The Tremendously Lazy
Rule of Thirds
“Rules are made to be broken.” -My favorite paradox.
I can count on one hand the number of rules I will obey without question, based solely on fear of catastrophic consequences: I turn off personal electronics during landing and take-off, I keep my hands inside the ride at all times, I don’t rock vending machines, I resist the urge to climb over zoo fences and I no longer lunge for a police officer’s holstered gun on April Fools Day. Pretty much everything else is up for debate.
That brings me to the Rule of Thirds. After a tremendous amount of research (I read a book) I learned that the rule of thirds may actually be just a lazy man’s sham. That’s right, I said it… a lazy sham! On the surface the rule of thirds doesn’t really make a ton of sense, I mean why would a composition broken up into three equal parts be innately more appealing than any other random spattering in a composition? Well what if I told you that nature actually does instinctively, and inexplicably seem to have a naturally occurring preference towards a specific ratio, a peculiar number, a divine ratio if you will?
To find the real story behind the “rule of thirds” we need to go back in time, not to the renaissance, not to the Greeks, and not even to Adam nor Eve… even further. We need to go to the creation of the universe, why is that? Well I’ll tell you why. There is a number that determines how a sunflower’s seeds grow, it determines the path a hawk takes when diving at it’s prey, it is echoed in the breeding habits of rabbits and it even determines how the spirals in a spiral galaxy are laid out. It’s all very simple in it’s beauty and best of all, it’s all true. If you want to wrap your head around it further then I highly recommend the book The Golden Ratio by Mario Livio (Check it out here The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World’s Most Astonishing Number).
Interestingly enough this mathematical principle has been seen in artwork as early as 400 B.C., today we refer to this line by several names: the Golden Ratio, the Golden Mean, The Divine Proportion, but whatever you call it you should notice that it does not line up with the rule of thirds. Almost but not quite…
In other words, if you want to construct a composition where the main points fall on lines used by nature in absolutely mind-blowingly different ways then follow the Golden Mean. However, if you want to fold up the paper into thirds and have your composition line up with that then by all means, follow the rule of thirds.
Of course I’m not recommending that you get out your protractor and start measuring your images to makes sure they follow these naturally occurring principles, but what I am recommending that you do is to start seeing the world in a way that Mother Nature tends to see the world, and that is in a proportion that is absolutely elegant in it’s mathematical beauty. If you do then your images may start to be just a bit stronger in their appeal.
The following images are all happy accidents… meaning the alignment of this spiral (called a Fibonacci spiral) was not pre-planned, it just happens that major parts of the composition fall along major intersections or lines within the spiral. I suppose that’s just one more thing my images and breeding patterns of rabbits have in common.
this Fibonacci spiral makes sense to me. I always tried to use the golden section in may pictures… but this spiral seems somehow easier to me. Thanks for this post !
Superb!! Thank you so much for posting this …food for thought indeed!
Wow great examples… when I was reading the post I was thinking like : theory, theory, theory, I can’t stand an another boring article on rule of thirds… then I saw the stunning pictures with the Fibonacci spiral and thought : this is great, must look for this in my pictures!
Professor Garn, this is the most entertaining time I’ve had learning about geometry. Also good to learn what not to do to police on Aprils Fools.
Earlier this week Rebecca sent me an interesting youtube clip showing Fibonacci spirals used mathematically in the structure of a Tool song. So cool to now see the rule visually a few days later.
Love the example photos with spiral overlays. Gives me an even better appreciation for your composition now.
Pierre-Yves – I’m so glad I converted you by the end of the post! 🙂
Sterling – My motto has always been that learning should be fun! Just kidding, that’s not even close to my motto… my real motto is “Tattoos are forever.”
I was actually reading up about Tool just a few weeks ago as well, when this idea for a post was fermenting in my brain. Those guys are crazy-incredible! If you remember the youtube link then I’d love to see it!
Interesting! i will really have to see what this looks like on some of my pictures!
I just finished shooting Kali (about 20 seconds ago) and she mentioned you several times, thanks for sending her my way she did REALLY well! 🙂
jake! good lord you are a genius. and im freaked out about my desire to read the golden ratio, the story of phi, and even more freaked out by my wandering eyes trying to find the fibonacci spirals in my view.
even more freaked out by how all these pictures of yours totally master it!
i didn’t realize you were so witty either.
“no longer lunge for a police officers holster on april fools.”
Molly, Do not fear… read it, love it, cherish it! You can buy it used for like $2.70 on Amazon, sure shipping is probably like $38 but the knowledge is priceless. Plus Amazon gives me like 4% of the sale price so come on, help a brother out! 🙂
Also, I think you should get your car taken away. Just for the record.
Very interesting, however I have to disagree that those images are happy accidents… On day one of photography class in college, you get the rule of thirds shoved down your throat, and for good reason, as you have said.
That is the spot that they always tell you to direct your primary focus on.
The rule of thirds is a rough shortcut. As you can see in the first picture, a rule of fifths would be more appropriate. The spiral, though perfect for composition, is hard to imagine.
Instead I often use three-fifths as a guideline. The convenience of the rule of thirds, with just a bit more accuracy. da Vinci would be proud.
I don’t know. Seems to me you can slap that spiral over anything (including really lousy pictures) and find things that line up.
Just did a web search and found this: http://www.maa.org/devlin/devlin_05_07.html
That’s a great link, the book I referenced debunks many of those same myths mentioned in the article. In a 4×6 frame it would be impossible to not have MANY random elements line up coincidentally with the spiral, even in bad photographs. You can also coincidentally make a triad color scheme without knowing it, or coincidentally hit all seven tonal zones… but that doesn’t take away their power when they are done with a sense of purpose either.
And so does the bullshit 4 points rule of thirds.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wS7CZIJVxFY There’s the tool song.
Jake! This really makes sense! I’ll start seeing in spirals now! waaaaah
I also always wondered why it was in thirds, now it makes sense! Thanks.
Now, when do you think Canon will release a Fibonacci spiral focusing screen?!
Hi, been a fan of your blog for a while 🙂
love your work! do you have a modelmayhem.com profile?
Very helpful info on the Fibonacci Spiral!
I’m just starting doing photography involving people…it’s harder than I thought! I’m so used to doing nature/objects…
Look forward to hearing from you soon!
Stephanie, I do have a modelmayhem account, feel free to look me up!
Now if Adobe will just make spiral grid lines for cropping in Lightroom.
I was thinking that SAME thing about Lightroom just the other day. We should start an email campaign and request in for Lightroom 3!
very cool thank for the info.
Im sure this was mentioned already, but the book you read must have been pretty horrible, since you don’t even seem to have the slightest idea what the rule of thirds is.
It is not “Splitting the image into 3 equal parts”.
Im not saying this makes it genius and proper and the best thing ever, but if you’re going to put something down you should at least know what it is and if you’re going to claim you read about it you should DEFINITELY know what it is.
Easy there! Your vitriol is impressive and I apologize that my generalization about the rule of thirds got your panties into a bunch. I hate to break it to you though, but the rule of thirds actually IS about splitting an image into three equal parts, are you upset that I didn’t go onto explain that you can split it horizontally or vertically or even horizontally AND vertically for the rule of 9ths? Next time I will cover every possible scenario so that you can reserve your righteous indignation for more important things, such as why animals sometimes talk in cartoons. Can you believe what a load of bull that scam is? Talking animals… COME ON!!!!
Yours ever so sincerely,
You, sir… Are quite witty. Reminds me slightly of David Thorne. 🙂 You should check out his blog http://27bslash6.com/index.html : )
No, sorry, but it is not either/or. It’s 9 equal parts, 3 horizontal and 3 vertical. You are wrong.
Send me your address so I can mail you some tissues along with a full discourse on the rule of thirds that will hopefully put your mind at ease. I hope you rest easy tonight, I understand if it will be difficult for you though. I’m so sorry if I harmed your loving relationship with a rule that is a bastardized version of a more elegant principle! 🙂
Next time if you don’t like the simplified explanation in one of my posts feel free to use the hyper-text link that takes you to more information that you may read at your leisure. Oh, sorry, those instructions were probably too general for your taste! Don’t get mad!
Take that item on your desk (probably an off-white color) that is about the size and shape of an adult mouse. Not EXACTLY the shape mind you, I know how you like to be precise, and if you move that on your desk it should correlate with movement of a pointer on the screen. See that?
Now move the pointer over the words “Rule of Thirds” on my post. See how the arrow changes into a pointy finger? Now click the button on the mouse-like object (remember, not the actual shape of a mouse, just a simplified description) and then that will take you to a whole new page where you can read all about the 9 equal parts you so lovingly refer to. I was going to do a post with a detailed explanation but instead I decided it wasn’t necessary… I pinkie-promise I will not take anything for granted in the future and I will go into full descriptive mode of anything and everything that I write without assuming my readers will already have a basic enough understanding. Which reminds me, a pinkie-promise is kind of like a promise only stronger. It withstands the test of time much better than a simple, ordinary promise. If you were to take a promise and split it into three equal types you would have the following, in order:
I swear (usually a lie)
Regular promise (used only by children)
Pinkie-Promise (used only by those that understand it’s true power, usually adults).
As you can see the pinkie-promise is the most intense promise I can offer you at this time, until there comes such a day that bigger and better promises come, at which point I will evaluate my options and we may renew our promise under different terminology.
Your enthusiastic pen pal and faraway admirer,
P.S. – I will patiently wait for you to send me your address, I have the tissues ready and I will include a pumpkin cookie as well. I just ate one and it was delicious… I’m so glad we found each other, I think this will be a long-lasting relationship.
P.P.S. – Can I call you schnookums?
LOL, you seem angry to me.
Well i have no idea of photography i reached here as i am learning photoshop, i read about thirds, and in search of thirds i reached a place where thirds is abused xD
well thirds is old and the Fibonacci seems new or maybe better. So one should follow better stuff, and yah you didn’t explained it in detail, like for me it was a headache and didn’t wanted to read it as i was not able to understand, but i read it as your way of explanation was good and fun, you are a writer so i am not surprised.
You reply to almost everyone, and seems talented i would say “thumbs up” for you
Just one request keep it detailed as “all fingers are not same” people like me also come to read your stuff. And i think you have referred a book too for it, but if you summarize a book it could make your post reading more worthy as then we don’t have to buy the book and read it, rather come here and get to know what is important like “birds eye view”
Well take care Jake, its always fun to see good people around 🙂
I assure you, I am not angry, just slightly sarcastic. 🙂 I’ll be providing more detailed education on http://www.shootforlove.com so if you are wanting to soak in more detailed information that would be a great place for it. Cheers!
well that was one quick reply, i like the way you talk and comment, you seem full of life <——–don't point me as gay cause i am straight 🙂
and yah i would love to read over there if its detailed like you said, as for a person like me i have to start from zero. People like me learn from free blogs, and uses pirated softwares, otherwise we can't learn. And as i said i have no idea of photography but by looking at your pics from a ordinary person's perspective i can say that you are Talented person.
I will keep an eye on the blog that you recommended as i checked it, it seems under construction.
and i am glad to hear that you are not ANGRY.
Would be neat if the folks over at CHDK could put this in so When you take a picture this is hat you see over the image instead of crosshairs or braces.
The Golden Section (Golden Mean, Divine Proportion, 1:1.618, Phi, whatever you wish to call it), as you rightly say, is nothing new. The more educated of us Architects have been employing it for years. Well done for enlightning some more people on this though; people (clients) think I’m mad when trying to explain such things and they can’t quite grasp that they’ll have a better building in the end! I’ve had to employ it’s use in a secretive way just so that nobody goes out of their way to destroy a composition (try it in 3 dimensions by the way). Hopefully it will filter down to the masses.
Your post is awesome. And your comments are EXTRA-awesome. Thanks for the info and the laugh. 🙂
Interesting post. I’m currently reading The Photographer’s Eye, by Michael Freeman (good book btw, goes way beyond the basics of composition and includes the Bauhaus and Gestalt theories), in which he too talks about the golden ratio.
Excellent article, I have been always fascinated by the Fibonacci Spiral, and it does make more sense than the rule of thirds. I do apply the rule of thirds as a rough guide in composition, but think of it more as foreground, mid ground, and far ground. Most of my work is landscape, and what I rely on intuitively is a bell ringing in my head when I framed a composition that seems good. To me finding the composition is like finding the right moment in the dance of nature to push the shutter.
You really don’t have to be a dick about it.
You said something. That something was wrong. The link you led to even tells you that you’re wrong. I don’t understand how being wrong about what something is counts as “a simple explanation” and not “wrong”. Please don’t bother explaining, because you probably can’t.
You are so right, I should never had said the rule of ninths was about dividing the image into three equal parts. Whoever it was that originally referred to it as a rule of “thirds” was ridiculous and short sighted. This wrong must be RIGHTED! No more will we say anything about thirds, because obviously thirds have NOTHING to do with ninths! Whoever named it really gets me going, I’m so mad I could strangle a puppy right now! I can’t even imagine how upset you must have been… my anger is at least tempered because I know you are on my side with this issue – but you have been alone in your principles for a couple of days now. The lone voice of reason in this crazy world! You probably need a hug so very badly!
Tell me where you live and I will order a pizza and send it to your house, I will promise an extra $1.50 tip if the delivery driver gives you the hug you so need. I am prepared to call all the major pizza chains until I find a driver willing to do this for you… for me… for US! Also, I will have them cut the pizza into nine equal parts (I know how you get Schnookums!)
After you are adequately hugged and nourished we will get to business. You go track down all the art history and theory books that refer to the rule of thirds as the rule of thirds (the silly, simplistic bastards!) and I will write them a letter requesting they change to the more aptly named rule of NINTHS! We must avenge this terrible wrong, we must seek justice!
P.S. I changed your name (I hope you don’t mind me wielding my deity-like power over this blog).
P.P.S. I’m so upset that I can’t even enjoy this pumpkin cookie right now. GRRRRRRRR!!!!
Actually, and with no vitriol at all, I do think the Rule of Thirds is being misrepresented here. Not simply because you’ve described it as splitting the composition into just three equal parts instead of nine. As I understand it, the Rule of Thirds is about lining up or placing compositional elements along these imaginary lines, particularly at the intersections of those lines. Also, rather than encouraging equal parts, it is about the compositional value of asymmetry. A value that peaks at the 2/3rds to 1/3 ratio. A slightly off-center subject.
It is true that a Ro3s-compliant frame could have three equal parts, (e.g. 1/3 land, 1/3 sea and 1/3 sky, with the horizon and the shoreline neatly dividing), but I imagine that most pictures taken intentionally to obey the Ro3s, have a composition much more like a Fibonacci spiral. Not because the Ro3s is the lazy man’s spiral, but because it IS the spiral. Certainly it is close enough that the difference is insignificant.
The point of following these rules when composing images isn’t so other photographers and artists will look at them and say “Good photo, it is very Rule-of-Thirdsy.” Presumably, the average observer, trained or not, will find a Thirdsy composition more compelling than one which is very nearly Thirdsy.
You understand and describe the rule of thirds quite accurately, the problem for me is that the rule is flawed from the beginning. It is a rough approximation whose modern history can only be traced back couple hundred years. The reason it seems to get so much attention in recent history is ever since Kodak produced the first consumer camera people have been able to INSTANTLY compose a scene. This was a drastic change from history, before the Kodak anyone photographing, painting, or drawing a scene had to spend enough time on the process that thoughtfully considering the composition was almost forced on them, but now for the first time ever anyone could instantly, without thought or pretense, compose and record a scene. This is a significant change, and when a scene is easy to compose instantly guess what happened? Center-weighted compositions become absolutely common-place.
You’re absolutely right, the rule-of-thirds really did seem to gain traction in order to force people into rethinking how they composed a scene and a composition following the rule of thirds seems to be a much better option than a centrally-weighted composition… but that’s not what this post is about. Try to find some discussion about the rule of thirds that is older than 250 years and you will have a difficult time. The simplification is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one that is taken a bit to the extreme these days. No doubt encouraged by cropping tools, in Adobe Lightroom for instance, and rule-hungry-zealots. Look around long enough and you will find people actually measuring out their composition to fit within the rule of thirds just so…. is it a close approximation, obviously, otherwise it wouldn’t have been substituted. But does that make clarification irrelevant? Well, you can be the judge of that!
Fascinating post, this Fibonacci Spiral is very intriguing; and as others have said before I also can’t wait to try this on some of my older shots.
On a side note; OH man is it funny how people get their panties in a bunch over the silliest things! 😉 I needed a good laugh today and this post delivers!
I hate to bring this up, seeing as the blogger here takes none too kindly to criticism, but the Fibonacci Spiral is not based on phi. The spiral you’re looking for is probably the Golden Spiral, no?
The Fox! (sweet name!)
I’m no math expert so you may very well be right, but as I understand it phi and the Fibonacci Spirals are actually related. If you take the yellow line on my Fibonacci graphic and call that point B on the bottom line of the rectangle, and then call the left corner point A, and the right corner point C then.
“If the ratio length of AC to that of CB is the same as the ratio of AB to AC, then that line has been cut in extreme and mean ratio, or in a Golden Ratio…. The precise value of the Golden ratio (the ratio of AB to AC) is the never ending, never-repeating number 1.6180339887…” Pg 4 of The Golden Ratio.
As long as I’m understanding it correctly then that number is actually phi. I actually don’t know what a Golden Spiral is, but I do know that Fibonacci and phi are relatives since the length of ABC is determined by the Fibonacci sequence.
Great post, thanks a lot
I noticed you deleted my comment about how simplifying a simple concept because it is “too complex” shows that you don’t have much respect for your readers.
And you really are quite the asshole. Why am I in the wrong for telling you that you were completely wrong about something? And then you try and turn it around and make yourself seem like the big man, but you’re acting like a child.
You said something entirely wrong. I corrected you. Get over yourself.
Ok, I guess I’ll treat you like an adult now since you decided to use adult words.
If I’m discussing another principle, lets say the “I before E except after C” rule in spelling, we all remember that right? Well say I am trying to correct someone that spelled “deity” by writing “diety” and in correcting them I say, “I before E” doesn’t work here. I left out the extension of that rule with an assumption the rule is understood and move on to discuss the more advanced application of the issue at hand… yet you are someone that wants to stagnate the entire discussion and throw a fit about me not saying the entire rule.
The rule of thirds IS about dividing the image into three equal parts, both horizontally and vertically. That’s why it’s called the rule of thirds rather than the rule of ninths. I simplified the discussion to focus on the fact that the vertical axis determined by the rule of thirds is an inaccurate measurement of the principle it was based on. If the vertical axis is an inaccurate measurement then discussing the horizontal axises as well is entirely moot.
I treated you like a child in jest because of a childish insistence to focus the discussion on elementary principles rather than opening your mind to the fact that more advanced discussion is the entire point of this post. If you want to discuss the rule of thirds by all means go back to your high school photography teacher and have at it! If you want to continue and try to discuss it here I will gladly poke fun of you with a smile on my face the entire time. Your call Schnookums!
Yours ever so faithfully,
PS – If I deleted your comment it was in error, I was deleting lots of viagra spam and it’s quite possible a legitimate comment or two was caught up in the mix. I apologize for missing it!
Slapping Fibonacci spirals just proves that you can put them on there. If you notice they don’t entirely fit either unless you really stretch it. The bottom-left one? Don’t know, not convinced.
I am quite enjoying this banter.
Laying that aside, I too have used PHI in a lot of my design work, but not all. The interesting thing about reading all these things (pro-phi, anti-phi, pro-thirds, pro-pizza) is that you wonder at what point this rule was “made up.” Clusters of like-minded thinkers tend to take an idea, talk about it and use it. It becomes habit and through a interesting process becomes almost a religion.
I have come to find out that many of these “rules” are pretty much hogwash, albeit (wait is that I before E?) many have stemmed from proper principles, only to become perverted over time. Now, sometimes because society takes hold of these rules (thank you Kodak) the very following of the bunk rule brings to pass the conformity of it, therefore, making a strong case for the bunk rule in the first place. (woah…I’m dizzy now)
Quite interestingly, it was people who “broke” these rules that turned out to be the geniuses in their field. Beethoven broke the “rules” and developed a unique style by creating rules of his own, that he followed to create his style. Artists and photographers can do likewise. If every photographer in the world began using the “spiral grid” mentioned, then everything will start looking the same. (Yawn)
The trick is, to take this idea of the Golden Ratio, put your own spin on it and make something unique.
Think of all those who made things unique by breaking out of societal norms: Elvis, Stravinski, Ansel Adams, Warhol, Francois Didot, Martin Luther King, James Madison, Mary Curie, Einstein, Galileo, Gershwin, Jim Henson, Tim Burton, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis,……
So Jake, thanks for helping bring the principle of Phi to the table, showing that the “rule” of thirds is just an opinion, and the lovable banter between you and Schnookums.
Just remember all, be unique – not to the point of non-sense and pointless abstraction but to add your view, your touch.
I love it, we actually talked about using the Golden Mean rather than the rule of thirds in one of my photo classes. I agree, it makes a lot more sense. Great post, great photos, great fun to read the comments from all these people with sticks up their bums! I’m surprised nobody has beat you down for misspelling counterfeit in your graphic… you really should be publicly whipped for that one!
Holy crap, THAT’S how you spell counterfeit? Well that just breaks all sorts of “i before e” rules, not to mention having absolutely nothing to do with phonetics. I feel so betrayed right now, like the English language has really let me down. First there was “Wednesday” then there was “February” and “Bologna” and now this? With everything wrong in the world in this day and age and then to top it all off I find there is ANOTHER spelling of a word that makes no sense whatsoever? This is some Bolshevik!
Not to mention the fact that my own new assistant calls me out on it PUBLICLY. You’re fired… just kidding, thanks for having me! Don’t leave, please! I crave acceptance from cute girls!!! Do you still like me even though I can’t spell and I have a receding hair line?
Thanks for the fantabulous response! So well said and I couldn’t agree more!
Huh, WHAT?! You have a RECEDING HAIRLINE? Holy petroleum, I’m telling EVERYONE! The spelling error I can overlook (it is a strange, rule-breaking word, after all), but… I don’t know if we can be friends now that the cat’s out of the bag on your hair. I am SHOCKED.
Then again, I know I’m making the world a better place by going to all of these strange and creepy places, standing where you say and holding the light where you want it. So, for the sake of mankind, I guess I still like you… PLEASE don’t fire me! Think of the children (literally – Rylee would be devastated!).
Lightroom has had different crop overlays since version 1. These overlays include: Grid, Thirds, Triangle, Diagonal, Golden Ratio, and Golden Spiral. To change the overlay, go to the Develop Module and then select the crop tool. While the tool is active, click on View on the top menu bar and then go down to Crop Guide Overlay. You can also cycle through the crop guides while the crop is active by pressing the letter O on the keyboard (not zero).
I had absolutely no idea! I don’t think Adobe could have hidden that feature any more if they tried, thanks so much for the tip!
Wow! Thanks so much!
cool stuff. thank you. will read the book, xperiment w/pics.