To my surprise, a common photographic and artistic guideline (rule) has come under attack lately from several sources. This rule, the “Rule of Thirds” has been a widely recognized method of composition in landscape and other forms of photography.  Essentially, this concept has one divide the frame into 3 parts, both horizontally and vertically with the major subject matter occurring at one of the 4 intersections. i.e., my image below

A person I greatly respect, Michael Freeman, has pointed out in his new book, Fifty Paths to Creative Photography, that the Rule of Thirds was invented in 1797 by John Thomas Smith, an engraver and painter who misinterpreted Sir Joshua Reynolds observations on a paintings brightness. Reynolds simply made a point of saying that the brightness of a paining should not have areas of equal brightness, but that one color should dominate the other and the other value should be of about 1/3 to 2/3. Given that this rule of thirds had nothing to do with the artistic value of presenting subjects within a canvas, it is amazing how its importance has grown over the years. I had to chuckle the other day as we were flying back from Pennsylvania; the gentleman sitting next to me was editing an article that was being written as a guide for photographers and one of the elements was abiding by the Rule of Thirds.

Then Michael Freeman, in his book, goes on to make the point that artists, whether photographers or painters should not be bound by rules with a quote from W. Eugene Smith who said that: “I don’t write the rules–Why should I follow them.” Of course this is also true and in keeping with Michael’s book, there are many paths to an image that works and/or the artistic expression.

But, how is it that this Rule has so dominated the Photographic and artistic community? Could there be something else going on?

On our trip’s East, we often stop off and visit friends in Washington DC that is usually followed with a day wandering the art museums that DC is so saturated with. On our last visit we explored both the West and East Wings of the National Gallery of Arts. It’s always fun for me as I love to see how painters through the years  have handled light and dark as well as composition. On this particular visit, I payed attention to how artists have employ something akin to the rule of thirds. Take for example, Edward Willis Redfield’s (1869+1965) Snow Storm-Limeport:

or Claude Monet’s  Argentuil (Red Boats) (from the Claude Monet Gallery)

and finally, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child

I could go on, but the examples are clear. These and other artists are employing something akin to the rule of thirds. What’s happening here is that these artists are in fact working with the golden ratio.

The golden ratio, has been claimed to have esthetic value since the age of the ancient Greeks when Phidias use if for the statues in the Panthenon and many of the proportions in the Parthenon are suppose to include the golden ratio.

Some of the greatest mathematical minds of all ages, from Pythagoras and Euclid in ancient Greece, through the medieval Italian mathematician Leonardo of Pisa and the Renaissance astronomer Johannes Kepler, to present-day scientific figures such as Oxford physicist Roger Penrose, have spent endless hours over this simple ratio and its properties. But the fascination with the Golden Ratio is not confined just to mathematicians. Biologists, artists, musicians, historians, architects, psychologists, and even mystics have pondered and debated the basis of its ubiquity and appeal. In fact, it is probably fair to say that the Golden Ratio has inspired thinkers of all disciplines like no other number in the history of mathematics.”

Essentially this ratio is as follows:

So for my image above, placing the subject approximately 62% from the left edge agrees with the golden ratio and is representative of what other artists that have used in my other examples. As you can see, the rule of 3rtds closely approximates the application of the golden ratio, for a 35mm sensor on the long edge. Computing the vertical application is more problematic.

The bottom line here is to be aware of art and art history. Know what what artists have done and why. Don’t take a rule and arbitrarily apply it without understanding its relevance or for that matter, don’t discard it because another said it is meaningless. Personal expression is a journey and each of us see things a little differently. Enjoy and create something your own.


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