The Rule of Thirds--Where did it come from?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by john_a|5, Sep 9, 2013.

  1. Anyone who frequents photographic sites on-line or picks up a current book on photographic composition knows about the “Rule of Thirds”.
    The funny thing to me is that as pervasive as it seems to be, that having been an active photographer since 1978, I never heard of it before 2005 when I first visited this site. And that in light of the following facts:
    Early on, I subscribed to Consumer/Amateur photo publications and remember no mention of it. I have a Petersen’s Photographic book “Basic Guide to Photography” from that time period (1973) that has a very good section on Composition but no mention of the Rule of Thirds. A 2000 Amphoto book, John Garrett’s Black and White Masterclass, that has several chapters on compositional considerations but no mention of it. I also have several other books from the 80's and 90's on commercial photographic topics that never mention it.
    I took art classes that covered the principles of Design and Elements of Art in the early 80's and there was no mention of it. In fact, I have yet to find a textbook on art that includes it or even mentions it.
    I took photo classes at an art school, also in the early 80's and no mention of it. I have taken workshops during the 80’s with the likes of Ansel Adams, John Sexton, Jerry Uelsmann, Richard Misrach, Linda Conner, Frank Goelke, all great photographic educators—guess what, no mention of it.
    I taught photography in the early ‘90’s at an accredited Art College and no where was it in the curriculum nor was it ever mentioned. And with 25 years of working with top art directors and designers from around the country creating images for them, there has never been any mention of it—even though we obviously discussed the design considerations of hundreds, maybe thousands, of images. I have even asked some of them if they heard of it, once I had, and the answer was always “no”.
    I checked the internet and Wikipedia gives a resource from 1750, a copy of which I have obtained, that is supposed to be the first codification of the term—although there is no mention of a Tic-Tac-Toe Grid or the magic intersections that are so frequently referred to on Photo sites.

    So where did it come from and when did it get into the vernacular of the amateur photographer? Certainly, it didn’t sleep for 250+ years since one person made the observation and then magically appeared as a well defined grid sans many of the other elements of proportion described in that original manuscript.
    Most principles of composition have a well defined and scholarly vetted lineage while this one, seemingly held in such high regard by so many, seems to have materialized sometime in the last 8-10 years out of the ether.
    Can anyone help?
  2. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    It's a dumbing down of the Golden Mean for photographers. The Golden Mean dates back to ancient Greece.
  3. I don't know its origin, John, but I suspect its modern usage might have something to do with "3" being the next number after "2" in the Fibonacci sequence, and also a number that is comfortably divisible in a 1.33:1 or 1.5:1 aspect ratio; it made less sense in square 1:1 format where "2" (central framing) might have been more appropriate.
    As we progressively migrate toward even wider aspect ratios - 2.4:1 or greater, I suspect more emphasis will be placed on the next numbers in the sequence - "5" and "8".
  4. It's not a rule, it's a suggestion - sort of like speed limits in here in Tennessee. :) I think it evolved as a technique for people who have difficulty deciding how to compose a shot...
  5. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    I’d endorse Jeff’s answer.
    That was my “off the top of my head response”, also . . . then I thought about the question very carefully:
    I attained a Diploma and an Advanced Diploma in the mid 1970’s and as part of our theory class, then, we overlayed a Golden Spiral on many (famous) Paintings and Photographs. I am very confident the phrase “rule of thirds” was NOT mentioned in my classes, then.
    Note that a Golden Spiral is built on the Golden Mean – and NOT a Fibonacci sequence: a Fibonacci Spiral is close to, but not exactly the same as a Golden Spiral.
    A Golden Spiral if turned through 180°, will show the intersections to replicate close to, but not exactly as, dividing the rectangle into thirds.
    Of course any rectangle to contain a Golden Spiral perfectly needs to be itself, in the ratio of the Golden Mean: which traditional Photographic Papers and the typical Aspect Ratios we use now - are not.
    I taught at Photography at College (from the Govt. Education Department accredited curriculum) in the 1990’s. The Golden Spiral was still used in the theory classes when “Composition” was discussed / taught.
    I have just checked the text books I have kept from that stint and none mentions the “Rule of Thirds”; however the College’s Art (Photography) Student’s Text book clearly recognises the Golden Spiral for consideration in the “Composition” sub-heading and also the Golden Mean/ Golden Spiral is mentioned in the standard text book, which was used in the first year by all the students - photography, painting, sculpture and drawing.
    I have continued to teach (tutor) and your question made me ask myself “what exactly do I say?” – and I don’t generally use the term “Rule of Thirds” – but I note that students do sometimes ask about it and to those questions and I have generally answered that it is a composition "rule" which is pleasing to the eye, but like any “Rule” of Composition should be employed for a reason and not because of an habit – but I can’t recall having been asked the derivation nor have thought about it all that much, even though I still refer to the Golden Mean and the Golden Spiral, often, when discussing matters of composition with the Students whom I tutor.
    I have never really linked the two (“Rule of Thirds” and "Golden Mean/Spiral”) in a formal discussion – nor has anyone with whom I have been conversing ever linked the two, either – which now thinking about it, I find really quite amazing.
    I can’t recall the first time I heard of / read about the “Rule of Thirds”, but your Original Post makes me think that, like you, it was via an internet forum, a private photography website or blog.
    I have not investigated the wiki derivations.
    I think it most logical that “dumbing down of the Golden Mean for Photography” fits neatly as the most viable and most logical explanation - and it provides the greater proportion of the answer, to your quest.
    And I am glad I read this question and Jeff's response to it - because I believe I have just learnt something which has been 'obvious' for so long but it neither occurred to me as a question nor an answer . . .
  6. I know that I was aware of the 'rule of thirds' before Al Gore invented the internet. I cannot recall the exact source, but it was part of an introductory article on 'good composition' in a photography magazine from the days of film. It was presented as one "rule" of ten or twelve, including stuff like 'don't put the horizon in the exact center of the frame.'
  7. Thanks for the responses so far. I could probably write a treatise on the subject as I have been doing research on this for over a year now--off and on. The issue isn't what it is or isn't or how valuable it is or isn't, but rather where the heck did it come from and when did it enter the mainstream for amateur photographers.

    I will say, that for myself, I would probably be a bit more generous than to suggest a dumbing down of the Golden Ratio but rather point to a right brain versus a left brain analysis of the same phenomenon. 1.618.... to 1 sounds like a big difference to 2 to 1 but when you boil it down, it means that the line of demarcation is 61.8% vs 66.66% or more commonly 2/3's--which is not really all that significant. Personally, even though I have pretty good facility with both hemispheres, 2/3's is much easier to calculate and to intuit as an approximation versus 61.8%, which would seem more a statement of certainty!

    For those with the predilection to do so, there is a good video (not suggesting I totally agree, again, it would take a treatise on the topic) on YouTube by a Stanford Math professor that challenges the "visual" veracity of the Golden Mean/Ratio while does confirm the use of the ratio in other areas of nature.
    I am still want for some indication of where this Rule of Thirds came from, where did it originate in its current form and when did it become mainstream (in amateur literature anyway).
    Again, thanks, but any ideas on factual origins and formulations as we know it, and who/when, would be greatly appreciated.
  8. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    Personally, even though I have pretty good facility with both hemispheres, 2/3's is much easier to calculate and to intuit as an approximation versus 61.8%,​

    That's why it's a "dumbing down," nobody has to bother with calculations. It's a way of telling photographers how to "do something" without them having to think about it or know the history.
  9. I recall it from my art history classes at university back in the day. There's a good excursis on der Goldene Schnitt (the golden "section" -- a:b::b:a+b) in Dr. Gerhard Isert's book Das Goldene Buch der Farbfotografie (Berg am Starnberger See: Verlag Laterna magica, 1970), pages 268-71; the English version is The Art of Colour Photography (London & NY: Focal Press Ltd, 1971), pages 270-73.
    Dr. Isert's book is a real gem, long out of print, but available second hand for less than $10; I bought the German edition for 1 cent and shipping on eBay. He incorporates a lot of classical art-history theory in the text; the colour plates are wonderful. It is a real "sleeper" of a book on photographic praxis. If you can read German, buy that version as the English translation is really a loose paraphrase with a lot of omissions and the colour plates are second or third generation, and show it.
    The whole topic of the rule of thirds and golden section (or mean) is really fascinating, especially if you have a good grounding in mathematics.
  10. John A mentioned right brain / left brain. "Penrose and Hameroff ... suggest that consciousness emerges through the quantum mechanics of microtubules. ... Microtubules, the structural and motile basis of cells, are composed of 13 tubulin, and exhibit 8:5 phyllotaxis. Clathrins, located at the tips of microtubules, are truncated icosahedra, abuzz with golden ratios."
    Or, if that isn't it, consider that most credit cards measure 86mm by 54mm -- almost exactly an 8:5 ratio.
  11. My first photography book, Photography, a Golden Handbook, Brummitt/Burnett/Zim, Western Publishing Co, copyright 1956 & 1965, describes the rule, although it doesn't call it a "rule".
    A picture ... tends to come to life if the subject is placed a third of the way in from top to bottom and a third of the way in from either side. Divide your scene in to thirds, up and down and across. The point where the lines cross are good points to set your subject.
  12. it


    It came from a camera club meeting in Columbus Ohio in 1948.
  13. Well, everyone knows most things come from that camera club in Columbus!
    Matthew, that is certainly the first citation I have ever heard that suggests both 1/3 vertically and horizontally. Are there any footnotes in that section that refer to any source material for their statement--I am just trying to dig as deep as I can and this seems to be getting at maybe the genesis of the current "rule".
    Karl, I have actually found quite a bit of literature on the Golden Ratio and its lineage is quite a bit more defined. Thanks for that reference, though, as it isn't one I had seen.
  14. Just an update. Matthew's entry started me looking and eventually I found some resources that I wasn't aware of before. I not only found a copy of the book on-line but that has led to finding other books, so far back to 1920, that actually had the grid and mention the intersections. None of these books, unfortunately, cites what the source material was nor do they suggest it as a rule--but certainly as a relevant, if not important guide. Most of these do seem directed primarily at amateur photographers, but also have some extremely good information on the broader principles of design--maybe better than most contemporary books that seem more interested in rules and guidelines than visual principles.
    Anyway, thanks again for those that contributed and if anyone does find the "source" or a reference to it, I would appreciate a shout here or through PN's mail.
  15. You look at a phenomena and then try to explain it. Then the explanation replaces the phenomena in your mind. The explanation becomes a rule. It's how science works and it's how we fool ourselves. The rule of thirds is an observation that many images that please had this characteristic (the phenomena), someone saw the Golden ratio in those images (the explanation). Now we put a grid over the image in our mind and compose that way instead of feeling our way into a pleasing composition that may or may not have the characteristic.
    One only needs to look at Depardon's book Errance to see how well you can do by ignoring the "rules"
  16. It was just a natural rule of thumb for following the "golden mean" simply because the 3:2 aspect ratio of 35 mm cameras was very close to the golden rectangle it is based on.
  17. Laurentiu, thanks, I actually have a copy of that book--I erroneously referred to it as 1750 in my opening statement. It is named there but the grid isn't defined only the proportion, which was also applied not just to the whole, but to the parts and further to color and elements as well. The familiar grid and intersections have been traced to 1920, although it wasn't called the Rule of 3rds in those sources.
  18. I first learnt about "Rule of Thirds" when joining a camera club in 1971.
    The earliest reference I have in front of me is-
    THE MODERN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHOTOGRAPHY. A Standard Work of Reference for Amateur and Professional Photographers (2 vols.) circa1940 STUBBS, S. G. BLAXLAND; MORTIMER, F. J. AND MALTHOUSE, GORDON S.
  19. The Rule Of Thirds is an easily understood guideline that improves photos in some cases, degrades them in other cases, and provides an opportunity for people who don't understand composition well to believe that they do.
  20. Laurentiu, thanks, I actually have a copy of that book--I erroneously referred to it as 1750 in my opening statement.​
    My bad - I missed your reference to it.
    It is named there but the grid isn't defined only the proportion​
    But that is what the rule is about - the proportion. The grid is just a helper. I guess it is interesting to track that down too.
  21. I came across a 1947 text that correlated the grid and intersections--still not being called the "Rule of Thirds" but was loosely referred to, without capitalization, as "the thirds method" familiar to photographers--to the theory of Dynamic Symmetry.
    Essentially, that specific permutation of the theory, where one divides the full frame diagonally and then the half frame diagonally,((diagonal analysis/principles of composition are often cited, without all of the math, in many other books on composition that I have been reading) ends up yielding the magic intersections and included the grid as well. Searching the source of the theory of Dynamic Symmetry, a mathematician, he also included the grid overlaying the diagonals--the book states that his research into dynamic symmetry happened 20 years before that book, which is dated 1920.
    This certainly raises the question as to the possibility that this theory, and not the golden ratio, might have some bearing on the formulation of this rule. The problem is that this is but one of the divisions of space included in the theory, the permutations seem endless to me! So, why this one! (I haven't gone through all the math nor am I a mathematician)
    Fortunately, the author of the 1947 book on composition states clearly: "As we have always stated, we believe beautiful pictures are composed instinctively, and any beautiful picture is well composed; and any well composed picture will fit into various theories of design." She goes on to describe proportion analysis and picture dynamics with several other devices as well.
    I feel a bit closer.....
  22. a modern writer, encountered mostly in 2 dimensional design/art programs... wucius wong.
    worth some reading.
  23. Although I think the OP is interesting, I cannot for the life of me find a philosophical issue involved. It seems to me that the issue is purely historical in nature.
  24. Jeff Schraeder: One only needs to look at Depardon's book Errance to see how well you can do by ignoring the "rules"
    I have nothing to contribute to this discussion other than what has already been said. But thanks to Jeff, I'm now aware of a photographer I was previously unfamiliar with. Thanks. Very interesting work.
  25. Well, so far the only references I can find to the Rule of Thirds are in books which seem aimed at the amateur photographer. And, until recent publications, it is often suggested as one of many visual theories, none of which should be used except, essentially, when they work. Actually, most suggested you should compose intuitively, that these were just more like ideas to plant in your head along with the principles and elements of art/design, to be drawn on when they were applicable to your composition.
    Certainly, my survey isn't exhaustive but has included probably 30-40 books going back into the 1800's--other than the 1797 citation where we first see the name used, the term disappears for over 100 years and then is applied to a principle that is somewhat more defined but less robust.
    If anyone knows of any sources that refer to the Rule of Thirds or the use of the grid other than the 1797 text that isn't a photography book, I would be appreciative of knowing about it.

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