Rule of thirds?

A tangent I came upon during my previous attempt at tracing the history of “leading lines” is the “rule of thirds.” I think in general, it appeals to me to ask, “Where do these visual composition rules come from?”

The Origin of the Rule?

The “rule of thirds” is often attributed to John Thomas Smith’s Remarks on Rural Scenery from 1797.

Two distinct, equal lights, should never appear in the same picture: One should be principal and the rest sub-ordinate, both in dimension and degree: Unequal parts and gradations lead the attention easily from part to part, while parts of equal appearance hold it awkwardly suspended, as if unable to determine which of those parts is to be considered as the subordinate.

Analogous to this ‘Rule of Thirds’ (if I may be allowed to so 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 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 other two thirds should go for the sky and aerial perspectives. … In short, in applying this invention, generally speaking, to any other case of light, shade, form or color,

Note here he seems interested in surface area of the painting, rather than the positioning of points of interest. One or two thirds of the painting should be occupied by one “element” or another. (Water or land.)

He also talks about further sub-dividing areas. Like his example dividing between land, water, and sky: if you give the sky two thirds, then for the remaining third, you could apply the same rule to divide two thirds water and one third land.

And there’s nothing about where in the picture these divisions should lie. Now any indication that the division between these elements should align with vertical and horizontal lines. The division between land and sky might naturally do so on the horizon, but the presence of hills and mountains can complicate that.

(A minor aside: he claims these imbalances “lead the attention easily from part to part” which does nicely tie in with the “leading lines” discourse that directing the attention from one part to another is a thing that is desirable. Though the method of achieving that goal is not quite the same as “leading lines.”)

Modern Times

Wikipedia on the other hand describes the rule of thirds as:

The guideline proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.

For which it cites a 2003 book, Learning to see Creatively, which appears to be focused on photography. So now I’m interested in where did this shift in meaning occur? Somewhere between 1797 and 2003 gives us a big range.

Why the Shift in Meaning?

This book from 1922: “How to Make Good Pictures” was published by the Eastman Kodak Company and is subtitled: A Book for the Amateur Photographer. It talks about landscape composition on pages 36 and 37. It does not call this the “rule of thirds” but it calls the horizon line “the more conspicuous” and says it should be “one-third from the top or from the bottom.”

And finally that the most important position in a picture is always more or less towards the center either to the right or left; the exact center should be avoided as this divides the picture into equal parts

The horizon line, which in most landscapes is the more conspicuous, should never divide the pictures into two equal parts, but should be approximately either one-third from the top or from the bottom.

So that does place the horizon in the same place that Smith would advise. But it kind of tries to have two reasons behind this. It divides the picture, which feels like Smith’s version, but it’s also about positioning a “conspicuous” object near the “most important position.”

Camera Viewfinders

Was the shift in meaning encouraged by photography? Some camera viewfinders will display grids that divide the view into thirds. It’s a lot easier to tell an amateur photographer to line something up with a line on the viewfinder than require they estimate a surface area.

Here’s a demo with a recent camera, which will overlay a grid that divides the screen into thirds or sixths. (Interesting that they divide the thirds into halves, rather than thirds again. Smith’s original version applied the rule fractally, dividing the subsections again into thirds.) This viewfinder is linked from the Wikipedia entry on viewfinders and has grid lines that align with the thirds.

My own camera (a Nikon D40) does not have such grid lines in the viewfinder, though it marks the auto-focus which does align with where these lines would be if it was divided horizontally. When I searched for this camera, I found people objecting to the lack of grid lines. In a forum here someone asks why the Nikon D40 doesn’t have them, and this review lists grid lines under “what’s missing.” That their absence is noteworthy shows they’re very common.

I wonder if I could find a history of viewfinders that would say how prevalent it really is, and whether it became more common over the years?

A Tangent About the Golden Ratio

The Talk page for the Wikipedia article on rule of thirds also contains a lot of argument about whether to include mention of the Golden Ratio, I guess because a lot people connect that with the rule of thirds? Like, 2/3 is 0.6666 and 1/1.618 is 0.618 which is only 0.048 off, so maybe the *real* reason for anyone to find the rule of thirds pleasing is because it’s *almost* the golden ratio. Though the reverse could work just as well. Maybe people aesthetically like the golden ratio because it’s almost like dividing things into thirds.

The golden ratio is mathematically interesting but I haven’t been convinced that there’s any particular reason why people would be aesthetically drawn to things proportioned off it.

Retroactive Application of the Modern Version

Like the “leading lines” post, it’s very easy to find modern writing applying the current version of this rule to paintings of the past, but I’m interested in what attitudes were contemporary with the painters.

This references the rule of thirds describing a 1770 painting, Horse Frightened by a Lion, George Stubbs. Remarks on Rural Scenery was written in 1797. These ideas could have easily been in the zeitgeist before Smith wrote it down, but if George Stubbs had something like this in mind while painting, I’d argue it would be more like that “balance of elements” approach than like the modern “align with a grid.”

The composition in this painting follows the rule of thirds, with the land in the upper part creating a line, and the horse resting on the crossing of two lines.

Composition in Romanticism paintings – Google Arts & Culture – User-created

What should I take away?

I don’t want to say that the original version of the rule is necessarily better, like the more recent use is some kind of a corruption of the true form of the rule. But being aware of the older use could give you an alternate way of looking at visual composition.

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