Beyond Thirds With Andrew Gibson

One of our favorite writers-slash-photographers is Andrew S Gibson. His multi volume Magic of Black and White series is something I find myself referring to again and again for inspiration on both shooting as well as technique. Andrew has a fantastic new ebook out, once again from the fine folks at Craft & Vision. In this book, titled Beyond Thirds, Andrew tackles the infamous (or is it notorious?) Rule of Thirds, by explaining what it is, why it’s important, and when it just doesn’t matter. I talked to Andrew a few days ago while he is in the midst of an extended stay in China and asked him about shooting in his temporary new digs and a bit about the new book, which, coincidentally, was released today. Okay it’s not a coincidence at all, so be sure to pick up a copy. Anyway…here’s Andrew Gibson.


You’re staying in China for a few months. What has had a more profound effect on your recent work, the change in geography or the change in culture? Or can you separate the two?

I think it’s the change in geography more than anything, as it means I have new subjects to photograph. There are lots of new things to see and do here – but then I suppose they are new because of the different culture, so the two are linked in that way. I showed my photos of the Dongtai Road antiques market to a couple of Chinese photographer friends the other day and they found it quite amusing that I took photos there. For them, this sort of thing is so normal and every day it doesn’t even occur to them to consider it as a subject.


We were talking about your new book, Beyond Thirds, and you joked that the “rule of thirds” should be renamed as a “suggestion”. Why do you think the rule of thirds has become so important to learning composition?

The rule of thirds is just easy – easy to learn and easy to teach. There’s a trend in some photography magazines and books, normally those aimed at relative beginners, to ‘dumb down’ and not go into subjects like composition in great detail. The phrase ‘rule of thirds’ is catchy, ‘suggestion of thirds’ or ‘principle of thirds’ isn’t. And sometimes people just like rules. They like being told what to do; thinking for themselves is harder.


You have said that your photography has improved as you learned to appreciate things like subtlety, simplicity and negative space. Were there specific exercises you gave yourself to learn to see differently, or was it more of a subconscious evolution?

I’ve been making a conscious effort to simplify my composition for a while now. Negative space becomes more important with simplified composition, because there tends to be more of it. Subtlety is mostly subconscious, although it helps that I tend to shoot in low light. I like low light because of the mood, it also tends to have subtle qualities that are appreciated over time and help give an image staying power.


Many people know you for your black and white photography, which, as we have talked about before, really is a different way of seeing. Would you mind talking a bit about what photographers who shoot mostly color can learn from black and white?

Even if you never intend to take a black and white photo in your life, there is still a lot that you can learn from black and white photos to improve the composition of your colour images. The best black and white images utilise elements such as texture, contrast and line to create effective composition. You can use the same elements to improve your colour photos.


1. Use highlights wisely


When we look at a photo our eyes are drawn to the lightest tones. This can work against you if you have distracting highlights in the background ‚ all they do is pull the eye away from the main subject, which you want to be the focus of attention. But it can also work for you. The above photo is a good example; see how your eye goes straight to the flower. It shows that you don’t need a colourful flower to make a strong colour image. Here, the tonal contrast is doing the hard work. Try thinking of your photos as black and white images with colour laid over the top. Don’t let colour do all the work by itself, it needs some support.


2. Simplicity


Good black and white images are usually simple. The simpler you make your compositions, the more the viewer can appreciate the subtleties and strengths of the image. Keeping your images simple also helps you place your highlights wisely. Simplicity also applies to the use of colour. Think about how you are using colour, and try to simplify your use of it. If you include lots of different colours in a photo, they are bound to distract from each other. If, on the other hand, you use a limited colour palette, the colours become stronger and so does the image. That’s what I did in the above image.


3. Subtlety


Black and white images are often subtle in tone and use of light. Subtlety comes with simplicity. The more you simplify your images, the more the viewer can appreciate the subtleties of colour, tone and light. The photo used as an example here is extremely subtle ‚Äì it’s unusual for a colour image to composed almost entirely of shades of grey, but in this case it works.


4. Use texture to add interest to the shadows.


It’s easy to lose detail in the darkest areas of your photos, especially if you are exposing to preserve the highlights. What you should aim to avoid though is large dark areas that have no detail. Small areas are okay, as long as they are where we would naturally expect to see them in real life, such as a shadow underneath a rock. The photo of Abbey above has a lot of subtle shadow detail that enhances the image. Note also the subtle use of colour.


I’d like to thank Andrew for taking some time and remind you that his new book, Beyond Thirds is now available. In fact, why not pick up The Magic of Black and White series as well as Andrew’s fantastic monograph, Andes. Use the coupon code BT20 and get the entire five ebook bundle for less than a couple of fast food lunches.



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