Thursday, 4 August 2016

Creativity and the Rule of Thirds

This article is based on "Creativity and the Rule of Thirds" by Jim Altengarten. 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 <>. He entertains e-mails at

I firmly believe that for any form of visual communication to be effective, the communicator should be able to produce images that have both strength and clarity. The viewer is most likely to be bored by an image if either is lacking. But before any communicator can think of conjuring up visuals, he/she must have something to say, but before anything can be said - one has to be aware of the world around us. All good communicators have a view of the world, this perceptive and perception is extremely important both for the communicator and the viewer, who negotiates the meaning of the text based on his cultural bearings.

In this regard I would like to refer to Aldous Huxley’s Visual Process. To process any visual (be it at the end of communicator or be it at the end of the viewer/consumer) mentally on a higher level of cognition than simply sensing and selecting means that one must concentrate on the subjects within a field of view with the intent of finding meaning and not simply as an act of observation. Although one may be able to identify a particular visual element with mental processing when it is unique, new, or surprising occurrence, analyzing a visual message ensures that one will find meaning for the picture. If the image comes to hold a meaning for the viewer (remember that even the communicator or with whom the idea originates is responding to a visual stimuli), it is likely to become a part of one’s long term memory. In the words of American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau, “the question is not what you look at, but what you see.” The more you know, the more you sense. The more you sense, the more you select. The more you select, the more you perceive. The more you perceive, the more you remember. The more you remember, the more you learn. The more you learn, the more you know.

This article examines the use of the Rule of Thirds to improve strength and clarity mentioned above, as well as some additional ways to utilize the concept to allow more creativity in your images. Remember, composition exists in a context. That context is the frame, which is itself an element of picture composition. The idea here is to help you identify your subject, emphasis of the subject, and lead the viewer’s eye to pictorial or visual elements of your choice in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Design Principles: The Principles are concepts used to organize or arrange the structural elements of design. Again, the way in which these principles are applied affects the expressive content, or the message of the work. Further, the use of design principles applied to the visual elements is like visual grammar. When children learn art, it is like learning to read and write the language of vision. When they develop a style of expressing visual ideas, it helps them become visual poets. Looking for the visual effects of design principles does not have to limit an artist's options. It can focus an artist's experimentation and choice making.

Strength refers to the ability of a visual to attract the viewer's attention. Here it is pertinent to always remember that the average person viewing images has an attention span approximating that of a three-year-old child. If one is not able to grab attention immediately, the image will fade into oblivion. This strength may come from ‘Emphasis’ – or "Centre of Interest." It is about dominance and influence. Most communicators put it a bit off centre and balance it with some minor themes to maintain our interest. Some artists avoid emphasis on purpose. They want all parts of the work to be equally interesting. Harmony is another element that provides strength - as pleasing visual combinations are harmonious. Another way to achieve strength is by ‘Opposition’ - on contrasting visual concepts. Rajasthan’s desert "big sky" landscape becomes very dramatic and expressive as monsoon clouds builds. Thus, in short, more often than not a viewer will abandon the image before examining the various parts and subtleties if the image lacks strength. Both strength and clarity must be present.

Clarity refers to the ability of the image to maintain the viewer's interest. This stems from allowing the viewer to explore the parts and subtleties of the image. One must provide a mechanism for the viewer's eye to use to examine all parts of the scene and return to the main focus. This clarity is possible if Unity exists – that is nothing distracts from the whole. Unity without variation is often uninteresting - like driving on a clear day through the Sahara Desert. Just remember, ‘Unity’ with diversity generally has more to offer in both art and in life. Of course some very minimal art can be very calming and at times even very evocative. Also, a simple landscape may have a powerful mesmerising effect. In composition, there are several principles and elements available to enhance strength and clarity. While composing the image, the photographer has to aware all pictorial elements, and then chooses the ones that appeal to him/her most in just the right proportion to create a visual motif.

Finally, please do understand that it is ‘Simplicity’ which is the key to most good pictures and visuals of any form. The simpler and more direct a picture, the clearer and stronger is the resulting statement. There are several things to be considered when we discuss simplicity. First, select a subject that lends itself to a simple arrangement; for example, instead of photographing an entire area that would confuse the viewer, frame in on some important element within the area. Second, select different viewpoints or camera angles. Move around the scene or object being photographed. View the scene through the camera viewfinder. Look at the foreground and background. Try high and low angles as well as normal eye-level viewpoints. Evaluate each view and angle. Only after considering all possibilities should you take the picture. See beyond and in front of your subject. Be sure there is nothing in the background to distract the viewer's attention from the main point of the picture. Likewise, check to see there is nothing objectionable in the foreground to block the entrance of the human eye into the picture.

A last point of simplicity-tell only one story. Ensure there is only enough material in the picture to convey one single idea. Although, it is hard to compose any picture without numerous small parts and contributing elements, but it should never attract more of the viewer's attention than the primary object of the picture. The primary object is the reason the picture is being made in the first place; therefore, all other elements should merely support and emphasize the main object. Do not allow the scene to be cluttered with confusing elements and lines that detract from the primary point of the picture. Select a viewpoint that eliminates distractions so the principal subject is readily recognized. When numerous lines or shapes are competing for interest with the subject, it is difficult to recognize the primary object or determine why the picture was made. For example, as in the picture above-left of a coyote, be sure that only the things you want the viewer to see appear in the picture. If there are numerous objects cluttering up the background, your message will be lost. If you can’t find an angle or framing to isolate your subject, consider using depth of field control to keep the background out of focus.

Moving on, a photographer must determine which design principles are important for creating the image. Some of the prominent design elements are:

1. Balance: It may be symmetric or asymmetric, subtle or obvious. Balance, in other words, is the consideration of visual weight and importance. It is a way to compare the right and left side of a composition.

o In symmetric balance both sides are similar in visual weight and almost mirrored. As symmetrical balance often looks more stiff and formal, sometimes it is called formal balance. Of course a butterfly, even though it is symmetrical, doesn't look stiff and formal because we think of fluttering butterflies as metaphors for freedom and spontaneity. It is a case of subject matter and symbolism overpowering formal design effects.

o Asymmetrical balance is more interesting. Above both sides are similar in visual weight but not mirrored. It is more casual, dynamic, and relaxed feeling so it is often called informal balance.

o Radial balance is not very common in artist's compositions, but it is like a daisy or sunflower with everything arranged around a centre. Rose windows of cathedrals use this design system. Of course a sunflower can have many meanings and feelings beyond its "radiant" feeling. Farmers might hate it as weed cutting into their corn production. On the other hand, many of us can't help thinking about Vincent Van Gogh's extraordinarily textured painted sunflowers. Once we have contemplated those thickly expressed colours and textures with their luscious painterly surface, every sunflower we see becomes an aesthetic experience filled with spiritual sensations.

2. Dominant element: Usually there is one main subject to the image. The subject may be either a single object, or a relationship. The principle of dominance makes an aspect of the design the focal point or emphasis. In The Magdalen (see image on the left) with the Smoking Flame by Georges de La Tour, the dominant element is Mary Magdalen’s gaze and meditation due to the use of light radiating from the candle, leaving in darkness the rest of the scene and the nature of the subject, since in a portrait the sitter is usually the dominant element.

3. Eye flow: Elements in the scene that guide the viewer's eye through the entire frame. There are two basic concepts that photographers use when composing their photographs: the first is the Rule of Thirds and the second is “eye flow” which is more difficult to understand because there is no basic starting point. Designers and photographers plan every element in fashion photography to make sure you see what they want you to see. The first question to always ask is: “What am I taking a picture of?” The second question is: “How will the observer view the image?” Contrast contributes to eye flow. Contrast is the ratio between the highlight and shadow areas of an image (see image on the right-above). This is another multiple subject image. Male or female, your eye is drawn to the model's legs and the eye tends to travel upwards to the bright white and horizontal piano keys. The contrast between the piano keys and the deep shadows then forces your eye downward to see the surprise subject hiding under the piano. When taking any photograph, even a candid, always ask yourself the two key questions and you will consider eye flow in creating your composition. When you are planning your composition, you can use strong horizontal or vertical lines to make the eye flow to the subject. Using strong colours is another way to guide the viewer through the image. Our eye travels first to lighter and brighter colours and no matter how hard we try to see the burgundy colour first, our eye is sucked in to the yellow colour. Designers use colour and lighting to make sure the item they are selling stand outs. Nothing aggravates a designer more than when we appreciate the model more than the lipstick!

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

The other important aspect is the application of design elements to create clarity in such familiar applications such as:

o Lines: Lines can be effective elements of composition, because they give structure to your photographs. Lines can unify composition by directing the viewer's eyes and attention to the main point of the picture or lead the eyes from one part of the picture to another. They can lead the eyes to infinity, divide the picture, and create patterns. Through linear perspective, lines can lend a sense of depth to a photograph. (Linear perspective causes receding parallel lines to appear to converge in the picture. This allows you to create an illusion of depth in your pictures.) The viewer's eyes tend to follow lines into the picture (or out of the picture) regardless of whether they are simple linear elements such as fences, roads, and a row of phone poles, or more complex line elements, such as curves, shapes, tones, and colours. Lines that lead the eye or direct attention are referred to as leading lines. A good leading line is one that starts near the bottom corner of the scene and continues unbroken until it reaches the point of interest (see picture on the right). It should end at this point; otherwise, attention is carried beyond the primary subject of the photograph. The apparent direction of lines can often be changed by simply changing viewpoint or camera angle.

o Shapes: Shape is a two-dimensional element basic to picture composition and is usually the first means by which a viewer identifies an object within the picture. Form is the three-dimensional equivalent of shape. Even though shape is only two-dimensional, with the proper application of lighting and tonal range, you can bring out form and give your subjects a three-dimensional quality. Lighting can also subdue or even destroy form by causing dark shadows that may cause several shapes to merge into one. Shapes can be made more dominant by placing them against plain contrasting backgrounds; for example, consider again the white sail against the dark water background. The greatest emphasis of shape is achieved when the shape is silhouetted (see picture on the right), thus eliminating other qualities of the shape, such as texture and roundness, or the illusion of the third dimension.

o Patterns: Creating your pictures around repeating elements or patterns provides picture unity and structure. Pattern repetition

creates rhythm that the eyes enjoy following (fig. 5-15). When lines, shapes, and colours within a picture occur in an orderly way (as in wallpaper), they create patterns that often enhance the attractiveness of photographs. Pattern, like texture, is found almost everywhere. It can be used as the primary subject but is most often used as a subordinate element to enhance composition. When pattern is used as a supporting element, it must be used carefully so it does not confuse or overwhelm the viewer. Pictures that are purely pattern are seldom used, because they tend to be monotonous. Patterns should be used to strengthen and add interest to your subject.
o Textures: Texture helps to emphasize the features and details in a photograph. By capturing "texture" of objects being photographed, you can create form. When people observe a soft, furry object or a smooth, shining surface, they have a strong urge to touch it. You can provide much of the pleasure people get from the feel of touching such objects by rendering texture in your pictures. Texture can be used to give realism and character to a picture and may in itself be the subject of a photograph. When texture is used as a subordinate element within the picture, it lends strength to the main idea in the photograph. It usually takes just a little different lighting or a slight change in camera position to improve the rendering of texture in a picture. When an area in a photograph shows rich texture, the textured area usually creates a form or shape; therefore, it should be considered in planning the photograph (image on the right.
o Colour (Tone): Tone is probably the most intangible element of composition. Tone may consist of shadings from white-to-gray-to-black, or it may consist of darks against lights with little or no greys. The use of dark areas against light areas is a common method of adding the feeling of a third dimension to a two-dimensional black-and-white picture. The interaction of light against dark shades in varying degrees helps to set the mood of a composition. A picture consisting of dark or sombre shades conveys mystery, intrigue, or sadness. When the tones are mostly light and airy, the picture portrays lightness, joy, or airiness.

Finally, there are photographic elements that add strength to the image. These elements include such aspects as:
o Format (portrait or landscape)
o Placement of the main elements
o Lens Selection
o Focusing
o Perspective: The human eye judges distance by the way elements within a scene diminish in size, and the angle at which lines and planes converge. This is called linear perspective. The distance between camera and subject and the lens focal length are critical factors affecting linear
perspective. This perspective changes as the camera position or viewpoint changes. From a given position, changing only the lens focal length, and not the camera position, does not change the actual viewpoint, but may change the apparent viewpoint. The use of different focal-length lenses in combination with different lens-to-subject distances helps you alter linear perspective in your pictures. When the focal length of the lens is changed but the lens-to-subject distance remains unchanged, there is a change in the image size of the objects, but no change in perspective. On the other hand, when the lens-to-subject distance and lens focal length are both changed, the relationship between objects is altered and perspective is changed. By using the right combination of camera-to-subject distance and lens focal length, a photographer can create a picture that looks deep or shallow. This feeling of depth or shallowness is only an illusion, but it is an important compositional factor. Using a short-focal-length lens from a close camera-to-subject distance, or viewpoint, produces a picture with greater depth (not to be confused with depth of field) than would be produced with a standard lens. Conversely, using a long-focal-length lens from a more distant viewpoint produces a picture with less apparent depth.
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 colour between parts of the image is another method that creates a strong focal point. When you're dividing the image space by tone or colour, 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 centre 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 centre of the frame.

We've been programmed to locate main elements in the centre 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 centre 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 centre of the camera lens. If you can determine focus in the centre 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 centre of the frame normally provides little interest for the viewer. The brain is logical. If the brain subconsciously expects to find something in the centre of a picture, and it's located there, no excitement is generated. Placing the subject away from the centre 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 on the left. 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 (see image on 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 colour 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 centre 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 centre 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

centre, because the radiating spokes suggest a strong balance within the scene. Placing a strong horizontal line in the centre 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 centre 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 centre 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 colours have less visual weight than dark colours 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.

Jim Altengarten 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 centre 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 centre. 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 centre), 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?

Keep in mind the 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!


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