30 Jul 2013

Breaking the Photography Rules Part 2: Ignore the Thirds Rule of Composition

Another rule in photography that I like to break from time to time is the thirds one. Read anything about composition in photography and you'll soon come across this rule - if you (mentally) super-impose a grid of horizontal and vertical lines, splitting the photo into thirds, then the points of interest should be where those lines cross or along those lines; this tends to be the most pleasing to the eye. The horizon in a landscape photograph should roughly coincide with one of the two horizontal lines (generally the top one if the landscape is more interesting and the bottom one if the sky is more interesting). Here's an example where the points of interest are on the intersections of the lines (it's a self-portrait of me in Iceland):

This works in most areas of photography, not just in landscapes. Here's another example using a photo of a friend's son, who is placed slightly to the right of the shot:

Usually I follow this rule and now it's not generally something I consciously consider when composing a shot. I like to break the rules from time to time, though, ignoring the lines and intersections, placing the horizon in the middle of the shot, or right at the top, or with the subject bang in the middle, and so on. Considering a few other photography tips can help to make up for the alternative subject placement, eg. leading lines, interesting depth of field, etc.. Obviously it's not going to work in some cases - the rules are there for a reason!

Here's a few of my images where I've broken the thirds rule, and why I think that they still work, compositionally.

This is the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia's Altiplano. The horizon is much higher than the top third line, and there's nothing distinctive along the third lines or intersections. Ignoring the third rule can work well with repeated patterns and if there's strong perspective that leads you into the shot:
Here's another example of patterns, where the thirds rule is less important. This can work for many close-up or macro shots, where the detail is what catches the eye. This is part of my cowrie shell collection:

Sometimes including more sky can add atmosphere to an image, although this can be quite subjective. This is a shot of icebergs on Jökulsárlón Beach in South-East Iceland. Although there's a huge amount of sky and the horizon is right across the middle, the detail is still around the lower horizontal line, so it's only half breaking the rules:

Reflections in water are a great example of where a horizon placed bang in the middle adds drama to the composition. Refections make striking images because of the symmetry around the middle. This shot was taken in Kulusuk in South-East Greenland:

Here's another symmetrical reflection shot, taken along the canals near Bruges in Belgium (on a point-and-shoot camera) - there is nothing distinctive along the thirds lines or intersections, but it still makes a dramatic shot, with the eye drawn towards the centre point (it does have leading lines and diagonals, which are also suggested in composition for a successful shot):
A portrait can work well if the subject is placed right in the centre of the shot and is looking directly up at the camera, with the rest of the body out of focus (with a shallow depth of field). This is a picture of a friend's dog, who barely touches the thirds lines:

Another reason to break the horizon rule is if you are shooting for a book or magazine cover, where some room is needed for a title across the top. A horizon level between the top third and half way line usually provides enough room. While it might not make a great photo on its own, with the text overlaid it could be the perfect composition for a magazine cover. (Tip: it's worth shooting a variety of shots of the same scene - with normal composition (using the thirds rule), leaving some room for text, trying different orientations, etc..)

See also Breaking the Rules Part 1 - Go Out in the Midday Sun
                                              Part 3 - Turn it Upside-Down! 
                                              Part 4 - Shooting Landscapes in Portrait Orientation 
                                              Part 5 - Playing with the Zoom
                                              Part 6 - Shooting Out of Focus

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