Let’s Talk Photography Ep.81 – Beyond the Rule of Thirds

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Bart returns for another solo show, picking up where he left off last time. In the previous show Bart gave his take on the so-called ‘Rule of Thirds’ — useful as a guideline sometimes, but definitely not a universal rule! If the rule of thirds is only helpful some of the time, are there other guidelines photographers may fine helpful the rest of the time? Indeed there are, but they don’t have catchy names like the Rule of Thirds, making them harder to remember. Bart tries to remedy this by getting creating and coining (hopefully) humours and hence memorable names for these nuggets of advice.

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In the previous episode I put the so-called Rule of Thirds into what I believe is the correct context – it’s not a rule, it’s a guideline, and it’s just one possible way of achieving a nice composition in some situations — it’s not the universal key to good photographs. Not all photographs that obey the rule are good, and nowhere near all good photographs obey the rule!

There are lots more equally good guidelines out there that are just as helpful as the Rule of Thirds, but they don’t have catchy names. So, in this episode I’m going to try share some of my favourites, and I’m going to try give them catchy names to help you remember them 🙂

What Makes a Good Composition?

Before digging into some guidelines to help improve your compositions, we should probably define what it even means for a composition to be good!

In my mind a good composition achieves three things:

  1. It makes the photograph catch people’s attention — with so many images all around us we can’t pay attention to them all, so, we’re only going to see the ones that somehow catch our eye.
  2. Guides the user’s eye to where the photographer wants them to look, either — that can take all sorts of forms, maybe the photographer wants your attention drawn to a single thing, maybe they want to draw you along a specific path through the image, or maybe they just want to pull you into the world of the image and let your eye wander and explore.
  3. Gives a sense of depth — a photograph is a 2D representation of a 3D world. A good composition captures and communicates the sense of the missing third dimension to the viewer.

There are lots of guidelines we can use to help us achieve these goals. A good image often combines many of them.

The rule of thirds may be the flashiest, but don’t let it’s bling distract you!

Breaking the Rule of Thirds

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is intentionally break the rule of thirds. My mental photography toolbox contains three guidelines that directly contradict it, and one that usually does.

Centre Reflections

The ultimate essence of a reflection is symmetry — if you’re trying to capture that it really helps to centre the horizon in your frame and keep it dead level (that goes double when there’s water involved).

A Nice Day for a Boat Trip

A Perfect Autumn Evening

Remember — this is just a guideline, you don’t have to obey it to capture a beautiful shot of a reflection:

Centre Circles

If your subject is circular, try photograph it face-on and then centre it right in your composition.

This work particularly well within a square aspect ratio.

Field Scabious

But not only within squares:

Wood Anemone

If you can arrange it so there is a diagonal element too, even better!

A Dandelion Seed Head

Give Room (for thing to Look & Move Into)

Something with an obvious front, or something obviously moving will feel uncomfortable unless it has some room to look or move into within the composition. This doesn’t just apply to people and animals, but also to flowers, trains, cars, planes …

Female Common Blue

Small Copper Butterfly in Evening Light

Field Scabious

Commuter Reflections

A Dusk Approach

The more something is ‘looking’ or moving to the side, the more room it needs to feel in balance, so the rule of thirds is very counter-productive here.

Dig those Diagonals

The rule of thirds is all about aligning things along a horizontal grid. Why limit yourself to that grid? Why not align your composition along lines running from corner to corner?

Compositions with strong diagonals can be very powerful. In theory you could use a strong diagonal in your composition and still put the main subject at one of the crossing points on the rule of thirds grid, but you really shouldn’t feel any sort of pressure to do so. Other considerations like providing a comfortable-feeling amount of room to look into are usually much more important!

Diagonals can be obvious linear features in your images:

Small Copper Butterfly (16:10 Wallpaper)

RPSI Santa Special (16:10 Wallpaper)

Common Blue on Green

But they can also be much more subtle, for example, by simply aligning centre points on the diagonal:

Green-veined White

Guidelines for Guiding the Eye

This next group of guidelines are useful in compositions where you want to draw the viewer’s attention to specific things, or to guide their attention along a particular route.

Love Leading Lines

You can use strong obvious lines to direct the viewer’s eye where you want it within a photograph.

SPCM Snowy Sunset (remastered)

The possibilities are endless, but long shadows from a low sun can work particularly well.

Autumn Shadows on the Graff

You can get a similar effect from lines on a lawn:

View Towards St. Mary's House

Leading lines don’t need to be straight, gentle curves can work extremely well too:

Out of the Evening Sun

Paths Pull the Eye

Having a path start at the bottom of the frame and then recede off into the distance can really help pull a viewer’s eye into a photo. Paths pulling the viewer’s eyes off into the distance are also a great way of adding a sense of depth to a photo.

A Country Road in Summer

St. Kevin's Church

While any path will do, a winding paths are particularly pleasing!

The Boat House in Autumn

Guides for Interesting Landscapes

When you’re trying to capture a sense of place you very often don’t want to guide the viewer’s eye to a specific thing, but instead, to entice them in and then let them roam around and explore on their own. To achieve that you really need a sense of depth.

Also, to capture a good feel of a place it’s often very useful to capture features at multiple scales — a flower, a field, and a field-pattern perhaps.

I find interesting landscapes particularly challenging, so I force myself to think in terms of my three-layers rule.

Bart’s 3 Layers Rule

When shooting landscapes I’m always trying to meet three criteria when ever I can:

  1. An interesting foreground feature — an artefact, a plant, an animal, a geological feature, or even an interesting texture or shadow.
  2. A a mid-ground that gives a good sense of the place — rolling hills, a wide expansive plane, a field …
  3. A nice backdrop — a distant part of the landscape, an interesting horizon or an impressive sky.

Summer in Rathcoffey

SPCM - Soccer on the Playing Fields

The mid-ground is usually the easy part, it’s the foreground that often proves the most problematic in my experience – that’s where the remaining guidelines in this episode come in.

Find a Frame

Finding something to frame a corner of an image, a side of an image, or even all four sides of an image can really help to give a shot a sense of depth. This works especially well for landscapes where you’ll usually find an obliging tree.

Ancient Rathcoffey (Monochrome HDR)

Bridges can work well too:

Approaching Pike Bridge

Passing Pike Bridge

Go Low!

In the real world when they go low I try to go high, but photography is different 😉

We usually see the world from eye-height. Getting down low to the ground literally gives us a new perspective, remember that!

An Autumn Walk in Castletown

Summer on the Royal

Getting down low with a wide-angle lens can be very helpful in finding an interesting foreground for your landscapes.

Autumn on the Graff

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