Sure, most of us already know this. It’s the first rule of photography, but unfortunately, it’s not always heeded, which means that there are some pretty bad pictures out there. In fact, after the oracle at Delphi warned that humans would someday invent cameras that might be used to take pictures like that, the classically minded Greeks devised a complex mathematical formula and established the sacred Rule of Thirds.
Since those ancient times, The Rule of Thirds has been passed down through the ages by a secret society and taught to anyone who even so much as looks at a camera. Unfortunately, with some people, it just doesn’t take.
However, for most photographers, it’s just second nature for us to not want to center our subjects whenever we take a picture. Even without this sacred rule, we still wouldn’t do it.
It’s because the human brain is hard wired towards pattern recognition, which helps us navigate and survive in complex environments. We actually prefer to see things in order so that we can quickly identify and process visual information in the world around us. They key to this, though, is that as soon as we make sense of the visual material, our brains tend to relax and get ready to move onto the next thing.
Good photography isn’t about relaxing the brain, though, it’s about creating visual tension that engages the brain and holds the attention of our viewers. We don’t want our viewer’s to move on too quickly, we actually want to keep their eyes wandering around in the frame as they explore the different compositional elements that we’ve includes in our images. It’s this visual tension that holds our viewers and keeps them looking for order that just isn’t there.
A photograph that doesn’t show perfect visual order is simply more interesting because it engages your brain and makes you want to look at it longer. In contrast, if you look at a picture where the subject is smack dab in the middle of the frame, your brain subconsciously recognizes this perfect order, and decides that it’s ready to move on. Done. Next picture.
The Rule of Thirds works so well because it places subject matter in random areas around the frame and keeps it away from areas that normally indicate order by the brain’s pattern recognition software. You don’t always have to use the rule per se, but by keeping subjects out of the center, you inherently create more dynamic images.
That said, all rules can be broken from time to time. Just don’t get caught by the members of that secret society.
Dan Bailey is a professional adventure, outdoor and travel photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska. You can follow his own blog at danbaileyphoto.com/blog and see his daily Facebook updates at facebook.com/danbaileyphoto