The rule of thirds is one of the easier elements of composition to master and I like it because it’s easy. Mentally divide the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically and put the subject near the power points. Easy. My kind of rule.
The Golden Ratio is a little more complicated and involves math. For thousands of years artists and intellectuals have studied the Golden Ratio and other constructs based on the Golden Mean and how it applies to art composition. That has yielded tools like the Golden Triangle, the Golden Spiral, and the Golden Rectangle.
This gets deep in a hurry, so I’m going to simplify by saying the Golden Rectangle is one where the short side and long side relate to one another on a ratio of 1.61803. You might recognize the Golden Rectangle by another name, we call it 16:9 (actually a ratio of 1.777, but close enough).
Align the visual elements of a picture to the golden ratio and apparently humans perceive the composition more positively. It’s true. If you look at an older TV show shot in 4:3 it looks boxy compared to a show shot in wide screen format. Once you get used to wide screen it’s hard to go back.
By way of a simple calculation, divide the frame diagonally, corner to corner. Then draw a second line from the lower corner to upper intersection of thirds. That will yield a rough approximation of the Golden Triangle. Do the same drawing a line from the upper left corner to the lower left intersection of the thirds. If you can picture all that in your head, then you’re aligned with the Divine Ratio.
You can see how your pictures measure up to the gold standard at this handy site.
There’s a reason it’s called the “Rule of Thirds” and not the “Suggestion of Thirds” or the “Very Highly Recommended Concept of Thirds”.
Still, for the most part, photographers don’t like rules. More to the point they like flouting them with reckless abandon. Photographers are frequently the people climbing on street lights to try and get a better angle on the crowds, the ones hauling a ton of gear out into the wilderness at zero dark-thirty to catch that one moment of fabulous lighting, the ones climbing over the fence at the zoo because the frame of the bear exhibit is really better just a couple steps beyond the fence.
The relationship between artists and rules has always been tenuous and contentious at the best of times. Yet the Rule of Thirds ranks right up there as one of the more time-tested concepts in composition, both in photography and in the art world long before photography came into existence.
The general concept is fairly straightforward: Divide the image frame into nine equal sections. Position your subject at the intersection of the dividing lines. Which one of the intersections will depend on what else is in the frame.
The horizon line can be higher or lower, depending on whether you want to focus attention on the foreground or the sky, anywhere but along the center line.
Subjects In Motion
If your subject is in motion, the Rule of Thirds changes somewhat as you want to give your subject room to move in the photograph. Position the subject so their direction of motion is toward the open area of the picture. If a subject is moving left to right, you generally don’t want to frame the subject in the lower right hand corner as it leaves the impression they’re running off the frame.
For every rule there are exceptions. I have seen some pictures when a slow shutter speed was used and the subject positioned at the distant corner, relative to their direction of motion, to make it appear as if they were going so fast the camera could not pan fast enough to keep up with them.
So there are rules and then there are rules in photography. Learn them, break them, find new ways to apply them to your own personal style. At least no one is going to issue you a ticket for climbing on the street light.
I once visited what I thought was an industrial machine shop, but turned out be a professional food photographer. He employed metal supports, chemicals like lacquer and linseed oil, compressed air, and scaled down stage foggers.
You probably won’t want to go that far, but food photography is suddenly in vogue. From Flickr groups like I Ate This with over 240,000 pictures from 24,000 members and so called food porn sites like Tastespotting and Foodgawker, photographing your food is no longer reserved for professionals, we’re all becoming food paparazzi now. If you’re going to do it, do it right.
1) Take a camera. While many people are buying the latest iPhone just for food pictures, even a low end digital camera will do a better job. Cameras like the Nikon Coolpix P7100 are popular for ease of concealment and their fast start up time. Some users have upgraded to cameras like the Nikon D90 because they want better pictures of their food.
2) Be fast. Cold food isn’t going to look good, so try to shoot while it’s still steaming and before anything melts, wilts or changes color.
3) Use natural light when possible. Side lighting from a booth window is going to be better than a pop up flash. If you’re buying an SLR for food pictures, then take the next step and get a diffuser for the pop up flash for those times you can’t avoid using the camera flash.
4) Use a low angle. The big mistake a lot of food photographers make is shooting from too high of an angle. Most people don’t view their food from straight down, so don’t shoot it from that angle. Get down as low as you can without drawing too much attention to yourself.
5) Get close, go macro. Getting a shallow depth of field on macro settings will put the focus on the food and blur out the table in the background.
6) Style it. Many chefs spend an entire year in school just on presentation. Most local restaurants will not have that training, so don’t be afraid to dress up your food a little. If you get lettuce on the side it won’t wilt by the time it gets to the table.
I remember exactly what I was doing and who told me about the planes hitting the towers. I’d be willing to bet most of us remember what we were doing on that day 10 years ago. Ironically, I was at a place where cameras weren’t allowed, so no one will get to see my shots of that day.
For photographers 9/11 changed the perception rather than the reality. All of a sudden, someone taking pictures was suspicious behavior. Security guards felt empowered to claim the sidewalks in front of their building, as if any public space was suddenly a terrorist target and photos were aiding the enemy. We were no longer merely hobbyists or professionals pursuing our craft, we were potential spies.
Restrictions on photography started getting crazy as authorities at every level decided they had an obligation to do something to make themselves feel safer, even if that was something as useless as hassling photographers. The world was paranoid on a massive scale and we were conveniently visible.
I was with a pool of photographers outside a court room one time shortly after the attack when one of several people complained to the police we were taking photos of the building. The police, who knew us, patiently explained we were photographers and it was alright. Not good enough for one older gentleman who continued to insist he should “check them out.” Even though we were together in a group and all had press passes to work in that area. Finally, the media rep from the city arrived and asked us to move out of the lobby to an area under the stairs, so we didn’t disturb people. We were regulated to the status of trolls under the bridge, which I guess is better than spies.
Fortunately, in the last 10 years sanity has largely returned, although the sight of a camera still throws some low-level people with the IQ of a grapefruit into a security awareness tizzy. It still can be problematic shooting at train stations and airports and the days of being able to camp at the end of the runway to shoot pictures of incoming planes are over in many places. Some security guards are still trying to claim the sidewalk, but by and large, there are fewer people lunging at camera lenses.
Still, every so often I still hear a cop or security guard remind me that “everything changed after 9/11”.
I meet a lot of people who want to be professional photographers, though I’m not always certain what they see when looking at the profession from the outside. Maybe they’re looking at the price they’re paying for a portrait sitting and thinking if they could do 10 a day, how much money they would be making! Wooo! Without insurance, overhead, taxes, and license fees any business looks easy.
Among the people who make it, there are some common characteristics.
Driven To Perfection
The people I know who made it as professional photographers are people who would have been out working on the technical aspects of photography, even if they weren’t getting paid for it. They just can’t leave it alone.
The photographers who make it aren’t satisfied shooting portraits, they want to shoot the greatest portraits ever taken. They care about getting the shot, but they want to get THE shot that captures the moment.
They’re Not In It For The Money
Many photographers are constantly on the verge of divorce trying to sneak new equipment past their spouses. It’s an obsession they occasionally get paid for. Most are making a fraction of what they could pull down at a regular day job.
A select few eventually get to the point they’re making a lot of money and among the top earners is a strata of photographers who have gotten rich off their craft.
According to Salary.com the average income for a photographer in the U.S. is $53,705, which is right around the average income in the country. That figure can vary widely, depending on the city you reside. Photographers in L.A. and New York have significantly higher average salaries than other cities.
For a long time after digital sensors were rivaling and even surpassing film quality, there was still a certain subset of photographers who insisted that film was the only pure form of the art. Some schools still insist students learn film processing, even though it’s getting harder to even find the chemicals for processing.
Show me someone teaching film and I’ll show you someone who made their money in the 70’s and 80’s.
I don’t want to say film is dead, but it’s definitely sitting by itself in the corner of a nursing home. If you want to make money in the business, you have to adapt to the current reality, whatever that may be.