Clive R Haynes FRPS

As photographers we constantly strive to improve our perception and compositional technique. In the search for perfection there is naturally a tendency to adopt tried and tested guidelines with the presumption that the advice received has a firmly established base.

In almost every book giving advice about composition there will be found a reference to the so-called 'rule of thirds'. Like so many other 'rules' the concept is nothing more than a form or convention. However in the case of 'thirds' there is a fundamental error in the concept. This error continues to be perpetuated and as a result many people just miss making more satisfying pictures, instead of thinking 'thirds' we should think 'mean'!

Euclid, way back in the third century B.C. knew about the strength of a device called the 'Golden Mean', sometimes called 'The Golden Section' and in describing the division of a line to relate to this he wrote:-

'A straight line is said to have been cut in extreme and mean ratio when, as the whole line is to the greater segment, so is the greater to the less .'

This can be shown as


Expressed as AC:CB: CB:AB

(Sorry if it looks a bit mathematical but read the above carefully and it will make sense, honest!)

Putting it more simply still. If for any line, AC = 8 units and CB = 13 units, the 'Golden Mean' position will fall at C. If we apply the 'rule of thirds' the result would be AC = 7 units with CB = 14 units. Close but NOT the same.

To further the case, in the 16th century, a close friend of Leonardo Da Vinci wrote about 'Divina Proportione', in which he describes the proportion of the golden mean as aesthetically superior to any other, being almost mystical in its significance. Research since that time indicates that people tend to prefer proportions that approximate golden mean rather than any other. If 'thirds' had been near enough, then no doubt Leonardo and others would have adopted it for simplicity.

At some point in history someone did us all a great disservice by attempting to reduce and simplify the golden mean by calling it 'thirds'.






So, why all the fuss? Many pictures we see simply just look right, balanced and harmonious. However, if one applies the 'rule of thirds' to these works it is quite likely that for the most part where such a convention appears to fit, that we find that the critical point is just inside the 'third' point. This narrow margin is often the difference between a successful and a less than successful picture.

In point of fact many pictures created instinctively do have strong compositional features which do fall at or near the golden mean, but how often have we heard of these very points referred to as 'thirds'? In this way the myth is perpetuated and the novice sets off to capture pictures by applying 'thirds' to the scene in a rigorous manner in the mistaken belief that the picture will therefore be compositionally perfect. Oh dear, the pictures often seem to work but not quite.

The problem with 'thirds 'is that their placement is inclined to appear a little too symmetrical for comfort. The golden mean affords the opportunity for a tighter compositional form and an improved natural 'balance 'within the scene.

To further personal expression, one should not, of course, slavishly follow any formula or convention but when there is occasion to utilise strong compositional areas within the frame, it is worth considering the 'golden section' rather than the near-enough concept of 'thirds'. So I invite you all to 'think mean'!

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