Why the Rule of Thirds is Wrong! Enter Rule of Thirds 2.0… Fibonacci

The Rule of Thirds is Wrong!!!

Photographer in Shock

Hang on, that rule everyone's been banging on about and using for years, it's wrong?! Really???! Nooooo! Well, technically, yes. In this article we'll show you why. More importantly we'll tell you what's right...

You're about to learn the mathematical definition of beauty and how you can easily apply it to your photography. You'll learn how this concept is literally built into ancient architecture, and how mother nature herself uses it every single day. Darn, you see it every day of your life without realising it. How could you resist the chance to absorb such an amazing and naturally occurring concept into your photography?

If you scroll down there's a video to accompany this article, but you'll learn far more if you both read and watch. Scientific studies have been done on this - really! It's called multi modal learning.

The Rule of Thirds:

The rule of thirds is probably one of the most useful rules of photography composition. It's one of the first rules we learn, and when beginner photographers start to use it they start seeing a huge improvement in their images. So, I couldn't blame anyone who scratched their heads wondering how it could be wrong.

Why is it wrong?

The rule of thirds is technically wrong because it is an approximation of another rule, which we will come to later. We will also be talking about what ramifications this has, if any, for your photography.

What is it anyway?

The rule of thirds is used in when composing a range of visual media such as designs, films, paintings, and photographs. It's not just a photographic rule.

The rule mentally breaks your image down, vertically and horizontally, into a grid. It looks like this:

Rule of Thirds Grid

The lines serve as a recommendation for where to place the subject in your image. You line all the points of interest in your image up with the vertical and or horizontal grid lines. If you have any particularly important focal points you want to draw the attention to, you place them on or near where the lines intersect.

If we look at the composition with the bird above – his head and throat are placed on or near the intersections, on the left. His beak nearly touches the intersection on the right.

Horizon according to the Rule of Thirds

This horizon is placed on the upper third

As a general rule, you should also avoid placing the horizon in the centre of the composition. When you look at the rule of thirds grid it should become evident why.

A horizon would look wrong if it wasn’t lined up with one of the lines – you should therefore place it on either the top or bottom horizontal. It just makes for a stronger and more pleasing composition, elevating your photographs and making them look more powerful and poignant.

If you struggle to mentally visualise the rule of thirds grid, many cameras actually have a setting which adds it to the image for you. This is usually located under a tool called “grid view”.

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Rule of Thirds 2.0 - the golden version

As we alluded to earlier the rule of thirds is an approximation of another rule, and it's an interesting one. Fibonacci. We'll try and keep it simple!

Fibonacci and the Golden Ratio

(Is it just me or does this title sound a bit like a children's story...?)

Leonardo Fibonacci

Leonardo Fibonacci: 13c Italian Mathematician

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34…

Fibonacci was a 13th Century Italian mathematician who published and stamped his name on a sequence of numbers which had been known for centuries.

As you can see from the sequence above, any given number is the sum of the previous two numbers.

Golden Ratio letter Phi

The Golden Ratio: The mathematical definition of beauty

Each number in the Fibonacci Sequence is approximately 1.61 times bigger than the previous.

The ratio of the numbers in the sequence is therefore 1.61 to 1. This is known as the Golden Ratio and has been synonymous with beauty for millennia. It is represented by the Greek letter Phi. Not to be confused with Pie. That's a whole other thing...

Fibonacci Square using the Golden Ratio

Maths? Noooo! This is photography!

It's all about shapes and beauty - which is perfect for photography.

Look at this visual representation of the Fibonacci sequence. Each square increases by the Golden Ratio. This is where it gets exciting. 

This visual representation has led to the construction of composition grids. For a photographer - that's key!

Fibonacci Curve

Composition Grid: Fibonacci Curve

This curve is based on the visual representation above.

You use these composition grids in the same way as you use the rule of thirds grid - using the lines and intersections where they occur.

Here you place the object of most importance in the eye of the curve. Can you see a snail shell here? 

Fibonacci Grid

Composition Grid: Fibonacci Grid

This should look familiar...

This is where the rule of thirds grid came from - that is an approximation of this grid. It's easier for the brain to divide into exactly three than to see this grid in your head. 

Technically / mathematically the rule of thirds is wrong, because it is an approximation of the Fibonacci Grid, and doesn't follow it precisely.

Fibonacci Triangles

Composition Grid: Fibonacci Triangles

It doesn't matter which way up you place the Grids

Remember all these grids can be moved around 90 degrees 180 degrees, upside down etc. Whichever way they hang, they still comply with the Golden Ratio.

Fibonacci Diamonds

Composition Grid: Fibonacci Diamonds

Diamonds are forever...

You have four intersections to play with here.

Fibonacci: It's been with you all your life

Snails and the Fibonacci Curve

Fibonacci in nature

A snail shell is a Fibonacci curve.

However you look at his snail shell you can't un-see the golden curve. Keep turning the template around on top of the shell, It obeys the golden ratio all around.

The human ear and the Fibonacci Curve

Fibonacci in nature

You hear through a Fibonacci curve

The human ear is a perfect example of a golden curve.

The MOna Lisa and the Fibonacci Curve

Fibonacci in art

Da Vinci did Fibonacci

While the Golden Ratio applies to the human face Da Vinci has gone further and applied it to the whole pose of the Mona Lisa. Look at where the hands are placed.

Hollywood and the Fibonacci Curve

Fibonacci and Hollywood

Fibonacci applies to the human face

The Hollywood stars who are considered to be the most beautiful have been analysed according to the Golden Ratio.

Faces that fit the golden ratio more accurately are considered the most beautiful. Our brains are hard wired that way. We subconsciously pick up that the proportions look beautiful.

The Parthenon with Golden Ratios super-imposed

Fibonacci in architecture

Recognise this Greek Icon?

The Golden Ratio is not a modern phenomenon - the Greeks and the Roman's built their buildings following the Golden proportions.

It's built perfectly into the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.

Fibonacci:  How do I apply it to my photography?

The great thing is that if you're familiar with the rule of thirds you already know this. You use the grids. You can either approximate where the lines would be while out shooting in the field, or apply it in editing. Or both. Many editing tools like Adobe Lightroom allow you to super-impose several different grids over your image while editing, and you can crop your images to the right ratios.

Is The Rule of Thirds Really Dead?

While it is technically (the operative rule being technically) wrong, it is far from dead.

There is a reason it's one of the very first rules of composition to be taught. It's easy to understand and to picture in your head. It's close enough to the Fibonacci grid to look good, so it makes a huge difference to your composition. It's a great first and easy win, after which other tools of composition can be bolted on.

If the rule of thirds works for you - keep using it. If you notice your grid lines creeping further into the centre of your image, you now know not to panic. It just means your composition is getting closer to the Fibonacci grid. You're becoming Golden.

Do I still use the rule of thirds after over 30 years? Absolutely, along with many other things.

Experiment: Get yourself out there

You've just added 4 new composition grids into your arsenal, so why not get out and about there with your camera and try them out? There's no right or wrong, just getting out there and seeing what works for you. 

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