# If viewers don't respond to the rule of thirds, why do some photographers still emphasize it?

Previous posts (1, 2) explain the concept of the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio. Some previous answers state that the Rule of Thirds is the Golden Ratio, but that is not true. The two are different. The golden ratio is related to the Fibonacci numbers, and is an irrational number whose value is approximately 1.618...

My questions remains — why is it that as photographers and artists, we take great care in utilising rules with the goal of drawing the viewer into an image, however, for those viewers who are not able to recognise the efforts we put in, dismiss our effort as a fallacy? yet the golden ratio has been used for hundreds of years if not thousands but still does not always have the intended affect of drawing the viewer in.

Is there a mathematical way that this can be quantified?

Having studied Renaissance art in school and having a fairly good working understanding of the rule of thirds and the golden ratio in photography, without ever questioning, I have been applying these rules to my portraits and travel photography for many years, but was that the right thing to do?

As it stands, I am not interested in understanding what these rules are, as I already know.

What I am interested in: do they really alter the perception of the general viewer? or do we as photographers have become so accustom to them, that any image not applying these rules, becomes an image that is just not quite right! I appreciate that there are times when these rules can be broken, but to keep focus on the topic, let's just ignore that for now.

Recently, having visited a few art/photography galleries in London, speaking to individuals, I found that fellow photographers and art critiques were discussing composition and how they felt the golden ratio and the rule of thirds was applied. Whereas, for those visitors not familiar with any of these rules, understandably, not only did they not discuss any of these rules, but they also happened to be drawn to images that were perhaps those that least applied any of the rules.

In other words, these rules did not seem to have the desired effect on their perception of being drawn into the image.

Once explained on how the power points within the image were being utilised and how these rules were ensuring that the viewer was consistently drawn back from the edges and towards the subject, they understood the concept, some appreciated it, but not all agreed on the physicality of it, as they felt that they were not being drawn in.

Despite the attempts of several experts, many viewers were not convinced and therefore, no real practical conclusion reached. The outcome was 50/50.

To conclude, are these rules something only artists and photographers understand, appreciate, able to see, discuss and judge and as a result, are automatically drawn to such images, whereas, someone with no knowledge of these rules, will not necessarily be attracted to such images?

Can we mathematically provide an answer for those who require solvable logic to better understand this concept of the rule of thirds and the concept of the Golden Ratio?

• Il'l just post as a comment this: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/64966/… – Rafael Aug 28 '15 at 13:17
• Yes, If people has no knodledge of something can not apreciate it. Culture, food, tradition, esthetics, music, painting, architecture, cinema. But a well done "pice of something" can make all the diference. I do not think a good test subject is the gallery where the framing has being already choosed (thirds or not), but a blind test with the same images framed "good" or "bad". – Rafael Aug 28 '15 at 13:34
• The rule of thirds is definitely real - I saw somebody use it once. – Matt Grum Aug 28 '15 at 13:41
• @Rafael I can taste the difference in two foods without having any idea what the chef did. Likewise, I can appreciate music or other art forms without understanding the science behind its creation. – MichaelS Aug 29 '15 at 9:28
• "...why do photographers still emphasize it?" Many do and many don't. Your question may present a false assumption that "photographers" all emphasize the "rule of thirds". – Michael C Aug 29 '15 at 18:55

I was tempted to mark this to be closed as "primarily opinion based" but then realized that I can prove that the "rule" of thirds is not a matter of opinion. Well, sort of. In one specific way. Maybe.

First, accept that it's not a rule. Appropriated from Pirates of the Carribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Barbosa says "...more what you'd call 'guidelines' than actual rules..."

So, here's the simple scenario: take a portrait of somebody with their head centered in the frame. You see the tree/building/whatever shooting straight up out of the top of their head (in the background) but choose to ignore it and take the photo anyway, because you're a rebel who doesn't follow composition rules. In the future, everybody points out to you that this person has a tree growing out of their head.

Alternative: you see the tree growing out of the person's head and decide to acknowledge these "rules" by moving just a bit. Now the person is to the left of center and the tree is to the right of center. Take the photo. In the future, everybody tells you it's a nice photo.

Whether you choose to follow a Golden Ratio or Rule of Thirds or Leading Lines or Symmetry or break the rules, in the end the goal is always the same: to make you, the photographer, think about the photo being taken.

Yes, the rules are not for the viewer but the photographer. Another photo idea example: you want to employ a Leading Lines rule. From the top of a mountain you take a photo of a winding road going down the mountain; that road is the leading line, taking the viewer through your photo.

You take two photos: one with the road going through the frame, another with the road getting chopped off at the edge of the frame. Which photo best captures and illustrates the idea of a leading line? Finally, because you (the photographer) have chosen the best photo the viewer can look at and enjoy the photo without understanding why.

• Interesting! As photographers, such rules can become second nature, as it has been in my case and perhaps my over whelming urge to explain to a viewer, is uncalled for! but what if the viewer is also a art/photography student and needs a quantifiable reason? you do make some good points though. appreciate it. I am going to upvote as you have made me see something new – Abdul N Quraishi Aug 28 '15 at 14:51
• Upvote purely for quoting a pirate! – James Snell Aug 28 '15 at 16:11
• This example is a false dichotomy. You started with a tree growing out of his head. Sure, the rule of thirds coincidentally fixed the scene, but it wasn't required. You could just step left or right before taking the picture, then the tree would be left or right of a still-centered subject. You could have the subject move left or right and remove the tree entirely. The rules may be written for the photographer, but the purpose should be so the resulting image is better for the viewer. The rule is only important if the viewer's experience is improved because the rule was followed. – MichaelS Aug 29 '15 at 9:33
• @AbdulNQuraishi: "but what if the viewer is also a art/photography student and needs a quantifiable reason?" Then you can give them one. Composition rules, exposure, lighting technique, etc -- there are always things to talk about with those who want to discuss! – Dan Wolfgang Aug 29 '15 at 14:57
• @MichaelS: I think you're reinforcing my point. Just because you favor symmetry over thirds doesn't mean you are not following rules or not thinking about creating the photo. And, as you wrote, the goal is that the resulting image be better so that the viewer can enjoy it more. – Dan Wolfgang Aug 29 '15 at 15:02

There is no ratio or particular number for division of the frame or placement of points which has any demonstrated special power. That includes both the rule of thirds and the golden ratio. However, the basic idea that centered subjects tend towards a more staid composition while off-center provides dynamic interest is fundamentally sound. Just don't get caught up a certain number. I've written extensively on this at:

The golden ratio was invented by minor landscape artist John Thomas Smith in 1797, and his reasoning for it is incredibly weak — it seems mostly that he wanted to become famous for inventing an artistic concept. While the math of the golden ratio was known to the ancient Greeks, the idea of using it in aesthetics dates to around 1854, put forth by German intellectual Adolph Zeising. (The Parthenon isn't based on the golden ratio, nor is any other ancient art we know of, and despite repeated claims, there's no evidence that it was used in the Renaissance either.) And, if you look at What historic reasons are there for common aspect ratios?, note that 5:8 never became popular, while 5:7 certainly did — if the golden ratio were more appealing, you'd think we'd naturally gravitate to a ratio very close to it.

All of this comes about, I think, because art feels difficult and mysterious. It would be very comforting for their to be secret yet repeatable mathematical rules which, when followed, would lead to beauty. That particularly fit with the mindset of the Enlightenment, when these ideas became popular, and that explains why the rules became so popular even though their actual application didn't. The world just plain doesn't work that way, and there's no magic numbers for art.

• thanks Matt, I was under the believe that the Golden Ratio was based on the Phi Grid of the Fibonacci numbers of 1.1618 and more naturally occurring in nature and thus a better grid to use for Landscapes. the question remains, some viewers are not able to recognise the difference between a shot that is composed to draw their eyes in and when discussed, they dismiss it as being a fallacy. thus the reason for asking a more quantifiable justification – Abdul N Quraishi Aug 28 '15 at 16:31
• The idea that the golden ratio occurs frequently in nature was put forth by Zeising, and finding it (in both the world and in existing art) became a kind of fad in Germany and eventually worldwide. But it turns out to be mostly an example of selection bias: when you look for samples which match a given rule, you'll eventually find some — and never mind the ones that don't match. – mattdm Aug 28 '15 at 16:35
• It does, however, turn up in some amazing places in mathematics, particularly number theory. The solution to multiple problems that are seemingly unrelated at the beginning winds up being the number referenced by the Greek letter φ ("phi"). mathsisfun.com/numbers/golden-ratio.html – Michael C Aug 29 '15 at 18:41
• @MichaelClark Yeah, not at all arguing that phi is not cool. It's golden, beautiful, and divine in purity-of-mathematics sense — but not necessarily in aesthetics outside of that. – mattdm Aug 29 '15 at 18:42
• The picture of the Parthenon at @MichaelClark's link is a great example. Thankfully, the text doesn't make over-strong claims, but just look the drawn rectangles — they don't actually line up with actual elements of the building at all. – mattdm Aug 29 '15 at 18:44

Think about a teacher with a class full of kids, having an hour of "music appreciation". The kids have percussion instruments, and while some have an innate sense of rhythm, some clearly don't. To help these kids participate, the teacher explains to them that rhythm consists of counting to four. That isn't the true definition of what humanly meaningful rhythm is, but the kids who understand numbers more easily than they feel music may very well take this explanation with them through their lives, because it's what makes sense to them. I think that's more or less the same thing as what you're asking about, in an exaggerated form for easier recognition.

• Good analogy. But be careful what you teach, it may be impossible to overcome this later. I think that to a certain degree this is a big part of it – joojaa Aug 29 '15 at 6:03

We don't use composition rules for their own sake, we use them as a tool to understand what gives balance and tension to an image.

When used right, the rules help us create an image that anyone can experience in the way that was intended. However, just because you use some rule doesn't guarantee that you used it correctly, or even that it was the right rule to use to get the effect that you were looking for.

You don't have to know anything about the rules that artists use to appreciate the result. Actually that knowledge can be in the way sometimes. You might recognise that an artist used a specific rule, and totally miss if it actually gave the intended effect or not.

There are many "rules" of composition. The "rule of thirds" is just one the of the simplest and easiest to explain. This is likely why it gets a lot of attention in entry level composition courses for art in general and photography in particular.

The purpose of many "rules" of compositions isn't to enable the artist to produce a work that complies with all of them. After all, many so called "rules" conflict with other so called "rules" and it would be impossible to incorporate all of them in a single composition.

Rather, the use of "rules" of composition are intended as mental exercises to assist the artist in thoughtful, deliberate composition where each element that goes into a work is considered and chosen for a particular reason instead of just randomly appearing in the frame.

It has often been said that given enough time, a room full of monkeys typing randomly would eventually produce a great work such as a play by William Shakespeare. The problem would be finding that work in the endless reams of gibberish also produced by the monkeys. Using rules of composition hopefully allows the artist to produce what they desire without going through the endless experimentation with random elements that would take eons of time to produce.

As an artist, I have studied both and put both into practice. They are only two elements of design, and there are many, many more. I spent a few years on my own looking them all up, studying books and putting them into practice. Why use them? Because the aesthetic of your work will improve. Much like spices and/or herbs in cooking, or adding wine, or even limiting ingredients, painting, drawing and photgraphy, and sculpture, all have "rules" of design, which, when you know them and apply them, using your own aesthetic, will make your work better. Better in that, you will likely be more pleased with outcomes; you will be able to look at a work you did and know how to make it better next time; and veiwers will respond to it more positively- meaning- they will likely spend more time looking at it- and perhaps come back to it, and perhaps find reasons to look at it again and again and again- which is kind of the point.

These are "rules" in that they are simply lessons in themselves. Use them or don't. Many use them without even knowing they are, as they are somewhat natural.

For the viewers who don't respond, I will never forget my first art show- sitting there with my art and watching people go by. Some people marvelled, others glanced and walked away- others walked by without looking. My work went on to win some great awards, but you won't have every possible viewer looking, or caring. Don't take it personally.

The rule of thirds, in my opinion is a simplified golden ratio- similar and easy to figure out and remember. Use it WITH other elements of design. A fantastic book on design for painting, that can be used photography as well is by Ian Roberts.

Happy photography!! Please yourself first... the vision will transfer to your viewers....

• Goods points. Unfortunately, I work as a commercial photographer so generally, a brief is provided. However, sometimes, I can produce two pieces of work from the same brief, one as required, and one where artistic rules have been applied. The brief always wins as artistic rules are never appreciated. How do you quantify to someone who is not interested in leading lines, composition rules and considers them to be a fallacy? What would you say to such a person? – Abdul N Quraishi Aug 28 '15 at 23:18

As a photographer who especially enjoys landscapes, one of the books that I found most useful on composition was that of a book on drawing - Drawing Scenery: Landscapes and Seascapes

The beginning of the book starts out with emphasizing the focal area and how it relates to the "forces" which exist within the frame. "Charting The Eye's Course" and this can be found on Google Books.

Working from the ideal of what a person drawing or painting a landscape works from (the painter doesn't curse at the power line dead center in the field of view - they just don't paint it) and can decide to add happy little clouds wherever they wish. You will find that the images that the artist who is unconstrained by reality will do is more likely to be using the rule of thirds or the golden ratio (even if unconsciously) to make someone look through the composition in a certain way - first you are drawn to the mountain in the scene, because it is big and bold (and a lighter shade), then your eye moves to the cloud (because its even lighter shade), and then it follows the tree below the cloud back down to a river, which has the tendency to bring your eye back to the mountain. This is a story that the painter is telling in a single image.

It is also quite possible and reasonable to have the eye move to the center of the image and stop. If you ever find yourself taking photographs of portraits, or documentation of birds (it's the bird photographers who I've talked to who are most likely to go for dead center subjects) of "focus on this, and only this."

The thing to do is to understand (or think about) the movement of the eye within the scene. And this goes to the key to the part of the answer - it is the person. With a novel, there are some people who will skip around in the book rather than read it the way the author intended. There are people who will not follow through the photograph the way the photographer intended.

To conclude, are these rules something only artists and photographers understand, appreciate, able to see, discuss and judge and as a result, are automatically drawn to such images, whereas, someone with no knowledge of these rules, will not necessarily be attracted to such images?

Can we mathematically provide an answer for those who require solvable logic to better understand this concept of the rule of thirds and the concept of the Golden Ratio?

These are not rules that we follow, but hints at trying to understand our own mind and that of the viewer's mind. It is unlikely that there is any mental model that can be done as an algorithm for anything beyond the simplest of images. The human brain is a complex thing, and how a given person will respond to it is hard to tell. The thing to do is be aware of how our own eyes move through the scene and the story that we are telling.

The rule of thirds is a hint at how people will understand the classic story that the photographer wants to tell. It's not the only way to tell the story. Most people don't need to tell you how to tell story of the centered image, but its a rather uninteresting one. The story that people want to tell is the one where the eye is moving from subject to subject. Without knowing how to tell a story with the composition of the subjects in the frame, the rule of thirds is a quite reasonable place to start from.

And it is quite possible to tell a story without following the formula of the rule of thirds.

I'm not a professional photographer, so this is written from the perspective of one of the pleebs you're asking about.

I can objectively tell you that I subjectively dislike off-center subjects if there's just one subject. Most of the time anyways. I typed "girl" into Google image search and the only place an off-center photo seemed more natural was if there was something on the other side of center that was important to the scene, like the rest of the girl's body.

I did the same with "lawn mower", and got the same impressions. A riding mower tends to look normal when centered. A push mower is weird because of the handle. So the "natural" images had the brightly-colored mower body off-center, but the mower as a whole is centered.

Obviously, my singular opinion is insignificant here, and you'd need to get lots of similar impressions from lots of people in some kind of scientifically-organized study before you could make any real conclusions. But my guess is the study would find that some people like it, some don't and lots of people don't really notice the difference.

With multiple subjects on the other hand, it makes sense to center one in half the scene and the other in the opposite half. So two people will happen to be near the left third-line and the right third-line because they're centered on their parts of the scene.

When one subject is more important, there should be more weight given it. So a picture of a castle with a spectacularly starry sky above will tend to have a little ground at the bottom with the castle near the bottom third-line, and the sky taking about two-thirds of the picture.

In these cases, I'd say there's an obvious mathematical relationship going on, but it would depend on how exact you are about it. I can't imagine that any specific ratio would be perfect for every scene. Rather than saying "thirds" or "golden ratio", it would make more sense (to me) to say you aim for the angular center of your subjects, then offset it in the direction of the most important subject, if one is more important.

From the lawn mower search, here's an example of off-centering that makes sense:

We could claim that the lawn mower is at the intersection of the top and left third-lines so this is an application of the rule of thirds, but that's missing the real fact that there are three subjects being framed.

The freshly-mowed grass on the lower-right is the highlight, as the article is about mowing your lawn. The grass along the top is the old, tall grass in contrast. And the lawn mower is dynamically turning old into new. (Well, it was probably just sitting there while the guy took a photo, but it's the thought that counts.)

• I think it's generally true that the rule of not centering a subject applies when trying to make a photograph that is more than just "here's a thing!". If "here's a thing!" is what you want, as I imagine is the case with most photographs you get by image search for "lawnmower", centering is just fine. See When is it OK to place the subject in the middle of a picture? for more. – mattdm Aug 29 '15 at 16:34
• Re centering: a "rule" that I really do find gripping is that movement or gaze should not be out of the frame, but twards the center. – JDługosz Aug 30 '15 at 3:59