After months of wrestling with understanding the science behind the art of composition, just 30 seconds ago while watching this video, I had a moment of epiphany when it all became clear. 6 minutes and 28 seconds into the video, there’s a shot of polar bear lying on the ground and the shot is composed according to the rule-of-thirds with the polar bear positioned in the lower-right. So far, so good. But then the bear starts to get up and that’s when it all clicked into place.
Putting a subject dead-center in the frame limits the amount “whitespace” around it making the photo feel “claustrophobic’. Instead we put the subject in one of the four corners of the 2D plane of the photo. Since putting the subject exactly at, or too close to a corner makes it feel claustrophobic again, we give the subject a bit of a margin from the nearest corners and edges and these 4 locations corresponding to each corner form the positions on the rule-of-thirds window.
I should have caught on to this from the simple fact that there are four locations where subjects can be placed as per the rule-of-thirds window and there are also… you guessed it, four corners — it’s easy to see the rule-of-thirds window is closely related to the corners of the photo. Had I seen this earlier, the rest — understanding that the rule-of-thirds is merely a framing method to give appropriate amount of “whitespace” for the subject to “breathe” in — would’ve been a piece of cake. Instead it took me months of head-wringing to finally see the light.
So, putting the subject in the dead-center of a photo is like standing inside a tiny-cramped cage while framing the subject using rule-of-thirds is like standing inside a humongously large cathedral. There are some subjects that look better in tiny cramped spaces and thus suit the dead-center framing while the others look better in cathedral-like spaces and thus suit the rule-of-thirds framing.
What benefit do we get from understanding the rule-of-thirds is just a way to give the subject “whitespace”? Simple! We can now bend it and break it to create new compositions because once we understand that framing is all about allocating whitespace around the subject, we are freed from the strict 4 corners of the rule-of-thirds window and now a wide variety of interesting locations and compositions become available to us since we can roam all around the photo looking for just the right amount of whitespace to give to the subject of that particular shot.
This last part, where to use what amount of “whitespace” is still an art for me. I have some clues but some day I’ll nail the science behind the art of “whitespace” like I did today with rule-of-thirds.