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Creativity and the Rule of Thirds

by Jim Altengarten, exposure36 Photography 

For effective visual communication, your image must have both strength and clarity.   The viewer can become bored with your image if either is lacking. This article examines the use of the Rule of Thirds to improve strength and clarity, as well as some additional ways to utilize the concept to allow more creativity in your images. 

Design Principles 

The term strength pertains to the ability of your image to attract the viewer's attention. You should remember that the average person viewing images has an attention span approximating that of a three-year-old child.  If you're not able to gain attention immediately, your image will be discarded.   

Clarity refers to the ability of your image to maintain the viewer's interest.  This is accomplished by allowing the viewer to explore the parts and subtleties of the image.  You must provide a mechanism for the viewer's eye to use to examine all parts of the scene and return to the main focus.  The viewer will abandon the image before examining the various parts and subtleties if the image lacks strength.  Both strength and clarity must be present.  

In composition, there are several principles and elements available to enhance strength and clarity.  While composing the image, the photographer becomes a chef who takes a certain number of ingredients and mixes them in just the right proportion to create a presentable dish.  Initially, a photographer must determine which design principles are important for creating the image.   

Design elements include the following: 

 

Eye flow

Elements in the scene that guide the viewer's eye through the entire frame.

 

Dominant element

Usually there is one main subject to the image.  The subject may be either a single object, or a relationship.

 

Simplicity

Only what is essential to the scene is included in the final image.

 

Balance

It may be symmetric or asymmetric, subtle or obvious.

 A second consideration is the application of design elements to create clarity in such familiar applications such as: 

  • Lines

  • Shapes

  • Patterns

  • Textures

  • Color (Tone)

Finally, there are photographic elements that add strength to the image.  These elements include such aspects as:

  • Format (portrait or landscape)

  • Placement of the main elements

  • Lens Selection

  • Focusing

  • Perspective

One method of creating strength in an image is to create focal points that draw the viewer's eye to that area.  Focal points compel the viewer to look at them first.  There are several techniques that create strong focal points.  First, the photographer can isolate the subject.  Throwing everything in the scene out of focus except for the main subject is one example of this technique.  The viewer's eye is attracted to whatever is sharp in the image.  The viewer's eye generally will not remain very long in an area that is out of focus.  However, when everything is in sharp focus, the image becomes cluttered and won't hold the viewer's attention.  Having too many things to look at causes fatigue in the viewer's eye.   

Having a contrast in tone or color between parts of the image is another method that creates a strong focal point.  When you're dividing the image space by tone or color, it's important to examine how the division occurs.  If the image is equally divided between two tones, the viewer becomes confused, because each portion of the image has equal weight.  For example, consider the classic sunset image.  If the horizon line is placed in the center of the frame, both the sky and water take up an equal amount of space.  The viewer feels uneasy, because the photographer didn't provide any visual clues as to what is most important in the scene.  This type of image lacks strength, and the viewer will quickly abandon it.  One curative option is to lower the horizon, which places emphasis on the clouds in the sky.  Raising the horizon places emphasis on the reflections in the water.  Which is best?  The photographer must decide whether the sky or water is more attractive.  If the photographer can't decide and splits the frame equally, his/her indecisiveness will be apparent to the viewer. 

Placement of elements in the frame can also create focal points.  Key placement questions to consider include what, how, and where to place elements in the scene.  You should articulate what attracts you in the scene.  That will dictate what to place in the final image.  If the photographer can't articulate what causes his/her personal passion in a scene, passion won't come across to the viewer.  How you place something in the image refers to whether the element is fully or partially visible.  Showing the entire element increases the attentive values of that element.  Partially showing the element decreases the emphasis on that element.   When you want to stress the relationship between two elements in the scene, rather than the elements individually, place them partially out of the image or near the edges of the frame.  Where to place the main elements in the image is the final consideration for attracting the viewer's attention.  The Rule of Thirds is the most common method for determining where to place the main elements.  It's based on the concept that the strength of an image improves when the main elements are placed at key locations away from the center of the frame. 

We've been programmed to locate main elements in the center of the frame.  Do you remember when you were a child, and the teacher told you to draw a red flower with your crayon?  Where did you place it?  You probably began in the center of the page.  Why?  There was lots of room there, so you could draw the entire flower.  Your first camera was probably of the point-and-shoot variety.  The only area that confirmed the subject was in focus was the focus point in the center of the camera lens.  If you can determine focus in the center of your field of view, isn't it logical to place your subject there?  The problem, of course, is that placing the subject in the center of the frame normally provides little interest for the viewer.  The brain is logical. If the brain subconsciously expects to find something in the center of a picture, and it's located there, no excitement is generated.  Placing the subject away from the center provides visual stimulation. 

Rule of Thirds 

Before talking about when it's permissible to break the Rule of Thirds, let's make sure that we understand how it works.  Several schools of thought in ancient Greece searched for mathematical formulas for the perfect number, chord, etc.  They also searched for perfect balance in their artwork.  Renaissance architects and painters continued the search for perfection.  They decided that the relationship of five to eight created such balance.  Divide the length of the canvas (or picture frame) into eight parts, and at the fifth mark from the left, draw a line from top to bottom.  Count five parts, starting from the opposite side, and do the same thing.  Draw two lines in the same manner from the width of the frame, and the end result is figure 1 below.  This is called the Golden Triangle because it represents the perfect division of space.  The points where the lines intersect are called power points.  Placing your main subject at one of the power points gives it a high attentive value and adds strength to your image.  If there's more than one main subject, placing each at a power point provides balance and strength. 

It's difficult to visually divide the viewfinder into eight equal parts.  Therefore, it's easier to use the Rule of Thirds, which divides the viewfinder into three sections, both horizontally and vertically.  As you can see from Figure 2 (at right), the Golden Mean is a tighter grouping than the Rule of Thirds.  Both methods use the power point concept for placing the main subject(s).   

The image below (the rose surrounded by baby's breath) demonstrates locating the subject according to the Rule of Thirds.  The placement, as well as the color contrast, almost requires the viewer's eye to go to the rose first.  After stopping at the rose, the eye is free to wander about the rest of the image to explore its content.  Therefore, the image has both strength and clarity. 

Consider the Rule of Thirds to be the Guidelines of Thirds.  If the main subject is always placed at one of four points in the frame, creativity suffers.  There are many situations where using the Rule of Thirds will enhance the image.  Other situations require more creativity, and that means bending or breaking this rule.  

The Rule of Thirds discourages placing an important element in the center of the frame.  However, there are two situations when a centrally placed element works effectively.  The first situation arises when there's nothing else in the scene that competes with the main subject.  If a flower is in sharp focus and everything else is out of focus, the viewer's eye will go to the flower--no matter where it's placed in the scene.  Placing the flower in the center of the frame works, in this instance, because the flower is a complete subject on its own, and there are no other elements to compete with the flower. 

The other situation in which a centrally placed element works occurs when there's a strong sense of balance in the scene.  Imagine the hub of a wooden wagon wheel.  The hub can be placed in the center, because the radiating spokes suggest a strong balance within the scene.  Placing a strong horizontal line in the center of the frame works only when one half of the scene is reflected in the other half.  Notice that the image below has a strong horizontal line (tree line) in the center of the frame.  The image works due to the strong sense of balance in the scene.  In this case, placing the horizontal line anywhere else in the frame would degrade the image dramatically.   

As stated previously, placing the horizon in the center of the frame can confuse the viewer as to what's important.  The underlying structure of the Rule of Thirds allows us to modify the location of the horizon to send a clear message to the viewer. 

The Rule of Thirds can be used to visually weight an image.  Visual weight differs from physical weight.  Light colors have less visual weight than dark colors when they fill approximately the same amount of space in the frame.  Thus, a large mound of dark feathers appears heavier than a white rabbit of equal size.  Also, an element that takes up more physical space in the frame has more visual weight than an element that uses less space. 

We can bottom weight an image by placing the top of our visually weighted element along the lower horizontal line of our Rule of Thirds grid.  Locating the top of the element below the lower horizontal line places gives it less emphasis.  It's up to the photographer to determine how much emphasis should be placed on each element in the scene.  The image below is an example of a bottom-weighted image. 

Placing the visual weight at the bottom of the image puts emphasis on the upper portions of the image.  In the image to the left, it's really the interesting clouds that make the image.  The mountains simply provide a sense of place.  If the mountains were seen higher in the image, they would detract from the clouds.  The image would change and not be as interesting. 

We can also top-weight an image by placing it along the upper horizontal line in the Rule of Thirds grid.  The two images below are both top-weighted.  You probably get a different feel from each of them--even though they're both images of the Grand Tetons taken from the same tripod holes.  The difference is that the image on the right has a stronger base.  When you build a house, it needs to have a strong foundation to stand. 

     

The same is true with an image.  The Grand Tetons have a lot of visual weight.  The viewer can easily determine that they are heavy.  In contrast, the grassland in the foreground of each image doesn't represent weight.  Top-weighting an image without a strong base makes the weighted object appear to be floating on a surface that won't support it.  Therefore, the viewer senses something doesn't appear right in the image, even if s/he can't verbalize the problem.  The above images are extreme examples.  The image on the above left has a weak base because the bottom of the mountains is too high.  The image on the right represents moving the bottom of the mountain to an extremely low base.  It sends a better message about the solid feel of the image.  Probably the best location for the bottom of the mountain would be somewhere between both images. 

A weak base is especially obvious in top-weighted images involving water in the foreground.  Unless there's some other foreground object, the viewer can feel uncomfortable with nothing but water supporting the mountain, city buildings, or other objects.  Place a finger over the bottom third of the image to the left.   When you cover the rocks in the foreground, do you get the feeling that the mountain is floating on the water?  We know that mountains can't float, so the viewer may feel some negative tension from the image. 

In top-weighted images, the photographer must decide whether a top-weighted image is supported by the foreground and how much foreground to include.  Although it's your decision, be aware of the concept of base and potential viewer reaction to the shot. 

We used the horizontal grid lines of the Rule of Thirds to create either top or bottom weight in our image.  The vertical grid lines can also be used; it's called side-weighting.  The image below right is an example of using the left vertical line of the grid to locate the main element of the image.  Notice that the small stream of water is placed along the other vertical line in the grid.  Placing the main element closer to the edge puts less emphasis on that element.  On some occasions, leaving part of the element out of the scene creates an emphasis on the relationship between that element and another element in the scene. 

While the main element can be placed on either vertical line, care must be taken to avoid creating negative tension.  If there's any action, or implied action, in the scene, the action should normally be located toward the center of the frame.  For example, if the main element of the scene were a bicyclist, the bicycle would move from the edge of the frame toward the center.  If the bicycle were located at either vertical line and appeared to move toward the closer edge of the frame, the viewer might wonder where the bicycle will go once it leaves the frame.  This situation is called amputation, because the edge of the frame cuts off the ability of the viewer to follow the anticipated action.  Any implied action, such as a person looking out of the frame, can cause the same result. 

Counter culture placement of the subject is another way of increasing tension in a photo.  In western culture, movement is generally left to right.  That's how you're reading this page.  If the movement in the scene is from right to left (even though it's moving toward the center), it can create negative tension for western viewers. 

The next set of three images shows a wolf looking in different directions.  You'll probably receive a different feeling from each of the images--depending on the direction of the wolf's stare.  Do any of the images give you a feeling of nervousness or curiosity?   

   

Remember my earlier statement that rigidly following rules discourages creativity.  There may be occasions when you want to add negative tension to a scene to create a certain mood.  Intentionally creating a feeling of amputation can add mystery.  Counter-cultural movement inserts a subtle tension that many people feel but can't verbalize.  The question boils down to the photographer being able to say what's important in the scene, and then to create circumstances that will allow the viewer to receive the intended message. 

Thus far, we've discussed the Rule of Thirds as a basic model and expanded it into a creative approach for placing the main subject in the frame.  The preceding suggestions will add strength and generate viewer attention to your images.  The Golden Mean and Rule of Thirds provide a sense of order, balance, and beauty to the image.  But is this all we want to say in photography?  Using only the Rule of Thirds will eventually create monotonous, boring shots where placement is always the same≈as regulated by the rule.  To maintain viewer interest, you need variety, and that comes from creative placement.  Let your creativity be your guide!

Jim Altengarten is the owner of exposure36 Photography that specializes in landscape photography, creative vision, and photographic education.  Jim teaches classes every quarter at the Experimental College of the University of Washington.  Topics include Basic and Intermediate Photography, Composition, Exposure, Macro Equipment, and the Canon EOS Camera System.  He also teaches workshops at prime locations in the western United States--such as Death Valley, Yosemite, The Grand Tetons, and The Palouse wheat fields.  Please check the exposure36 Photography website for information about classes and workshops < http://www.exposure36.com/>.   Your questions or comments can be sent via e-mail to:  info@exposure36.com or by phone (206-433-2996).

 

 


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Published with the permission of the author. Original article can be found here: http://www.apogeephoto.com/jan2002/altengarten.shtml

  








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