What You Don’t Know about the Rule of Thirds #2

Posted by on Aug 21, 2013 in Visual Language | No Comments

In my last blog post on this topic, I wrote about how to deconstruct the common misconceptions about composition, suggesting three simple steps to help you take better pictures. In this post, I am going to delve deeper into what I mean by the first step, “be conscious of your painter’s canvas.”

In reality, there is no boundary to what we see. Our vision is contiguous. In a nutshell, this is the main difference between a photograph and what you really see. A photograph is always contained by a physical boundary. With this boundary comes a new set of “forces” at work, which will affect the way a photograph is looked at. Let’s talk about these forces.

Parallel Lines

During the construction of the studio at Project Basho, I learned so much, not only about construction and project management, but also about spatial design and how to implement it in real life situations.

As you work through a design process, there are a lot of things that just don’t happen the way you want them to. One such constant battle in the renovation of an old building like this is keeping things level and square. If you concern yourself too much about it, it will drive you nuts!

But what you need to learn is what any good carpenter knows: if you keep things parallel to the existing structures, you will produce the effect of completeness.

The same thing applies to photography. If one of the main lines in your image is level to your painter’s canvas, it suddenly gives you this effect. Lining things up will pay off quite a bit.

Negative & Positive Space

Another force you have to contend with is negative and positive space. Positive space is the space that your subject is occupying in the photograph, while negative space is the space around the main subject.

Positive space (left) and Negative space (right)

What do you need to pay attention to while photographing? It is the balance of positive and negative space and how each is being utilized. In fact, this is the first thing that I look at in students’ images and it gives me a good sense of their awareness of this aspect of composition.

While it is easy to recognize the positive space (your subject matter, afterall), the negative space is often less well thought out in terms of its proportion or the shape of it. So, there is no harmony or balance between the two spaces. This happens very often if you are only focusing on the main subject matter and this is a habit you need to learn to break.

While photographing, give yourself enough time to pay attention to the negative space of your picture. How it is configured and what kind of shape it is creating – these are important considerations.

Glyn Thomas, Inspiration & Vision, Spring '13

Edges and Corners Have Power

I still remember this quote from my first photo class in college. I’m not sure who said it, but it is the best advice to help you change the way you think about taking pictures. So write this down:

Take care of the corners and edges; the center will take care of itself.

Edges and corners are your friends and you should take advantage of them thoughtfully (like your friends). Why, you ask? Because they have tremendous powers (like your friends).

You can use the edges and corners to help you to create visual anchors in your picture and establish distinct spacial relationships relative to your painter’s canvas.

In other words, if you want something to stand out in your picture, put it along the edge or in one of the corners.

Hannah Gaudite, Vision & Inspiration, Spring '13

Putting it into practice: Work Inwardly, Not Outwardly

So, what’s the best way to put these concepts into practice? Here’s a simple process:

Work inwardly, starting from the edges, corners and negative spaces and continuing into your main subject(s).

Typically, our instincts tell us to start with the most important thing that you want to photograph (the main subject matter) and then work OUTWARDLY from there. I am suggesting otherwise.

While you need to keep an eye on the main subject, start sorting things out from the edges and corners, as well as the negative space, first. Then, and only then, think about the how the subject looks in the picture. And don’t forget to think about the parallel of the important lines within the picture too.

In our vision, there is no negative space, corners, or edges because there is no natural boundary to what you see. These become a concern only when we impose our canvas onto our field of vision to make a photograph. As a photographer, you need to recognize these differences and implications, and learn to use them for your advantage when composing your images.

I am going to elaborate on the 2nd step, “take out the clutter” in my next post, with more examples and stories. In the meantime, if you put this into practice, send me some pictures!

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Want to learn more about composition? Check out the next blog post:

What you don’t know about the rule of thirds #3 »

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