the included square rule




The only popular compositional rule for photographers is the rule of thirds. It pre-dates photography and seems to have been taken up by 19th-century painters, who were looking for a formula that would deliver a pleasing landscape. Painters have more control over their subject than photographers, and can place elements wherever they like, leading to elaborate rules such as those put forward by the Reverend William Gilpin which covered how to include ruins, farm animals and so on into your composition. The more rules there are, the less room you have for originality, and the greater the danger of descending into cliche. So serious artists are not going to follow other peoples rules, but they probably absorb them subconsciously. Whether you wish to apply rules or not, it's interesting to consider why some compositions work well and some don't, and more subtly, how composition changes the message communicated by a work of art.

flowers by a window

The example above is a composition with two main elements, the flowers and the window. It was easy for me to alter the positions of these elements but I chose to put them like this, so why ? I don't think the rule of thirds is being applied here. You could easily find something in the picture that is on the thirds, but the key measures are the two verticals through the centre of the bunch of flowers, and the centre of the window, and they are offset from the thirds. The flowers seem to sit very squarely in the frame, which led me to think about a much older rule known as the golden ratio, which has been talked about since the ancient Greeks.

golden ratios

The rectangle above has sides in the golden ratio. One of its geometric properties is that when a square is placed within the rectangle, the remaining inner rectangle to the right has the same proportions. We can then place another square inside that, and so on. This only works if the outer square has the ratio 1.618 : 1 so does not readily apply to images of various formats. However we can always place a square within a rectangle giving us some more natural lines within an image. Let's see how that applies to the image of the flowers.


included square rule

The flowers sit in the middle of a square placed on the left the frame and the window sits along the edge of the square. The smaller square within the remaining rectangle defines a horizontal, which is close to the main horizontal in the image.  I'll call this the included square rule. It defines lines along which the main and secondary subjects can be put, the main subject being centred in the large square. The proportions will change with the shape of the main frame, and when the frame is 3x2 format, the lines will be on the thirds. Which suggests that rule-of-thirds is particularly strong when applied to the 35mm format. As the image gets wider than 3x2, the subject is pushed off the thirds towards the edge of the frame. for photography