Using the Rule of Odds in Your Street Photography

rule of odds street photography1

Images shot with Konica Hexanon AR 50mm f1.7

Certain photography styles, looks, and fads come and go. Selective colour. Tilt-shift. That woman reaching back to hold the photographer’s hand.

And then there are the basic, eternal rules that will never change. The rules that have always worked and always will.

The rules that are going to help your photography, no matter what you’re shooting or when.

One of these is the rule of odds.

It’s been a thing since before the camera was. Come see how it can help your street photography today, tomorrow, and forever more.

What is the rule of odds?

The rule of odds states that we find an odd number of subjects more interesting than an even number of them.

Artists have known and applied this in their work for centuries, and there are plenty of suggestions why.

Some say an even number of subjects is too comfortable for the eye. They subconsciously get paired off, whereas having an odd number means one subject is left over.

This leaves the brain not knowing what to do with it, which creates more intrigue.

Perhaps conversely, others say an even number of subjects is less comfortable for the eye, as the symmetry it’s seeing seldom occurs in the natural world.

The eye also tends to drift towards the centre of the scene. Having a subject there is usually more pleasing to it than having an empty space.

Finally, an even number of subjects can create a sense of competition. Which one is better? The left or the right?

Having a third subject means whatever is in the middle becomes the focal point, with the outer ones framing it.

The competition becomes complementation.

Examples of the rule of odds in street photography

Those suggested reasons why the rule of odds works are all well and good, but I don’t think the why is the most important thing here.

It’s useful to have read them, but it means nothing unless you apply the rule itself.

You can apply it in the composition when shooting your street photography, or you can apply it when choosing which images to keep when editing.

The top picture in this article made it into my 365 project. The one just above is from the same spot, a couple of seconds after.

I’ll let you judge for yourself which you prefer and whether the rule of odds has any bearing on that.

Below are a couple more examples, which are from a similar situation.

I usually find a scene that might give me a decent image when I do my street photography, shoot plenty, and then choose the best one when I get back to the computer later.

In these cases, the better ones (in my opinion) had three subjects and some of the rejected ones only had two.

Knowing what we know about the rule of odds, do we think that’s a coincidence?

When the rule of odds stops working

The rule of odds is not infallible. In fact, it’s vulnerable to the effects of another law: the law of diminishing returns.

There’s a reason each of the three examples I’ve given here has three subjects. That reason is… that it works best with three subjects.

Five is still better than four or six. Seven is still better than six, and perhaps eight.

But once you get to nine versus eight or ten, your eye has said ‘whatever mate’ and just recategorised it as a lot.

Take this next photograph. I didn’t count how many people were on the bench. I didn’t need to when I shot, and I didn’t care when I edited.

There are enough people that one more or one less would not have mattered.

When to break the rule of odds

A good thing about the common rules in photography is that once you know them, you can always break them.

The rule of odds is no different.

All those earlier suggested reasons why the rule of odds works are good if you want to avoid what they warn against.

But you might not want to.

Instead, you might want an even number subjects to get paired off. You might want to manufacture some unnatural symmetry for the eye. You might want to create some competition in your shot.

It’s your photography and it’s up to you how you want it to look.

Using the rule of odds in your street photography

I don’t think it’s good to get too hung up on composition rules while you’re out shooting your street photography.

Thinking too much can mean not being in the moment and so missing shots.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be aware of composition rules though, or even be influenced by them, but getting to the point where they’re internalised is better than having them constantly on your mind.

For the rule of odds, you could try something like this:

  • read about the rule of odds (task completed 😀 )
  • go shoot scenes specifically that follow the rule of odds
  • pick out photographs that follow the rule of odds when you edit
  • repeat until you find yourself following the rule of odds without it dominating your thinking

I saw following, but that also includes intentionally breaking.

Whichever you do, the important thing is that it is deliberate.

With practice, you can get to a stage where this happens with minimal thought.

That’s how you can use the rule of odds in your street photography.

… p.s. if you’ve learnt something from this post and think others will too, why not share or pin it?

written by
Hi, I'm Lee - creator of My Favourite Lens and the one whose work you're seeing whenever you read a post on here.
I shoot as much film as I can in as many different cameras as I can, and I enjoy playing with vintage lenses on digital cameras also.

Everything I do and what I learn along the way gets shared on here, to inform and inspire you to get out and shoot as much - and as well - as you can too.

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