February 23, 2016  •  Leave a Comment
Learning any art form is a roller coaster with steep learning curves, precipitous confidence drops, and lots of plateaus where nothing seems to be working. Everyone I know goes through these stages so it must be normal.
The ups and downs are easily explained but the plateaus are tougher to grapple with. They can be flat and dry where nothing ever happens, or a confusing quagmire like our local Owyhee gumbo, the sticky mud that sticks like glue to tires and buries axles after even a light rain. Get in a rut on one of those roads and there's no getting out without help.
If you've been shooting photographs for more than a year, you've likely encountered a rut or two. One of the worst is disguised as a paved road; it's only after you've traveled too far to turn around do you discover that what you thought was asphalt is really gumbo. That particular rut is called the Rule of Thirds, or ROT.
The Rule of Thirds promises to make bad photos better, to resolve balance, to add power and punch to a composition. Unfortunately, it does none of those things, not really, in spite of all the online blogs and tutorials that place it at the top of their Top Ten Steps to Better Photos lists. It seems to work at first, but like most training wheels, impedes progress after you get your bicycle legs. 
The Rule of Thirds is a plateau. Here's why. 
Look at the grid lines for the Rule of Thirds. Remind you of anything? Jail cell bars, perhaps? Do you want to entrap a lively scene in a cold, iron cage? Because that's often what's happening. Your fluid, dynamic, natural, energetic, visionary image is being gridded and conformed. Granted, if your imagery is rabidly wild and out of control, then sure, a cage is a reasonable temporary measure for calming the beast. Accent on temporary. Once you learn to straighten crooked horizon lines and to place your main subject somewhere interesting within the frame, there's really nothing left for ROT to do.
So break free, rip off the training wheels, and race across the ROT PLATEAU in high gear to those delectable mountains over there. They're just ahead; can't miss 'em.
Fortunately, there exist wonderful, fluid, high octane compositional tools that can eradicate ROT permanently. We're going to spend the next two weeks exploring them. Some of the best come from our painter and designer friends. Most are ancient concepts, oddly kept secret from too many photographers. Terms like dynamic symmetry, continuity, dominance, greatest area of contrast, and figure to ground will surface. What's old is new again.
So here's our assignment:
  1. Avoid ROT. If you do nothing but that, you've already earned a passing grade!
  2. Examine your own work. Pull up a batch of your photos and try to identify your habits, both good and bad. Are you in a rut? Could you refine a good habit?
  3. Pick a design concept or tool from the lists below and experiment with it. Expect plenty of mistakes. If you're not seeing mistakes, you're still in a comfortable rut.
  4. Tell us which design concept you're experimenting with. Push the envelope. Go too far. Pull back. Discover what works through perseverance.
For example, you may want to compose with a grid that's more flexible than ROT:
  • The Golden Ratio is flexible and fluid, using curves and geometry found in nature. Tip - when cropping in Lightroom, press the letter O key to cycle through grids, including the Golden Ratio.
  • If you're in for a real challenge, attack Dynamic Symmetry, a more complex grid system using diagonals and angles, aiding in visually dynamic placement of shapes. ROT cannot do this! You'll run into terms like gestalt theory, armature, arabesque, root rectangles, baroque lines, coincidence, and gamut for starters. Don't let the terms freak you out or try to learn it in two weeks. Just knowing they exist will pique your interest for further study and over time you'll naturally start seeing more like a painter. Interesting historical note: Dynamic symmetry was Cartier-Bresson's stock in trade and what he did with it in street photography will blow your mind once you understand what he was doing. 
Instead, you may want to experiment with other design concepts that don't require grids:
  • Shapes - simply move things around on your visual canvas until they 'feel' elegant, tense, comfortable, challenging, etc. - to match your intent.
  • Focal point and line - select your main subject, then draw the eye to it using lines - straight, curved, inferred.
  • Area of greatest contrast - the eye will be drawn here first. Place it in the 'best' possible location.
  • Diagonals - ROT fails miserably with diagonals. Compose using angles. 
  • Balance - Offset a small dark object with a larger light one. Where can they sit so the image doesn't 'tip over'? 
  • Positive and negative space - how much of each is needed to support each other?
  • And so on. There's a long list of composition tools and ideas out there. What do you like?
You get the idea. Shoot the same scene many different ways, thinking about visual space in only 2 dimensions. Trust your instincts and you'll find no need to depend on ROT or to copy another's design sensibilities. Do you have some favorite photographers that you gravitate to, who have a unique, recognizable quality? This is how they got there, by working through the tough jungle of composition.
EXTRA CREDIT: We introduced Adobe Slate halfway through the last assignment and it will now become a permanent "extra credit" feature of Photo Assignment. Not only is it a great visual storytelling vehicle, but an excellent way to journal your Photo Assignment journey. It's free, online, and very easy to learn. Just google "Adobe Slate" to get started. Then share your Slates with the rest of us.
ROT PLATEAU will run for two weeks, from February 24 through March 8.
This assignment is duplicated on my Photo Assignment Facebook page. You are invited to join us there where you can share your photos and comments with over 1400 participants.
Happy shooting! 
© 2016 Don Johnson


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