I just had an interesting discussion in an online forum that started with a question that sounded innocuous enough.
The question (paraphrasing) was: “Do you keep the thirds grid in your viewfinder on to help you with composing images following the rule of thirds?”
My answer was that I do keep the grid on, but just as an aid in aligning things vertically or horizontally and in helping with overlapping images when shooting a sequence of frames for a stitched panorama.
I also added, a bit provocatively: “There’s no such thing as a rule of thirds. It’s only a rigid and unjustified schematization of the concept that, in many photos, an off-center and asymmetric composition is more dynamic than a centered one. A thirds grid is not necessary to achieve that.”
Almost immediately, somebody retorted that I was causing Fibonacci to roll over in his grave and literally everything under the sun to have a laughing fit. They also proceeded to share a link to an online article extolling the virtues of the golden section in photographic composition. Because, you know, if it’s on the Web, it must be true.
I had a good read at the article which, predictably, was even worse than I expected it to be, having been pointed in the past to a number of such “resources”. It consisted of nothing more than the usual parroting of unsubstantiated claims about the magical powers of phi (yes, it did actually mention magic) and its prevalence in art since the dawn of mankind.
All it had in the way of evidence were a handful of photos with superimposed grids and spirals that very badly matched the main focus points of the photos, thereby defeating the original hypothesis.
What irritated me mostly about that sloppy article was the conclusion that the golden ratio and the rule of thirds were meant to “take the photographer to a higher level, allowing him to engage in a personal and refined photographic research” (emphasis mine).
Sure, because pedantically and mechanically applying rote rules is the key to a personal expression!
I’ll spare you the rest of the discussion I had in that forum, because it will serve no purpose other than reinforcing the belief that, when people religiously believe in revealed truths, no amount of rational discourse will convince them of the opposite.
Rather, I will spend some time to list five reasons why I believe you should never take the golden section, or even the rule of thirds, into account when composing images. I will not present here any detailed evidence for my claims. Not because I don’t need any, but simply because my good friend Mike Spinak has already done all of the groundwork in a very detailed and very well documented article, The Golden Section Hypothesis: A Critical Look.
At the time I’m writing this, that web page appears to be down, but you can still find an archived copy here. Mike also tells me that a revised, better version of it will be included in his forthcoming book, Notes for Aspiring Photographers.
With this preamble aside, here is my list of reasons.
It is not as prevalent as it’s made up to be
It wasn’t used to design the Parthenon. It wasn’t used by Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s not present in the shell of the nautilus or in the proportion of the arms of galaxies. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Ancient mathematicians, like Euclid, knew it well, but there is no evidence that ancient artists made conscious use of it. To put it simply, it was never meant to be an aid in composition.
I could go on, but you get the idea. If you don’t believe me, go read Mike’s article.
If Leonardo never used it, what makes you think that, by employing it, you’ll get better compositions than his?
In truth, the golden section is used quite frequently in modern photography. Probably by those who have uncritically started accepting the claims of its proponents.
It doesn’t make compositions more pleasing or harmonious
Where’s the evidence for this claim? Has anyone conducted double blind studies, showing observers a set of images, some following the rule and some not following it, and statistically analyzed their responses?
Actually, some scientists did and the results were inconclusive or dubious, with some revealing a preference for ratios other than 1.618.
If you have links to studies that demonstrate a preference for it, please let me know and I’ll be happy to amend this section.
It trivializes composition to the spatial arrangement of objects within a scene
Even if it were true that humans have a preference for the golden section, there is much more to composition than pleasingness and placing items along the lines of some arbitrary grid. I think Mike Spinak sums it up perfectly:
“The golden section hypothesis – and its approximation, the rule of thirds – take the rich enterprise of creating art, and diminish it into mere visual design. They take the roles of the artist as creator of objects with meaning, interpreter of the world, and communicator, and diminish them into the role of technician of formulaic, mechanized constructs. They take the roles of the art observer as thinker and participant in the exploration of meaning, and diminish them into tester of pattern accuracy.”
Even in terms of visual design, a simplistic concern about the bi-dimensional arrangement of objects discounts other and much more profound concepts, such as visual mass, tension, depth, and principles of Gestalt theory.
We are taught that we should try to lead the gaze of the observer towards the focal points of the composition, but just putting them along grid lines will do nothing to accomplish that goal.
It makes your work less original
If everybody else is using the rule of thirds or the golden section, because everybody has been hammered with the notion that it’s the best thing since sliced bread, then by all means adopt it and let your pictures be like everybody else’s. Research into innovative ways of expressing oneself be damned!
It pays to be a contrarian
You automatically become more interesting when, in the middle of a conversation about the virtues of the golden section, you come up with, “I don’t subscribe to any of that bullshit!”
Try it. It works. 😉