Beyond Thirds, Andrew S. Gibson

In Books, Craft & Vision, e-books by David15 Comments

Composition is about how we build our photographs. It’s not a subject peripheral to photography: it’s dead central. Or sitting slightly off-centre on one of the thirds. ๐Ÿ™‚ Unless you talk to Andrew S. Gibson about it, then the conventional rule of thirds gets a bit of a much-needed overhaul.

When Andrew sent me the proposal for his latest eBook, I sat on it for a while. I was in the middle of my own book about composition, and wasn’t at all ready to consider publishing someone else’s. But I’ve long believed that complimentary voices are stronger than competitive ones, so when I finally surfaced and read Andrew’s book, I was happy to see we were both writing about similar things, but in different ways and from different directions.

BEYOND THIRDS is an eBook about taking composition past the so-called rules. It’s a thoughtful, practical book about the way we build our photographs within the constraint of the frame. When I first started studying composition I was frustrated by all the disconnected discussion about leading lines and balance, conversations I felt I was dropping into the middle of, never quite knowing what the authors meant. Andrew’s book is free from that pretense, and what I like about it most is his intentional decision to move past the so-called rule of thirds, and to treat that rule with some suspicion. Anarchy has a place in art, and if there’s one thing we’d do well to question, it’s WHY we keep using these so-called rules. BEYOND THIRDS does that.

If you’re looking to probe into questions of composition a little deeper, BEYOND THIRDS is a great place to do that. It’s not encyclopedic, but like all the C&V titles, it’s meaty without being pedantic or academic, and I think that makes learning, and making this kind of teaching our own, much easier.

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Special Offer on PDFs: Use the promotional code BT4 and you can have the PDF version of Beyond Thirds for only $4 OR use the code BT20 to get 20% off when they buy 5 or more PDF ebooks from the Craft & Vision collection. These codes expire at 11:59pm PST November 19th, 2011.


  1. I really hate the rule of thirds. Rules are like a straightjacket. If you can see what looks right then you don’t need rules. If you can’t see what looks best then you should probably not be doing photography.

    Maybe I am just missing something.

  2. I would really like it made mandatory that the judges for our Camera Club competitions are taught to think “outside the box” and forget the conventional so called rules. Photography is about creativity not conforming to a bunch of stodgy old rules ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. Not to rebuke you, but I think there is a better way to think about rules.
    Think of children when you think of rules. In the classical approach to education there are three “stages” that a student passes through. Each one dependent on what preceded it. There is the “Grammar” stage or what you might even call the “Rule” stage. This stage is the elementary level. At this stage students are memorizing an parroting all kinds of rules and facts. Then, built upon that, is the “Logic” stage (this is more like the middle school level). Here the student begins to question things. A lot of “whys” pop up here sometimes at the frustration of the teacher. However, this is not rebellion (at least not necessarily) they are simply to the point of wanting to understand the importance of the “rules.” This will allow them to better use the rules and progress them on to the third stage. The third stage is called the “Rhetoric” stage (this is like the high school level). This is where they begin to use the tools/rules they have been given and have questioned. This is also where they begin to synthesize or “create.” This is where classes like speech and debate come in. They have to gather and synthesize information using the rules/tools they have been given in the prior two stages. Students at or beyond this stage are now equipped to select and use, bend and break the rules for their advantage. But, even here the rules haven’t lost their importance. The rules are the foundation. The rules “live” in them even though they are not always conscientiously present.
    I think the negative reaction to rules is not so much because we hate them, but because we hate when the rules become an end in themselves. For instance, when bad art is highly regarded simply because it obeyed the rules and good art is passed over because the “rules” were apparently overlooked.
    The great historical masters learned the rules and used them to create things like the Sistine Chapel and the great Gothic cathedrals and the epic poems etc.
    Rules, when used well, create art where the rules are not what is noticed.
    Rules are the means and not the end.

  4. I am with Clayton…you need to learn the rules and work with them and then you will be able to understand when and how to break them.

  5. Author

    I’ve written about this before and I don’t know it’s worth the re-hash, but I still very respectfully disagree. I think art is an area of human endeavor that is free from rules. In the case of architecture, there had better be rules, people die when you ignore immutable physical laws. In the case of visual art, I think we’re much better off understanding principles. But the moment we call it a rule we encourage inflexibility. Perhaps I’m just being pedantic. But nevertheless I disagree with the notion that we need to learn the rules before we break them. I think we need to learn the principles, and why those principles function, and then use them – or ignore them – as we move forward.

    I am not suggesting there are no principles, but I think we need to encourage something more than rules. Art can be taught better by discussing why things work than simply applying rules to them.

    However, this is all beside the point. Andrew’s book discusses principles and you need not agree or disagree with breaking rules, or calling them whatever you please, in order to begin stretching the boundaries of our own understanding and expression.

    Thanks to both Barb and Clayton for weighing in. Perhaps I’m just too resistant to the old school notion that art is objective and subject to rules. Principles can be discovered, but rules? Who makes them? Who enforces them? Why are they there? Understand the principles, then move forward.

  6. Author

    Clayton – Words aside, I think we’d agree on this: “Rules are the means and not the end.” Well said. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. I LOL’d that this came across after our long Twitter convo ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I still maintain that ‘good’ photography effectively uses more of the same shared ‘principles’ than does ‘bad’ photography, and that we can distinguish between the two ‘objectively’.

    I’ll even concede that ‘chaos’ could be an artistic principle!

    After we talked, I thought about how differently our two worldviews and life experiences have impacted how we even start to answer these questions. (Pretty polar, from what I know?)

    Definitely agree that it’s a means to an end, and that we should emphasize the end/product/impact even more than the process or analysis sometimes — my view is just that you *can* analyze a 2D photographic image based on objective visual principles. Even after accounting for some degree of subjective interpretation.

    And that is 24 hours on Twitter in a nutshell! ๐Ÿ˜€ Probably wouldn’t make a great e-book.

    Fun times!

  8. I’m going to have to respectively side with David. My best friend and I had a conversation about art once and I loved her perspective… Art is creation. Period. Regardless whether you like it or think its beautiful, it’s creation. I find that incredibly liberating and try to remember to create for myself regardless of others judgments and rules. I try to keep this in mind when viewing others works- no matter the age of the artist (like little kids) as I want to make sure I honor all creation. I slip on this here and there though.

    Thank you David for your work and your blog. You are an artist; but first I think you are really more of a teacher as you’ve instructed people creatively and spiritually as well as inspired. Keep on truckin’. =)

  9. That’s the problem: photography isn’t, in my mind, a pure ‘art’ — unless it’s a venture in mixed media, it’s not purely ‘creation’ from a blank slate like some kinds of painting can be..

    And then with you factor in the context that most photography (unlike painting, whose corollary would be “illustration), has a distinct purpose to communicate an idea, to an audience, for a client, with a certain outcome in mind.

    That’s why we have visual design and communication “principles” that some have confused with ‘rules’.

  10. David
    Interesting discussion. My take is that some of us get fixated at one level (rules/principles) and never progress. It is when we break free that “art” happens.

  11. I downloaded Andrew Gibson’s book last night and read it. I have at least two comments. First, it is thoughtfully done and helpful. Second, it is my impression after reading it that Andrew would say it’s not EITHER rules (which he calls guidelines) OR anarchy. I think he would say it’s BOTH/AND. Which is, of course, what most of the above comments suggest as well. I agree. So, really, we all agree.

  12. Great art doesn’t break the rules. It makes them!

    Adopting David’s language, principles are formed through the perceived commonalities between images that work. In other words, they’re descriptive. The problem comes when artists (and/or critics) flip the switch and lean too heavily on the principles as prescriptive.

    This is what Andrea (above) is frustrated with in her camera club. (Perhaps we attended the same one…?)

  13. I was in the process of reading your book “Photographically speaking” when “Beyond Thirds” was released. My first thought was, quite as yours- you are both talking about the same thing! But after reading his and yours interpretation on the subject, I do not feel like I read repetitions. I find the concepts of visual elements and balance much harder to grasp than overly-simple rule of thirds, and will still look for even more sources to dig the subject. And thanks for being honest! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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