Friday, January 14, 2011

The rule of thirds and '82 Fleer

Yes, I'm still stuck on 1982 Fleer. Deal with it. You see something better in the card aisle now?

As you well know, probably from the yammering on my blog, 1982 Fleer has issues. Most of them have to do with errors on the back and blurry photos on the front.

My particular issue with '82 Fleer has always been with the tremendous amount of off-center photos. There are many, like this Tom Griffin card. It is glaring because most of the time the subject on a card photo is centered. It's just the way we collectors like them.

The '82 Fleer set looked plain dopey.

But then, out of the blue, almost 30 years after this card set was issued, I thought of something.

Do you know about "the rule of thirds"?

If you have any photography experience you do. It's a pretty basic concept. The rule of thirds states that with any photo, you should imagine it divided into nine equal squares by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Then the important aspects of the photo -- a building or a flower or, in this case, a baseball player -- should be placed along these horizontal or vertical lines. Most importantly, they should be placed at the intersections of these lines.

By doing this, the photographer creates "tension" and more interest in the photo. The photo has more "energy."

I have almost no knowledge of photography, but I have heard of the rule of thirds for a long time, and I can't believe it took me so long to associate it with 1982 Fleer.

Here is the Griffin card with the photo sectioned into 9 squares:

OK, they're not really "squares." They're more like rectangles, but that's the best I could do with my limited graphic capability and know-how. But I think you see the rule of thirds illustrated here. The one vertical line goes through Griffin's entire body, and intersects with one of the horizontal lines at the "t" in "Giants." (if I drew them as actual squares, the intersection would probably be at the top of the 43 on his uniform).

If Griffin was centered in the photo the vertical lines would graze Griffin, but not go through the center of him like it does with Griffin's image positioned off to the right.

Here is another one. Brian Kingman is massively off-center in this photo. Yet, the rule of thirds says it's cool because the left vertical line travels across Kingman's body. The intersections of each of the horizontal lines with the one vertical line are each at the center of Kingman's body. If his image was centered, that wouldn't be the case.

Now, does this create "tension" and "energy"? I don't know. I'm just a regular guy who likes tiny squares of cardboard. I suppose it's more interesting than a centered Kingman walking to the bullpen. But that's for the photography experts to figure out.

This image is also very off-center. It looks quite strange, both from left-to-right, and top-to-bottom. But according to the rule of thirds -- I think -- it's OK, because you've got the lines intersecting on Sutcliffe's image. Personally, I think he's practically falling off the photo. But, again, I'm no photographer.

The photo of Dickie Noles is so close-up that the lines would be going across his image even if it was centered. But I think the right vertical line is pretty much near the center of his head, which would be preferable to two vertical lines that kind of frame his head, which would be the case if the image was centered. Also, the one horizontal line goes straight through his eyes. That's got to count for something, right?

Here are a few others that may or may not prove the rule of thirds:

Listen, I'm no expert. I barely know if I am explaining this right, which is why I'd love someone with photography experience to weigh in on this.

But it's caused me to look at 1982 Fleer a little differently. Before I thought it was a huge disaster pulled off by rank amateurs.

But last month there was a fascinating post by Bo of Baseball Cards Come to Life! in which he talked to a professional photographer who took a number of photos for the '82 Fleer set. The photographer certainly was the real deal, and I thought, "how could an experienced photographer sign-off on photos THAT off-center?"

But maybe they were just trying something that photographers down through history already knew. How would "the rule of thirds" look on baseball cards?

I think we know now.

Or maybe I'm giving everyone too much credit and they botched the whole job royally.


  1. Yooo stoooopid collectors...zey are artistes...

  2. I'm not a professional photographer but I am close (at least one billion-dollar company uses at least one of my photos on their website, which I'm quite proud of). I actually use this idea frequently, but I think it works best if you're looking at the background as well, such as a billboard/scoreboard, runner or fielder behind the main subject, etc. I frequently pose a person to the left or right when shooting in front of a beautiful background. But if I'm focused on just the person I'll center the subject. Some of those Fleer cards work. I think the Sutcliffe card would work better if he was on the other side of the card. It may have been a great experiment, but just looking at the cards would show that they didn't really work.

  3. I am a fan of the rule of thirds but never thought of it much for baseball cards. I do know when I put together the Phungo Cards, I try and put things just slightly off center so the action brings you to the center of the card.

    The Sutcliffe card is easily the worst of the bunch - put him on the other third and have him throwing into the rest of the card.

  4. My husband sent me to your page because he is a baseball fan/card collector and I'm sure he wondered what I thought of this (He's always asking me what I think of a certain card - I have no interest in them). I thought I'd weigh in here just as a non-interested party.

    I am a "serious amateur" photographer (who has also had a large company purchase one of my photographs to use in advertising) and I often use the rule of thirds when composing shots. I agree that the rule of thirds does not work well for baseball cards the way it was used in the 1982 Fleer cards you showed above. Maybe it would work better if composed differently or just saved for baseball posters.

    However, you should consider how the rule of thirds is applied to other cards: It is used all the time, just not to the "artistic" extreme as it was in those 1982 Fleer.

  5. Great Blog, I never heard of this concept but this gives me a ay to look at my cards in an entirely different ay

  6. I am just a photography hobbyist, and I generally agree with what everyone has said so far. These cards don't work for me because, "the rule of thirds" is being overwhelmed by two additional factors:

    1. The decisions to use up as much of the vertical space as possible with the player.

    2. The vertical orientation.

    The combination of the two seems to leave little opportunity for much of interest in the other 2/3rds of the picture, which isn't helped any by the complete lack of anything interesting in the other 2/3rds (empty seats? seriously?). The Sutcliffe card has the best background, but as Ryan observes, he should have been on the opposite side of the card.

    My strictly amateur opinion is that, for baseball cards, rule of thirds would work best with game action shots in a horizontal orientation.

  7. I think the main problem with 1982 is how Fleer approached photography in 1981. Much of that first set had better centering, but still suffered from heavy shadows, grainy printing, and odd poses. It's tough to credit the card editors with artistic experimentation when limited time and money's a simpler explanation.

  8. Lest that seem too negative about Fleer, I love the big hair shots!

    - Harold Baines
    - Al Holland
    - Bobby Bonds

  9. Thanks for the knowledgeable comments. They confirm some of my suspicions and give me a better idea of what the rule of thirds is about.

    Next post: Better examples of the rule of thirds on cards.

  10. Call me unusual but I like the off-center look of these cards - whether intentional or not they look different, and that makes them stand out.

  11. I agree with the rest of the folks that the vertical aspect ratio kills the rule of thirds. More importantly, on baseball cards, it feels like content is king. I've seen entire compositions ruined just so the ball from a pitcher's hand would remain in frame... and I've seen bloggers complain about cards with great composition but the ball out of frame. Card manufacturers know their audience, and most people don't really care about a quality image beyond a cursory "nice photography" in their review (I'm guilty of the same). Look at '73 Topps- I LOVE the photography in that set for precisely the reason that everyone else hates it.

    That being said, the Mura and Sutcliffe cards up there suffer heavily from a lack of lead space. The action is on the edge of the frame which tends to create a claustrophobic feeling in the viewer- they've got nowhere to go!

    Or at least that's the theory. -Andy

  12. Wow ... I can't believe I missed this post. Where was I a month ago?

    Great comments. I tend to agree with everyone, particularly about the action needing to move toward the center, not off the card/photo. It's a little like designing a sports page ... which I haven't done for many years. You always want the athletes running INTO the page, not OFF of it.

    The rule of thirds also works better when the whole thing is interesting to look at and you're just positioning the main subject. (Such as the example in Wikipedia that you linked to ... the horizon was put on the lower third line which made the amazing sky that much more impressive.) With baseball cards, the background is frequently fairly boring if not outright distracting.

    Sometimes in that situation I'll find a middle ground between the rule of thirds and just plopping the subject dead in the middle. Kind of like if you just moved your crash points all a little closer to center. It turns into more of a "rule of two fifths" or "three sevenths". Those aren't real photography terms. It just helps me to visualize it.

    Thanks for talking about photography. I think it's what really makes baseball cards appealing, even if people don't consciously realize it.