Tony Worobiec FRPS made welcome return as guest speaker at the last meeting and spoke on the subject of composition. Tony’s opening was to challenge the idea of “Rules”, not in an attempt to throw them over, but in order to put the ideas of “The rules for composing a photograph” into a useable perspective.
A rule, as we generally perceive it in a photographic sense, can be defined as: “An authoritative, prescribed direction for conduct, especially one of the regulations governing procedure”. In the photographers case this means following what books and tutorial videos tell us to do with the objects within our frame. For frame read viewfinder. Mostly these carry the caveat that “Rules are meant to be broken”, but as with most clichés it is one that is too often lightly worn and frequently lazy – especially when not referenced with analysed examples. What we actually mean by rule is “A generalized statement that describes what is true in most or all cases”, emphasis on the most.
As there are at least a half dozen different interpretations we can put upon the idea of a rule, Tony put forward the sensible suggestion that we should, like an image that is not quite working in the viewfinder, reframe. He offered “Principles“. We can define that as “A basic or essential quality or element determining intrinsic nature or characteristic behaviour”. This works better for us as photographers, because it carries a useful hint as to the nature of a photograph that has a lasting impact. It has interest in the subject. We talking directly of those photographs that are “Technically proficient but subject deficient”. You can follow every rule in the composition handbook and composition is simply the arrangement of objects within a frame, remember, but if the subject is soulless, if there is no hook, no emotion, then it’s just a record. A colonoscopy image may have an emotional hook, especially if it’s your colon and even more so if there is something there that says “Get your affairs in order”, but to the general viewer not imbued with a morbid fascination, it’s just a record.
If the “First Rule of Photography club” were “Do not talk about photography club” then this blog would be a lot shorter. You might consider this a mercy. If there is a first rule of photography club, aside from pay your subs, then it is, possibly, The Rule of Thirds. Tony hinted that it has an interesting if, relative to the golden ratio and so on, short history appearing sometime towards the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Actually 1797. I don’t know about Tony’s assertion that John Thomas Smith was a “Failed artist”, (he was an engraver for at least part of his career) conjuring as that does the slow death of the young Chatterton, but “Antiquity” Smith wrote a book “Remarks on Rural Scenery” that included the following:
“Analogous to this ‘Rule of thirds’, (if I may be allowed so to call it) I have presumed to think that, in connecting or in breaking the various lines of a picture, it would likewise be a good rule to do it, in general, by a similar scheme of proportion; for example, in a design of landscape, to determine the sky at about two-thirds ; or else at about one-third, so that the material objects might occupy the other two : Again, two thirds of one element, (as of water) to one third of another element (as of land); and then both together to make but one third of the picture, of which the two other thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives ….
…. This rule would likewise apply in breaking a length of wall, or any other too great continuation of line that it may be found necessary to break by crossing or hiding it with some other object : In short, in applying this invention, generally speaking, or to any other case, whether of light, shade, form, or colour, I have found the ratio of about two thirds to one third, or of one to two, a much better and more harmonizing proportion, than the precise formal half, the too-far-extending four-fifths—and, in short, than any other proportion whatever.”
If Smith’s view from posterity is that of a failure then he certainly got his revenge in first, a revenge that is built into every modern DSLR/CSC even if we can turn it off. As a precept, “A rule or principle prescribing a particular course of action or conduct”, it has certainly got a hold.
The basic fact of the matter is that the Rule of Thirds works, as Tony amply and beautifully illustrated. Tony’s point is that it works to the point where we allow it to dictate contrary to what the viewfinder is telling us. The best is the enemy of the good, especially when the good is good enough, and pursuit of perfection comes at the price of other missed opportunities. Not just the rule of thirds, of course, but this blog would be about the length of a PhD thesis if we examined all of the possible principles and Tony has already written a book on the matters of composition (and a good few others on different aspects of photography). What we are looking to deliver, in the words of Steve Schapiro, is an image that gives us “information, emotion and execution” (see link immediately above). Time to rewatch “Crush the Composition” I think.
Last words (yeah, right) on this blog at least, go to Antiquity Smith:
“I should think myself honoured by the opinion of any gentleman on this point; but until I shall be better informed, shall conclude this general proportion of two and one to be the most picturesque medium in all cases of breaking or otherwise qualifying straight lines and masses and groups.”