Photography / Tips and Solutions

Who Wrote the Rule of Thirds?

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Most photographers encounter the Rule of Thirds at some point in their life, and likely recognize it as more of a theory or suggestion than a hard rule. But what are the origins of the Rule of Thirds? It turns out that its roots can be traced back to the 18th Century.

The Rule of Thirds posits that a visual composition is most pleasing to the eye when its compositional elements conform to an imaginary set of lines that divide the frame into equal thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Furthermore, the “Rule” suggests that the human eye naturally gravitates to the four intersecting points of these lines, and that these points are the ideal spot to place objects in the composition.

Imagine a tic-tac-toe grid incorporated into your viewfinder and you will have an idea of how the rule is realized; if you utilize a landscape photo as an example, the placement of the horizon demonstrates how the Rule of Thirds works. Accordingly, the horizon line should not be in the center of the frame but at the one-third line, with sky taking up the upper two-thirds of the image. This is a simple example of the principle, but many more complicated images can demonstrate the rule, whether intentionally or not.

The idea of a paradigm for a pleasing composition within a frame has been challenged relentlessly and successfully in modern art, but there must be something to this idea, as it has been employed by visual artists for so long. Indeed, theorists, artists, and bloggers have looked everywhere—including to universal mathematical principles—to understand why the eye is satisfied by such a composition, but the first person to cite and name the Rule of Thirds was an 18th-Century painter, engraver, and writer named John Thomas Smith.

Smith lived in London, from 1766 to 1833, and was known to many as “Antiquity Smith,” after his work Antiquities of London and its Environs. He eventually took the position of Keeper of Prints at the British Museum.

In 1797, Smith wrote a short book entitled Remarks on Rural Scenery. It covers “various features and specific beauties in cottage scenery” and, in the chapter “Of Light and Shade,” it discusses a work by Rembrandt called The Cradle, in which “two thirds of the picture are in shadow.” He writes, “Two distinct, equal lights, should never appear in the same picture: One should be principal and the rest sub-ordinate, both in dimension and degree: Unequal parts and gradations lead the attention easily from part to part, while parts of equal appearance hold it awkwardly suspended as if unable to determine which of those parts is to be considered as the subordinate.”

Smith elaborates on the roles of shadow and light by quoting his contemporary, the great portrait painter Joshua Reynolds, and then drops his gem: “Analogous to this ‘Rule of Thirds’ (if I may be allowed to so call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds; or else at about one-third, so that material objects might occupy the other two: again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the other two thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives. This rule would likewise apply in breaking a length of wall, or any other too great continuation of line that it may be found necessary to break by crossing or hiding it with some other object: In short, in applying this invention, generally speaking, to any other case of light, shade, form or color, I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far-extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever.”

There you have it, pretty much the way we describe the “Rule” today. And if you are the type who is disposed to dismissing such dogmatic practices, you’re not alone; the work was also criticized by some of Smith’s contemporaries. However, to be fair to Smith, there certainly is merit to the theory, and while he did call it a rule, a complete reading of his text would indicate that it’s best described as a rule of thumb.

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Rembrandt didn't use the rule of thirds, he used the golden section system of design called Dynamic Symmetry. Smith, IMO, made an inaccurate judgement of design. Artist of the past were master designers and using a concept as limiting as the rule of thirds never would have fit into their studies on geometry. The rule of thirds is severely limiting in design and really has no place in the art world other than a Kodak site on a quick "how to" for beginners. Dynamic Symmetry has been around over 2500 years. 

Thank you CowmanJ!

Actually, although Smith used the term "Rule of Thirds", there is no evidence--not even in his words--that it has anything to do with our current rule.  (In fact, the term "Rule of Thirds" doesn't reappear until the 1940's and then only in amateur photographic literature.)  Smith talked about proportion in all aspects of an image, not just the division of the overall space as we know the current rule, and he never indicated strong or forte points or suggested the use of a grid to determine placement.  In fact, even in the division of the overall space, it is unclear as to whether it is about placement or volume.  In any case, Smith's "Rule" was much more  encompassing than what we know today and totally omitted anything about subject placement, as is fundamental to todays Rule.  There is absolutely no indication that, other than the use of the words "Rule of Thirds", our current rule has anything to do with Smith's observations--and that is all that they were, observations.  (We might all be just shooting cute kitty videos if our observations of what people generally like drove our artistic endeavors!)

The ACTUAL genesis of what we call our Rule of Thirds, the grid and its points of intersection, is derived from a 19th century system of grids designed "...to show how pictures may be produced without requiring so much skill, or taking so much trouble.”  The words, "Rule of Thirds" doesn't appear, but the salient part of our current rule, the grid and emphasis on the points of intersection for subject placement is right there.  The fact is, though, that the system suggests various grid proportions--the familiar thirds grid and points is the smallest offered--others include 5ths, 7ths and even larger grids are suggested.  It even allows for uneven grids, like 3x5 etc.  The key is that there were rules for using the grids and how one finds the "forte" or strong points (our intersections), or which intersections were actually strong points for subjects.  For instance, you would never use the thirds grid in a square and not every point of intersection is, in fact, a strong point in every case(differs between the aspect ratio of the frame where it is being applied). 

Essentially, even though the origins were designed just as a guide for the amateur this original formulation is quite a bit more robust than our very static and simplistic rule (painters and such could easily take the time to calculate and plan their image and divisions).  The real issue that this rule tries to address is that of proportion and use of space but the problem is that it ignores the dynamic nature of imagery with a static and unsubstantiated primacy for the division of that space. (some suggest that it is an approximation of the Golden Ratio, however, a fifths grid is much more in line with that theory (3/5's) and the division by fifths has as long a history in the arts, including photography.)  This doesn't mean it can't work or doesn't work in many cases.  But it is a very pedantic approach to the issue and should not be confused as an actual principle of composition--it's merely a guideline.

The use of the Rule to remember to not always center an image--thus avoiding our natural tendancies--can be useful as well as the fact of using it "requires" one to notice the frame--something many struggle with for the same reasons we naturally center--it's how our natural, human perception works.  Once these are done, the actual placement of objects or the division of space should be "felt" based on one's intent for the image, not forced into an arbitrary grid structure.

Just sayin......

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The Rule of Thirds states that a photo is most aesthtically pleasing when it's components conform to imaginary lines spliting the picture into ninths. This rule was cited by John Thomas Smith in the 18th century. He wrote a book called Remarks on Rural Scenery. In this book he says, "Two distinct, equal lights should never appear in the asme picture: Unequal parts and gradations lead the attention easily from part to part..." He later addresses the rule of thirds and advices that when taking a landscape picture you either have one third or two thirds of the picture be the sky, not half.

I thought you might like this article. 

jim

Also, to be fair to JTS, he qualifies his 'Rule of thirds', as he is so bold to call it, with 'in general' and with 'generally speaking' and he is not insisiting on a precise division but rather ratios of 'about two thirds to one third, or of one to two'. His comments suggest a man of acute observation and thoughtfulness expressing a principal he finds pleasing in a non-dogmatic but very clear way which has possibly not been said better since 1797. Good for him ! Anyway, as they keep saying in 'Pirates of the Caribean' - 'its not so much a rule, more of a guideline really' - and, in general, it works pretty well, whatever the 'Golden Section' purists say !

Here's the rule of thirds thing.

its heip to take a better photo and a better compocition.

The Rule of Thirds was pushed by Kodak to simplify the Golden Section/ Golden Cut for Americans.  Most photography text books that pushed it used examples where the main subject falls into the Golden Section, including their cover page.  I used to show it to my photography students and they understood that the Rule of Thirds does not work, it looks baaaad.  Sorry, American photographers:  Wake up!

And the Golden Ratio goes back to ancient Greece.  For a 294-page book on the subject, see:  http://books.google.com/books?id=w9dmPwAACAAJ

I am still in the 'fetal' stage of my photography: learning terminology, angles etcetera. I have a habit of internalizing all that I learn and grow from each experience. Thanks for this and looking forward to more Explora.

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