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Photographic Composition, Part 4

The rule of thirds, balance and depth.



Another very handy rule of composition is the rule of thirds. To use this rule, divide the picture into thirds both horizontally and vertically. Do this by drawing two imaginary equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Now, use these imaginary lines to help compose the picture. For instance, when a picture has a horizon line, as most landscapes do, don't place the horizon line in the middle of the picture dividing it exactly in half. You can place the horizon line 2/3 of the way up leaving 1/3 sky and 2/3 ground. Or, you can place the horizon 1/3 of the way up leaving 2/3 sky and 1/3 ground. If you choose mostly sky, then sky is what is emphasized. Do this when there is a great sunset or wonderful clouds, in other words, when the sky is the real subject of the picture. Another example is a picture of a mountain reflected in a lake; don't divide the picture into two equal parts, one part real mountain and the other part reflected mountain. Use the rule of thirds instead.

Here is another way to use the rule. Look at the picture as it is divided by the imaginary lines of the rule of thirds. The points where the lines cross are known as sweet spots. If you have a lone pine, or a large boulder, or a bunch of colorful flowers, or any other dominant subject, place them at a sweet spot and see how much better the picture looks. Another way of thinking about the rule of thirds is to remember the rule, never center anything, either vertically or horizontally. This is a very important rule. Centering anything in a picture rarely works. Important objects should always be placed a little off center, generally at the sweet spots where the lines intersect. I tend to use the lower left sweet spot a lot. The possible exception of this rule is when there is one very large object that almost fills the entire picture. Sometimes it works best to center this kind of subject.

A corollary of never centering anything is the rule of balance. Even though nothing should be exactly centered, a picture should also feel balanced when you look at it. It shouldn't feel as if it is tipping over to one side or the other. Avoid putting a large mass of anything over to one side and nothing on the other. I once ruined a great shot of a wonderful mountain valley full of wildflowers this way. I composed the picture with a huge mountain ridge running diagonally down from the top right to the bottom center of the picture. The huge ridge filled the whole right side of the picture. The picture was way to heavy on the ridge side. No matter how I cropped the picture during printing nothing helped. I finally had to toss it out.

This ruined picture illustrates one of the problems of following rules of composition too religiously. There is a composition rule that says that diagonal lines can add a lot of power to a picture and that you should try to use them. I got so involved with trying to use the diagonal line of the descending ridge as artistically as possible that I forgot the feel of the whole picture. I got a great diagonal line into the picture, but ruined the picture in the process.

Sometimes it's far better to just go with your instincts and pay attention to how the picture feels and forget the rules. As a matter of fact, the best way for me to deal with the rule of thirds, the rule of centering, and the rule of balance is to try and feel them. I don't try to use these rules literally; in fact, I more or less forget about them when I'm shooting. Instead, I keep them in the back of my mind and fiddle around with the picture until it feels right. When it's right, I know it. When it's not right, something feels wrong about the picture, it just isn't right. The ability to do this comes with experience. Listen to your inner guide to rightness. It usually knows more about composing a picture than your outer, rational mind. And, it sometimes means breaking the rules. If it feels better to break the rules than to rigidly adhere to them, then by all means break them. The bottom line is that the picture has to feel right.

Good pictures often have a lot of depth. When you look at this kind of a picture it seems to be three dimensional. It's almost as if one could step right into them and disappear into the background. There are lots of little tricks for creating depth in a picture. The simplest technique is to remember to use foreground as we have already discussed. Another major technique is using converging lines. If you look down a railroad track you see a classic example of converging lines as the rails converge from six feet apart to a single dot in the far distance. The same thing happens with roads and rivers and fence lines. This is a technique that all artists, not just photographers, have used for hundreds of years to create an illusion of depth.

The use of objects of diminishing size also helps create a feeling of depth. In landscapes, this works particularly well since there are lots of objects that are about the same size in actuality but that look smaller and smaller as they recede into the distance. Trees work very well. It is easy to compose a picture with close-up trees directly in front of the lens and smaller trees in the middle ground and tiny trees in the background. Ditto with rocks in a river; as the banks of the river converge, the rocks in the water get smaller and smaller. When it is possible to combine two elements of perspective like this, the effect is much greater.

Another way to create depth is to look for objects that overlap. The classic example here is a whole series of hills or mountains that overlap as they recede into the distance. Usually there is another perspective control device in operation here also. As the hills recede more and more into the distance they get lighter and lighter. This works really well if it is sunset or dawn and the hills are a nice pink or purple or mauve color.

A final way to create depth is to look for S curves receding into the distance. In landscape photography, S curves are usually found in rivers or roads. One classic example is Ansel Adam's shot of the Tetons with the S curve of the Snake River in the foreground. Roads, trails, lines of trees and mountain ridges also form S curves

Hopefully these four articles on composition were helpful to you. You won't remember every thing about composition at once, so concentrate on just one of two at a time. Probably the most important composition rules are simplicity, filling the frame, and using foreground. This is a good place to begin.

I would be interested in knowing if these articles were helpful to you. Send me an E-mail and let me know