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Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Rule of 2/5ths

Okay, so, listen, this is really pretty much all tongue-in-cheek. So if it makes you smile, good, but please don't let it get your undies in a bunch. I'm not trying to insult anybody.

But check this out: the kid jumping into the ocean is exactly 2/5ths of the way into the frame—I think I've discovered a new rule!


Every picture should have a center of action. The kid himself, a.k.a. the center of action, is pretty much exactly 2/5ths above the waterline! Is this getting scary, or what?!?


But then look at the horizon. A little too low to fit the rule of 2/5ths, clearly. Damn. On the other hand, the kid's head intersects the 2/5ths line, and the line also exactly bisects the area between the ocean and the cloud. Are we safe on this score? Maybe.


And the large central object is not exactly centered. Should it be? Maybe it provides a sort of visual counterweight to the busier lower and left-hand portions of the picture. You think?


On the other hand, the large central object is "mirrored" by a similar shape on the left, dark as opposed to light, and the print has a nice range of tones from almost black to almost white. I think that's two more rules satisfied.


But...uh-oh. The strongest vertical dividing element, the telephone pole, is exactly 1/4th the way into the frame. What's up with that? That doesn't fit anybody's rule.

Clearly, someone screwed up! (Ahem.)

Oh, well. I have to say I'm glad I didn't think of any of this when I was taking the picture, or I would have missed the shot for sure.

It's been a long time now, but I know I was just concentrating on getting the kid about to jump. About half the roll is taken up with variations on this theme, and in a number of them, one kid or another is in the air. I'm sure that's the picture I had in mind. But it didn't work out that way. That's really the guiding rule of photography, to my mind—shoot a lot and then see what works. Digital is making that principle much easier and cheaper to follow.

Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON

Featured Comment by robert e: "Not to get serious, or anything—just wanted to point out that this particular rule is ancient. The "divine proportion" or "golden section" works out to a ratio of 0.618, or about 3/5ths. (The "rule of thirds" is likely a misguided simplification, IMO.)

"Rules should never overrule inspiration (is that a rule?), or the needs of the moment and subject; but many instances of what I consider good composition seem to exhibit golden sections.

"For more on "golden sections" in art, see
http://www.mcs.surrey.ac.uk/Personal
/R.Knott/Fibonacci/fibInArt.html#art "

Mike replies: Rats, that's no fair. Here I was trying to lampoon the whole idea of rote proportions and it turns out the picture conforms to the Golden Mean? A guy can't lose for winning.

16 Comments:

Blogger John Roberts said...

The seawall interescts the bottom of the frame at the 2/5 mark also. Coincidence? I think not. You were obviously using a 2/5 grid view finder screen (these used to be available from Spiratone) to ensure conformity to the rule at as many points as possible. Nice job.

9:58 AM  
Blogger ccc said...

Alright, you've asked us not to take your "analysis" of this photo too seriously; so I won't. My comment is directed more generally to your recent rampage against "rules".

First, I assume that you agree that some photographs are just plain better than others -- photographs that merit a very wide audience and continue to reward even after multiple viewings. Now, don't you think that if we all sat down and reviewed thousands of these "better" images, we could draw up a few general principles, a few common characteristics that put these images on top? (And I use the term "common" loosely here. Certainly, with respect to any given principle or characteristic, there would be exceptions.)

After all, isn't that what every photographer does for herself or himself in studying the photographs of recognized masters? Otherwise, what's the point in studying them?

And then, as a photographer, what's the harm in keeping these principles in mind as one follows his own vision?

I understand that such principles or "rules" have the potential to unduly constrain one's creativity and interfere with your personal vision as a photographer, but is the real culprit here the rules themselves (as you seem to suggest) or just one's slavish adherence to them?

11:59 AM  
Blogger Max said...

"That's really the guiding rule of photography, to my mind—shoot a lot and then see what works."
I agree, and that's another intuitively strong blow to the usefulness of rules, I guess. If there were objective rules to make the "best" photograph of every subject, There should be no need to shoot more than once, except for correcting errors. There would be no other "good" outcomes than the one that followed the rule successfully.

12:02 PM  
Blogger buckstop67 said...

WOW. New rules in the pupal stage. With this creative rulemaking, we can have a new series of borne again rules to govern our picture taking pleasures. Lets see, After ticking off all composure rules and criteria for the Arts, we squeeze the trigger to see if it worked...of course by this time, the subject may have died of old age or mold covered it up < Grin >. Really entertaining bit Mike. Thanks and happy 4th to all.

12:44 PM  
Blogger scotth said...

How about the line of the pilings and the breakwall. I think that has more to do with drawing my eye to the jumper than anything.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"Now, don't you think that if we all sat down and reviewed thousands of these "better" images, we could draw up a few general principles, a few common characteristics that put these images on top?"

Actually, I don't.

But notice that you're talking generically, as so many others have. Specifically, WHAT rules or guidelines do you have in mind? I don't think it's possible to discuss them meaningfully unless we know what you have in mind.

--Mike

1:23 PM  
Blogger carpeicthus said...

I prefer the rule of 42%.

My only problem with the tirade against rules is that it's gotten a bit too wild. The idea that "rules should not be strictly adhered to, or are made to be broken" has nothing to do with the argument of whether someone who learns some basic rules of ccomposition and the reasoning behind them, and then decides to break them, will be different than Tarzan finding a camera in the forest and trying to figure it all out himself.

Even if we did have a feral being or absolute novice who had to figure out everything for themselves, they would follow their own guidelines, even if they could not articulate them. Perhaps, "I look at people in the eyes. Therefore people's eyes should be in the exact center of the photograph." Maybe they'd eventually move beyond that and break their own rules -- even without articulating it, they're going through the same process you and I and pretty much everyone here has done, except we're reacting to rules that were formed through the experience of many, not just ourselves.

The "learn the rules, then break them" has almost nothing to do with the people who say "no rule of thirds; this picture sucks" in the sense that a does not equal not-a.

1:35 PM  
Blogger bjorke said...

I'd classify it as "L" composition via what I've come to call the "AMOTS*L Rules"

http://www.botzilla.com/blog/archives/000359.html

Though to be fair, often when we talk about "rules" we don't mean "you must do this" but simply "here are some rules we use to classify our understanding things" which is a BIG difference

3:46 PM  
Blogger ccc said...

OK, I think I'm starting to see just how radical your position is. To follow up:

First, I think it's important to establish whether you agree that some photographs are just plain better than others. Do you agree?

Second, are you suggesting it's a waste of time for budding photographers to study the photographs of recognized masters of the trade? If not, what could possibly be the point of doing so? I mean if nothing tangible and useful can be gleaned from studying these photographs, if it's impossible to articulate in general terms why these photographs are so good, why study them at all?

Alright, you asked for specifics. Let's just take perhaps the most notorious of the "rules" of composition -- the rule of thirds. Do you not agree that on average (that is, generally speaking -- we all know there are many exceptions) a photo will be "better" if the main subject or focal point is out closer to the edge of the frame versus dead center?

I know that whether in fact the composition is better will depend on the particulars of the given photo, but on average don't those particulars usually argue for an off-center composition?

4:51 PM  
Blogger Jim Natale said...

It's easy to see both sides when it comes to this question of rules.

I once asked a painter if people should take art lessons.

"If you're a genius, they probably won't hurt you," he said, "and if you're not a genius, they'll probably help."

11:35 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"OK, I think I'm starting to see just how radical your position is."

My position isn't radical at all. It's purely practical.


"First, I think it's important to establish whether you agree that some photographs are just plain better than others. Do you agree?"

Provisionally. I think you're telegraphing by your rhetorical strategy ("find common ground and get your opponent to agree with you") that you're going to try to prove by logic what you already believe. We're on thin ice indeed making such generic statements without specifying what it is we're talking about. Yes, I believe some photographs are better than others, of course...but whether they're the same ones you, or any other individual, thinks are better than others is something we have not gone even one step toward establishing.

"Second, are you suggesting it's a waste of time for budding photographers to study the photographs of recognized masters of the trade? If not, what could possibly be the point of doing so? I mean if nothing tangible and useful can be gleaned from studying these photographs, if it's impossible to articulate in general terms why these photographs are so good, why study them at all?"

There are lots of reasons to look at photographs. I think you're conflating the specific and the general here (whether as a rhetorical strategy or not)...namely, you're implying that the tangible and useful things that can be gleaned from looking at the work of recognized masters is rules of composition. So, to answer, generally, yes, I think there's a lot of be gleaned from looking at great photographs; but specifically, no, I don't think the discernment of "rules of composition" are among those things.

"Alright, you asked for specifics. Let's just take perhaps the most notorious of the 'rules' of composition -- the rule of thirds. Do you not agree that on average (that is, generally speaking -- we all know there are many exceptions) a photo will be "better" if the main subject or focal point is out closer to the edge of the frame versus dead center?"

(*SIGH*). I've been trying to say this eight ways from Sunday for several days now: NO, I DON'T. I don't think that's even a useful way of thinking about pictures even AFTER they're made, much less while you're shooting.

"I know that whether in fact the composition is better will depend on the particulars of the given photo, but on average don't those particulars usually argue for an off-center composition?"

Well, premises wildly not in evidence, but, again, no. How can you first say that it depends on the particulars of a given photo and then talk about "on average"? There's no "average." And in any case, for many photographs the effectiveness of the composition is so far down the list of their felicities that it doesn't even make any sense to talk about them that way.

This is just a shibboleth, and that's all there is to it.

--Mike

8:28 AM  
Blogger ccc said...

Thank you for responding so thoughtfully to my comments.

I wouldn't say that I have a formulated belief on this issue. I'm just trying to explore the implications of yours so that I can decide for myself.

What is it exactly that can be gleaned from looking at great photographs; that one can use to improve their own photography? Are there any general principles to be discovered (unrelated to composition, of coure, which you've already addressed)?

And, with respect to composition --you're very dismissive of it (as well as issues of cropping), but isn't this exactly what photographers do when they take pictures? The world goes on around us, whether we photograph it or not. When we take a photograph, aren't we deciding first what to photograph (an exercise in cropping) and second where to position things in the frame (an exercise in composition). And, given this, doesn't it make sense in evaluating photographs to talk at least in part about composition (and cropping)?

When you take photographs, aren't you continually making decisions about framing -- what to include, where to place it?

By the way, wonderful blog you have here.

9:59 AM  
Blogger fizzy said...

A lot of this is just statistics. It's like the people who find "hidden codes" in the Bible: given any sufficiently large data set, a pattern can be defined to prove almost any theorem. So a lot of good pictures happen to have subjects around a third of the way from the edge (fuzzy to define in the first place, and a 2/3 chance already)? Fine, that must be the rule. We'll ignore all the other pictures that don't fit our pattern and call them "bad." Soon, we're trying to make the data fit the pattern instead of the other way around.

Who was it, Elliott Erwitt I think, who had the "dog - no dog" criterion (pictures with dogs were better than those without)? Of course he made up the rule because he was famous for taking pictures with dogs, and that's just as valid as any other rule.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

...What Fizzy said. Most compositions are complex, as I tried to indicate with my little "golden section seascape." There's usually going to be something in a "thirds" relationship to something else. Plus, how close to an actual 1/3rd does it have to be? If it's a person, what needs to be in the 1/3rd position? The eye? Part of the hair? Visual centerline?

Another way of stating the "Rule of Thirds" would be "lots of things look fine off-center; sometimes centered compositions look fine too."

--Mike

5:06 PM  
Blogger Carl Dahlke said...

I recently spent a year organizing my last 10 years of work by separating it into "keepers" and "rejects", and dividing the work into portfolios (plus a big pile of orphans that didn't fit any mold). It stikes me that composition was NEVER an issue in deciding what to keep or how to organize the work. It was always what the work was about that was critical.

For example, I had a large fruzzy category called "Country Feeling" in my head. When I put all the pictures together that I thought of as being in this category the portfolio didn't work. I had to take a much closer look at what the country pictures were about - and it turned out to be at least 4 separate things. This is not a compositional issue.

I think discussion of composition in and of itself is almost meaningless - it means something if we talk about how altering the composition alters what the picture is about.

It's a lot harder to get a discussion of what pictures are about than to get a compositional critique.

6:44 PM  
Blogger robert55 said...

From my first book on photography I remember a 'negative rule on halves': beginners tend to put their main subject and their horizon in the middle (which sometimes works of course). I think this is a natural way of looking for us as somewhat advanced apes: you better have that tiger or those bananas in the best part of your vision.
Once you put things off-centre its just numbers: 2/5's is 40%, a third 33%, small change.

1:25 AM  

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