‘F’ the Rule of Thirds

A long time ago I wrote an article called ‘F’ the Rule of Thirds for Outdoor Photographer magazine. It created a huge stir of controversy with the readers. Most were adamant that my ‘F’ had deep roots into profanity and that I should be banned from writing on the OP blog ever again. However, I used the ‘F‘ because, like the post itself, you were left open to your own interpretation of what I was writing about. Yeah the ones who preached profanity and my demise never imagined that ‘F’ could be on the simplest level a word like FORGET.

I have now gone back and re-edited this article to publish here on my own site. Those who know me best know what the ‘F’ stands for. These same people also know that I disregard most rules, especially speed limits.

“You learn a lot of things on the way to 500. None more important than this… ~ The Knockaround Guys.

The rule of thirds is typically the first compositional tool we learn about as photographers. I don’t really know anyone who hasn’t started to become a decent photographer who hasn’t followed it, but like Vin Diesel said in The Knockaround Guys, “You learn a lot of things on the way to 500.”

As you progress as a photographer you too should learn to ‘F’ the Rule of Thirds. Here are my main reasons why.

Rule of Thirds Philosophy

This article is about the power of suggestion. One of the largest issues we are faced with now is given to us by our very own camera manufactures. Every thing is becoming electronic. What we see in our viewfinders today is not only processor generated but fully customizable. In the film days you needed to replace your focus screen to see different viewfinder layouts. Today you just have to pick a custom function. Most manufacturers are even pre-programming our viewfinders with a grid that divides what we see into 9 equal rectangles. This sets the stage for an almost automatic placement of our subjects within the rule of thirds.

If you have ever taken a workshop with me you will quickly learn that I hate rules. Stop signs, speed limits, no parking zones – all mere suggestions in my world. Does this mean that I always disobey? No, I will drive below the speed limit in a school zone. The key here is that I don’t specifically look to set up my composition using rules. I focus on emotion, design, and subject whenever I create a photograph. Does that mean some photos are laid out using the rule of thirds? Yes, absolutely. I feel that when we focus on rules in any aspect of life, we essentially become the cattle to the watering hole. #movebeyondtheobvious

rule of thirds - Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton National Park by Jay Goodrich

Limits Your Creativity

This is a very simple concept. I want you to listen very closely. If you compose using the rule of thirds, you are no different than the photographer who goes to Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park to photograph sunrise. There are hundreds of people every day during peak season who do this. They all have the same composition. They never change their position. These photographers never look around for something new and inspiring.

So if you are using the rule of thirds to compose you truly are no different than those who are following the hundred year old destinations of Ansel Adams or William Henry Jackson. Give us something new. Make us jealous of photographs. Create your photos based on the situation you are being presented with at that moment in time. Put emotion and feeling into your work. Forget some stupid rule.

I took the above image at Oxbow Bend. Is it important that you know it was taken at Oxbow Bend in Grand Teton National Park? Nope. What is important to me is that the image tells a story. The sun is coming up through the trees creating dramatic shadows. You know it is spring because of the lime colored green grass, but then there is a hiccup. Frost! A freezing sub-twenty-degree morning at the end of June in the forest. This doesn’t happen every day, not even in the ice box where I choose to live. This makes the photo special. The photo tells a story. Does it matter if I shot it using the rule of thirds or not? Nope.

rule of thirds - big horn near Jackson, Wyoming by Jay Goodrich

Doesn’t Work With All Subject Matter

Yes, the rule of thirds will work when you are adding subject matter like an animal or person to your composition, but what happens when you discover an abstract? Or a pattern? Now you have to figure out what makes it into your two by three ratio rectangle and what doesn’t. You will probably freak out, have some kind of aneurysm, and never attempt to create a photo along these lines again. This will immediately put you back into that world of the rule of thirds and you will continue running the hamster wheel of death with your photographs.

Begin to challenge yourself. It is okay to try and fail, but to never attempt anything different will never change anything. In another post here on the Pro Journal, I gave you some suggestions to help you when your photos suck. Re-read those tips, then come back here and begin to look at different subjects in different ways.

I very easily could have placed the bighorn on a rule of thirds intersection and been done with the photo above. I chose to get low, to shoot through the rime covered plants and intentionally put the animal high in the frame. This makes you feel as if you are the predator. Even the body position of the sheep matters to me. Notice how his legs look as if he is ready to run. Even his posture looks as if he is concerned. He was actually looking at a heard of elk that were behind us. In addition, he was in the process of turning around to continue eating. I just followed his movements and fired off a series of photos as that movement occurred.

rule of thirds - aspens and willows Mono Lake, California by Jay Goodrich

There are Better Techniques Available

If we begin to utilize other concepts for the creation of our photographs, we quickly forget about the rule of thirds. Let’s touch on creating a composition using the principles of design. Thoroughly analyze what you are looking at in your viewfinder. Then proceed to make specific judgement calls as to why each element is where it is within the frame. Design allows you to discover elements out there to help create a stronger composition.

Think about elements like line, shape, value, texture and color, and then figure out if the scene in front of you can be made stronger by adding (or detracting) one or more of these design elements into your photograph. The above photograph has absolutely nothing to do with the rule of thirds yet is successful because it highlights Texture (the trees & shrubs), complimentary color (the blues & yellows within the shrubs), and even value (contrast between the different plant species).

I will soon have a second eBook that focuses its attention on these elements of design. Until then…

Go out and try to build a compelling photo without using the rule of thirds. What I have learned in the creation of way more than 500 compositions now, is that nothing is more important than following your heart (what you have learned along the way). If you think about designing that photograph in front of you, you will inevitably walk away with a photograph that looks very different from the majority of the photographers following the other masses of photographers to the proverbially rule of thirds watering hole.

Time to join the Darkside

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