Posted on September 5, 2015
When you’re surrounded by beautiful scenery, it’s easy to overlook the small details that make a scene special. But there’s no substitute for the pleasure that comes from spending a little time in a scene, identifying its intricacies, and creating an image that conveys this connection to others. Capturing these intricacies can be the most rewarding aspect of photography, because they’re almost always uniquely reflective your own vision.
About this image
People frequently look at this image and ask if I arranged the red leaves. The answer is an emphatic, No! I usually go on to remind them that you can draw a straight line between any two objects on the face of the earth (or any other planet, as far as I know). In fact, the only arranging I do to an image is myself—circling, rising, dropping—and in that regard I’m quite aggressive.
In the field I look for individual elements to isolate in my frame; or better yet, groups of elements. Of course finding a subject is not the end of the job—without properly positioning the subjects in the frame, the scene is likely to fail. But rather than moving your subjects (the lazy solution), move yourself.
In this scene I circled the leaves slowly, camera to my eye, until the frame felt balanced. And while the leaves ended up at the “rule of thirds” points, that wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, but rather confirmation that the rule of thirds is indeed valid (sometimes).
Putting the Rule of Thirds in its place
What is the rule of thirds? Very simply, imagine a tic-tac-toe grid on your frame—the Rule of Thirds says that important linear elements (like the horizon) should be on the lines, and important compositional elements (like these leaves) should be at (or near) the intersections.
I hesitate to even bring the Rule of Thirds up because it’s one of the easiest photography “rules” to be broken effectively. It’s also probably the rule most frequently abused by well meaning judges at your local camera club. (If you get too much abuse about your Rule of Thirds choices in images you really like, don’t change your compositions, change your camera club.)
I think the Rule of Thirds true value is to help remind beginners not to bullseye subjects, or not to crowd elements against the edges. In fact, I could probably show about as many successful images that break the Rule of Thirds as follow it. When I’m composing a shot, any Rule of Thirds voices in my head are overruled by my intuition, my sense for what what balances a frame, and even more simply, what feels right.
Click an image for a closer look, and a slide show. Refresh the screen to reorder the display.
Posted on July 7, 2014
I returned couple of weeks ago from a week on Kauai where I assisted Don Smith with his workshop. Kauai used to have the reputation as Hawaii’s “quiet” island, and while it still may be a little more peaceful than Oahu or Maui, Kauai is certainly no longer a secret. But extensive and ongoing (painstaking) research has shown me that despite the crowds, it is possible to enjoy quiet on any of the Hawaiian Islands.
We were based near Kapaa, at a beachside resort teaming with people throughout the day and well into the night. Most of our Kauai sunrise locations had been a 30-45 minute drive to fairly remote spots, but following a fairly late night, Don and I gave the group a break and scheduled our sunrise shoot for the beach behind our resort—just hop out of bed, throw on some shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops, and we’d be in business.
As far as I know, this east-facing beach doesn’t have a name. While its pure white sand is dotted with volcanic rocks and lava shelves that wax and wane with the tide, this is not a destination that draws photographers on its own merits. But despite its lack of notoriety, this a pretty little beach was more than worthy of our attention. And concern about competing for turf with the crowds at our resort turned out to be completely unfounded. As I’ve learned in Yosemite, and verified at many other crowded locations, rise at sunrise and you can pretty much have the world to yourself. “Our” beach that morning was no exception.
Send in the clouds
I call what I do “landscape” photography, but “land” is really only half the picture (literally). It’s easy to focus so much on the scene we came to photograph that we completely overlook what’s going on overhead. While the physical qualities of most landscapes are pretty static, the sky can change, sometimes dramatically, from one frame to the next. Clouds, moon, stars, color—some or all of these dynamic features are often primary subjects in need of a foreground, no matter how prosaic. Put a rainbow over any tree, or a small moon over a small New Mexico town, and you might just end up with something special.
Our sky this morning was a tapestry of dark rainclouds overlain by a diaphanous veneer of thin clouds, broken by patches of blue. I walked up the beach looking for a foreground to complement the quickly changing sky, finally settling on a solitary lava pyramid protruding from the pristine, surf-wash beach. Setting up my shot I noticed that the receding waves left a glossy sheen that reflected the sky. The calm simplicity of the foreground juxtaposed against the complex beauty of the sky was more than just visually appealing, the quiet beach, warm air, cooling breeze, and elegant sky were personally soothing and I wanted an image that conveyed that.
Discard the “rule” of thirds
One of the creative decisions a landscape photographer needs to make with each image where to put the horizon. Near the top? Near the bottom? In the middle? Or maybe no horizon at all. Many photographers, especially those constrained by the shackles of camera club competitions, will automatically put the sky at the 1/3 or 2/3 line of their image’s vertical axis. This may be great for beginners who automatically bullseye every scene, but aspiring photographers need to graduate from prescribed formula to creative choice.
My feeling has aways been to favor the aspect of the scene with the most appeal. Great sky? Low horizon. Great foreground? High horizon. How low or high? That depends on the relative merits of the sky and foreground—80/20 or 90/10 splits (in either direction) create a dramatic emphasis to the right scene. And is it okay to put it in the middle? Absolutely! Which is what I did here. Not only do the two halves of the scene move me equally, balancing them in the frame subconsciously conveys the tranquil equilibrium I felt that morning.
I’d love to say that the small white rock in the lower right quadrant was a conscious part of my compositional strategy, but it wasn’t. I was aware it was there, but its inclusion was a subconscious choice. This tiny rock is a great illustration of the rule of thirds true value. While I don’t think it should dictate composition, the rule of thirds often does explain why things work. In this case, without really thinking about it, I stacked two very different scenes to make this image. Place rule of thirds grid atop the bottom scene and it’s immediately clear that my two rocks (one large, one tiny) occupy balancing intersections. The large rock has enough mass to provide significant visual weight pretty much anywhere in the scene, but by virtue of its strong position, the small rock is able to balance its much larger counterpart.
Rule of thirds or no rule of thirds? Am I contradicting myself here? I don’t think so. Photographic “rules” earned their status for a reason and are not without value—we just shouldn’t be slaves to them. When you turn off your internal rule monitor and allow your creative instincts to take over, the organic compositions that follow will more uniquely reflect your experience of the moment and your emotions of at capture.