Rules, part 1

I was a very obedient child – boring, according to my peers – since I understood early on that the rules the adults had placed on me, were for my own good. Brushing teeth prevented cavities, and we were not allowed to leave the kindergarten grounds by ourselves because we could lose our way or get hit by a car.

What about the rules of photography? In our society, we’re conditioned to think that there is some benefit or advantage to following a rule, either for ourselves or for the people we are trying to coexist peacefully with. In the same way, I believe the rules of photography are there for a reason. The difference is that photography is an art, and that art is cultural and subjective. So when a photographer is a strong believer in a certain rule, whether from habit, conditioning or ideology, she benefits from following it because her images improve in her own eyes and in the eyes of the people who believe in the same rule. Other people may believe differently.

Photographic rules is a subject I’ve come to feel strongly about, so this post is only the first of several I hope to write.

One excellent and thought-provoking example I would like to discuss, is found in Bryan Peterson’s book Learning to See Creatively. After presenting the rule of thirds, he describes how the subject should, as a main rule, be placed in the right third of the image. The reason for this, he suggests, is that it is natural for the eye to enter a space from the left and move towards the right. He calls this “almost a psychological ‘law’ ” [original emphasis].

I’ve been thinking about this when I shoot fences for Fence Friday.

In the image below, the line of the fence leads the eye smootly from the left to the right, by way of the main subject – the leaf. As Peterson also shows, the line leading from left to right may in fact be one reason to break the previously mentioned rule and place the subject in the left third of the image, like here.

Fence Friday

In fact, the image with the leaf works a lot better than the image below, where the composition is reversed. There is no good starting point to the left for the eye to enter the image here. Rather, the “sequence” of the image moves from the plant to the right and leftwards into the distance, a far less “natural” movement.

Fence Friday!

In sum, I tend to agree,* as a main rule, that the subject should be placed in the right third of the image, and that a line should lead from left to right rather than the other way around. But I can’t help but wonder how basic these rules really are. In particular, to what extent are they dependent on literacy? In the Western World, the majority of us learns to read from an early age, and our script is read from left to right. But what about the people who learned to read Arabic as a child, where the alphabeth is read from right to left? Do they experience visual elements differently? I don’t know, but I sure would like to find out!


*Whether I remember these rules when I’m out in the field shooting is a different story!


About Jenny Graver

Living in Oslo, Norway, with her partner and their infant son, Jenny struggles for balance between all the things that makes life worth living - her family, her job in university administration, her writing, learning and her photography. View all posts by Jenny Graver

2 responses to “Rules, part 1

  • Kat

    Oh, wonderful post! It’s such a great topic to discuss isn’t it? I have read the same thing about the right third, and threw that one out the window too depending on my subject. Your point about cultures and reading is a good one. I think there is one fundamental lesson I’ve learned living abroad: We look at everything through the filter of our culture and experience. So when we state something as a rule, very likely there is someone out there in the world who will beg to differ.

  • Jessica

    Good point about reading! I wonder if it would be different for Arabic or Chinese readers? I think as a habit I do tend to put mine in the right 1/3, but it does depend on the image. I also have the same trouble remembering this stuff when I’m out shooting. I tend to go fast and clean up in Lightroom which I would prefer not to do, but I find it’s really hard to force myself to go slow.

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