Breaking All Rules

Rule of thirds in landscape photography can help us all improve and develop. Saying that, are you familiar with it? Do you know when to break the rules?

Rule of thirds, rule of where the sky should be in the frame, if it should be one or two thirds, rule for this and rule for that. Good heavens, I still remember during my early days as a landscape photographer the panic and sheer heart attack one could face while composing a picture. One has to remember all these rules and procedures, have I checked the ISO? How about the aperture and this and that? Pure headache. And although I believe that all these are not really rules but merely guidelines, still, people panic and can become manic when it comes to rule of thirds.

Take this picture for instance. I just love the way the little island is sitting right in the middle of the loch (lake); the mountains are pointing towards the water and the tree protrudes into the sky. As soon as I composed it and saw it through my viewfinder card, I realised that centering the tree in the frame would be the best thing to do, the right thing to do and it is how this picture would look best. You see, when I try to frame a scene through my viewfinder card, the first thing I think of is, not the rule of thirds, but how the subject would look best. If the rule of thirds suits the subject then I would use it, but if it doesn’t, then I don’t even think about it.

Does this mean that I am a rebel? That I don’t obey rules in life? Does it mean I am a rule breaker? None of the above. The way I see it is that people get so tied up with rules and regulations that sometimes, people are missing the wood for the trees. This is photography, entertainment, relaxation, relationship with nature and not some kind of game that we have to follow rules in order to play and win. All you need is to spend some time with mother nature, and when I say some time, I really mean it. Try not to go out there and quickly catch a picture, this is not how photography works. You get out there and spend time with your surroundings and the subject you want to photograph. You become one with it, you get used to it, you walk around it and try to see it from every possible angle. When finally you find the best composition and the best look for this subject, you take your time to appreciate it. You capture it under the current light and then wait, wait for the light to change and try again.

I was out there one hour before sunrise. I had already visited this location before, so I was already familiar with the subject. However, instead of starting my usual approach with the thought of inspiration, I approached the scene with light and colour in mind. Looking at the image, it is easy to see that my expectations were battered like sand castles by the tidal waves. The elusive sunrise did not materialise. It became obvious that the diffused light and the blue tint in the air were going to be the order of the day, and this left me with no choice but to start planning for an alternative photograph. Suddenly, it dawned on me: there, staring me in the face, was a stunning image which I had been ignoring completely. Fortunately, I reacted quickly and, by switching from one idea to the next, I had enough time to make the necessary adjustments, adding an ND filter to slow the shutter speed and to keep only a hint of motion on the water. My composition was to be a rule breaker indeed. To some, it might seem senseless, but to me, it looked right then and still does today.

So, when are we supposed to break the rule of thirds? I recommend you first learn all about the rule of thirds and be very familiar with it. There is plenty of information on the net in the form of articles and videos. Then, you can take your time to judge every scene individually and decide to use the ROT of not, it is entirely up to you.

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  1. Avatar

    I find it difficult sometimes to ignore the ROT.
    Instead I just move the subject about in the frame until it looks ‘right’, then, maybe, consider if it fits the rules.
    But I take it anyway.
    For me, rules are for people who have no idea, no ‘eye’ for composition.
    Guidelines are fine when you are completely lost, but are restrictive when you know, or feel, what you want.

  2. Avatar
    Craig Macinnes on

    Thank you Dimitri. Enjoyed your take on things there and while I agree that in order to bend the rules or even break them, it’s important to familiarise yourself with them beforehand. When I started out, I used to get myself tied up in knots about the technical aspects – not helped I must say by some of the attitudes I found in a camera club I’d joined hoping for inspiration and joy in taking photographs, but instead found mostly arcane discussions about gear! I realised very quickly that too many were tied up in equipment and not really interested in taking photos. But I did learn about aperture, shutter speed, exposure , ISO and the basic tried and tested compositional rules too…which then gave me the confidence to go out there and have fun! Doesn’t always work, but that’s part of the fun too! It is after all meant to be enjoyment and if we don’t get the shot we were hoping for well, there’s always another day.

    • Avatar
      Dimitrios Vasileiou on

      I completely agree, Craig. Photography is supposed to be fun and, if we don’t get the picture, there is always another day.

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