The Rule of Thirds is the most well-known guide for framing an image. Simply imagine the frame divided into equal horizontal and vertical thirds – or don’t even bother imagining, just turn on your camera’s built-in overlay – and place your subject on one of those lines to get a pleasantly composed picture every time. Some filmmakers believe in the Rule so much that they refuse to even consider any other type of composition.
As I’ve previously written, I find the Rule of Thirds grossly overrated. In particular, when composing for a widescreen aspect ratio like Scope (CinemaScope, i.e.. 2.39:1), the Rule often doesn’t work for me at all.
In this post I’m going to look at an alternative compositional technique, but first let’s step back and find out where the Rule of Thirds actually comes from and why it’s so popular.
Origins of the Rule of Thirds
The first known appearance of the term “Rule of Thirds” is in a 1797 treatise Remarks on Rural Scenery by the English painter John Thomas Smith. It seems he read too much into a simple statement by fellow artist Sir Joshua Reynolds to the effect that, if a picture has two clear areas of differing brightness, one should be bigger than the other. Hardly a robust and auspicious start for a rule that dominates the teaching and discussion of composition today.
I suspect that the Rule has gained strength over the last two centuries from the fact that it encourages novice painters, designers and photographers to overcome their natural tendency to frame everything centrally. Another factor in the Rule’s ubiquity is undoubtedly its similarity to a much older and more reasoned rule: the Golden Ratio.
The Golden Ratio and the Phi Grid
A mathematical concept that’s been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, the Golden Ratio is approximately 1.6:1. It’s a special ratio because if you add the two numbers together, 1.6+1, you get 2.6, and 2.6:1.6 turns out to be, when boiled down, the same ratio you started with, 1.6:1.
Wikipedia puts it this way:
Two quantities are in the Golden Ratio if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities.
It’s difficult to get your head around, I know!
The Golden Ratio is found in nature, in the spiral leaves of some plants for example, and even in certain crystals at the atomic level. There is a long history of artists believing that using the Ratio produces a more aesthetically pleasing image.
The Golden Ratio is most simply applied to composition in the form of a Phi Grid, which resembles a Rule of Thirds grid, but in different proportions, namely 1.6:1:1.6 rather than 1:1:1.
The Rule of Thirds and the Phi Grid both feel quite limiting in Scope because out of all that horizontal space you’ve only got two vertical lines to place your subject on. There is another technique though, one which provides more options.
The Squares within the rectangle
In his book The Mind of the Photographer, Michael Freeman writes about a composition guideline which dates back to the Middle Ages. You imagine two squares, the same height as the frame, and aligned with either side of the frame, then place your subject on the centre or inner edge of one of these squares.
Applied to a Scope frame it looks like this:
We can simplify it down to this:
When I first read about this technique, it really chimed with me. I’ve long believed that a “Rule of Fifths” would be a more effective guide for Scope composition than the Rule of Thirds, and the above diagram isn’t far away from fifths.
Below I’ve overlaid this grid on a few shots from Scope movies that won Best Cinematography Oscars: There Will Be Blood (DP: Robert Elswit, ASC), Slumdog Millionaire (Anthony Dod Mantle, DFF, ASC, BSC), Inception (Wally Pfister, ASC), The Revenant (Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC, AMC) and Blade Runner 2049 (Roger Deakins, CBE, ASC, BSC).
Let me provide a disclaimer first, though. You could draw any grid you wanted and find some shots from movies that matched it. The purpose of this article is not to convince you to ditch the Rule of Thirds and start following this “rule of squares within a rectangle” instead. (For a start, that name is never going to catch on.) This “rule” chimes with me because it’s similar to the way that I was already instinctively composing, but if it doesn’t work for you then don’t use it. Develop your own eye. It’s a creative medium, so compose creatively, not like a robot programmed with simple rules.
I’ll leave you with this quote from the great photographer Ansel Adams:
The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial.
- 2.39:1 Composition
- Composing a Wide Shot
- Composing a Shot-Reverse
- Lead Room, Nose Room or Looking Space
And if you want to read a thorough debunking of the Rule of Thirds, check out this article on Pro Video Coalition.