Composition rules, especially when it’s good

Fashion photographer Jake Garn posted up some food for thought on his blog yesterday. Suggesting that the #1 rule of photographic composition, the Rule of Thirds, is a “lazy sham,” he indicates that the Golden Ratio should instead be the imperative composition template because of its relationship to the very quick of the universe’s soul.


This is not exactly a groundbreaking assertion, considering that Google turns up roughly 10,000 results for “35mm golden ratio.” Alex mabini at Fotogenic, for instance, claims that the genius of Henri Cartier-Bresson is due to his adherence to the Golden Ratio, and that the rule of thirds is actually a “specific application” of the Golden Ratio:


Chris Weeks at A Photo Contributor also invokes Cartier-Bresson, and brings up the Golden Triangle as a way of justifying photos with sloping elements. He goes so far as to say that the appreciation of the Golden Ratio as an aesthetic guide might be “genetically programmed.”

One thing that all of these posts seem to have in common is that whatever guide is being used, it is not necessary to be exact – an approximation of the Golden Ratio in a photograh, for instance, will be enough to render the photo pleasing to the eye. Of course, making the assertion that the guide needs only to be approximate renders moot any argument that the Golden Ratio is preferable to the Rule of Thirds, as Jake Garn claims, since the Rule of Thirds is an approximation of the Golden Ratio. In fact, I could probably make up a rule of composition, such as the Rule of Three Blobs, and it would still be an approximation of the Golden Ratio, and I could still overlay it onto Cartier-Bresson’s photos to prove that he was a photographic genius:



Clearly, Cartier-Bresson approximates the Rule of Three Blobs about as well as he approximates the Rule of Thirds.

Nonetheless, it is not my point here to argue the merits of the Golden Ratio versus those of the Rule of Thirds, or any other rule of composition for that matter. I think that what’s missing in between the step of knowing a rule of composition and applying that rule to a photo is the ability to break the image down into basic shapes inside the viewfinder. Specifically, this means taking what’s in the viewfinder:


And simplifying it into the basic shapes that make up the scene:




Once the scene is composed of basic shapes, then those shapes can be manipulated and rearranged until they appear pleasing to the eye. Taking the “basic shapes” approach means that all of the elements in the photograph will be taken into account, in order to form an aesthetic whole; whereas the Rule of Thirds approach puts enough emphasis on lining up the “point of focus” with one of the thirds that the aesthetics of the frame as a whole becomes secondary. In the final product the basic shapes may show some analogy to the Golden Ratio or the Rule of Thirds, but that will be a result of the composition rather than a precursor.


3 responses to “Composition rules, especially when it’s good

  1. thanks for the shout!

    cheers from los angeles!

  2. Great post! Thanks so much for talking so eloquently about my post, and I’ll tell you what, I’m absolutely over-joyed about being associated in a discussion about Chris Weeks – I love that guy! 🙂

  3. Pingback: It is a matter of focus… | Chris' Creative Musings

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