third of the way into the frame. Later, when I review the day’s shooting, I can always tell which images were victimized by the rule of thirds. Those are the boring ones.
Here’s what another writer/artist has to say about the rule of thirds.