The Rule of Fifths

There appears to be no end to books, DVD’s, training courses and much else besides on the subject of photographic composition. I’ve read or watched a few of these works and, up to a point, they can be valuable. Perhaps they have their greatest value when starting out, offering beginning photographers or those wanting to further their photography a helpful set of guidelines to build on. One of the most commonly recommended guidelines is the ‘rule of thirds’. The shot below, taken in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, illustrates the rule of thirds, with the main elements placed on vertical and horizontal lines marking the ‘thirds’ of the image and the key element – the man’s head in his hands – at a point where vertical and horizontal intersect.

At some point, having grasped the basics, we all have to venture out, exploring the limits and boundaries they set, perhaps choosing to reject some of them entirely. This comes from practice and observation. With practice comes confidence, the confidence to know your own mind when it comes to composition rather than conforming to a set of guidelines, no matter how established. Beyond practice, observation is crucial, not merely observation of the world around us, but observation of the work of others. Obviously this includes other photographers but we lose so much if we stop there. A few hours in an art gallery can offer instructive compositional lessons.

My approach to photographic composition has been influenced and changed by spending time in galleries looking at the work of Dutch and Flemish painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I had always liked those grand naturalistic landscapes and seascapes, providing such a contrast to the claustrophobic and highly mannered works depicting biblical and classical scenes. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that when I started to be more serious about my photography these works influenced my approach, at least on those occasions — generally rare — when I photographed landscapes and seascapes.

Here are two works, representative of this northern European tradition, both of which are in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The first is by Aelbert Cuyp, A Pier Overlooking Dordrecht.

The greater part of this painting is that beautiful open expansive sky. The horizon lies only about one fifth of the way from the base of the painting. The particular subject of the work, the pier and those who have just landed from a small boat, occupy only a very small area of the picture, tucked into the bottom left hand corner. Yet the low perspective highlights the people, the sails of the boats and the distant town of Dordrecht against the sky. The result is an image that is open, airy and spacious yet still manages to draw the viewer’s eye to the pier and the people on it. Something similar can be seen in this second painting — this time a landscape — Aert van der Neer’s A Snowy Winter Landscape.

In this painting the horizon is set a little higher, perhaps quarter of the way into the frame, yet the picture is once again dominated by a richly textured cloud filled sky. Life, human life, is concentrated into a narrow strip across the bottom of the picture, but what an astonishing variety of life it is. It’s hard to see in this small reproduction but standing before this work your eye is drawn further and further into the image discovering more and more going on in this narrow frozen space. There are people arriving, people leaving, people skating, people fishing and so much more.

I find it fascinating that the artist has chosen to portray his subject in this way. Surely it would have been easier to ‘change the crop’, as it were, expanding the space in which life is overflowing, something he did in a number of other works such as River in Winter and Sports on a Frozen River that demonstrate a more ‘conventional’ rule-of-thirds composition. Yet doing so would, for me, have resulted in a much less pleasing and compelling image.

Applying this approach to my photography, the first picture below of Manila Bay uses a ‘rule of fifths’ (or even sixths) and emphasizes the spectacular sky, though the couple sitting on the bay wall are in a more ‘traditional’ rule of thirds position. In the second picture, of Lake Michigan, I pushed both horizontal and vertical elements beyond the ‘thirds’ so that the focus of the picture is concentrated in the bottom right hand corner.

I have often heard, and more often read, the famous Robert Capa quote, ‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’ Perhaps that’s true some of the time, but not always. Sometimes if your pictures aren’t good enough you need to step back, widen your perspective, open your images up, let them breathe.