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Getting Out Of The Middle

One of the deadliest traps for good landscape composition is to center things within your viewfinder. This can mean a centered horizon, a centered boulder, a centered tree, centered flowers, whatever is a strong visual element in the middle of your picture area. I won’t tell you that a centered composition will never work—sometimes it does. But most of the time it’s a lazy way of composing a landscape, and it isn’t very effective.

Researchers have actually done some studies on how people look at images. They used cameras to map the eye movement of a viewer across different images that were used for the test. The researchers discovered that when an image was strongly centered, viewers had a tendency to look at the most centered part of the scene and not look much at the rest of the image; they quickly got bored with a photograph and wanted to move on. When the image had strong pictorial elements (such as a horizon or a strong subject) away from the center of the picture, researchers discovered that viewers tended to look all over the picture; they spent more time with the image and liked the picture better.

So, you can see immediately that one of the ways that you can improve your landscape pictures is to make sure that you don’t have your landscape all lined up and centered in your composition (Figure 4.1). In this section, I’ll give you some ideas on how to think about getting less-centered images, but as soon as you even start thinking about getting things out of the middle, your pictures will improve.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1. A glorious sunrise over utah’s LaSalle Mountains doesn’t need a big chunk of black mountains covering the bottom half of the photo. The photograph is about the sky, and its connection to the mountains needs only a sliver of mountains across the bottom of the photo.

The Rule Of Thirds: When To Follow It And When To Ignore It

Once you start studying a bit about composition, you’ll hear about the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds is a guideline that is designed to help you get your subject and strong visual elements such as horizons out of the center of the picture. It gives you a framework to simplify your choices for strong positions within a composition.

The rule of thirds starts by dividing your picture into horizontal thirds (Figure 4.2). This results in two lines at the intersection of the thirds. Visually, these lines work very well as positions for horizons. When the horizon is placed at the bottom-third line, you have a very strong emphasis of sky in the photograph with less of the ground (Figure 4.3). When the horizon is placed at the top third, the ground is emphasized and the sky is deemphasized.

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2. The rule of thirds starts by dividing the picture horizontally into thirds.

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3. In this image of sunrise over California’s Santa Monica Mountains, strong horizontal elements of the picture line up closely with the rule of thirds.

The rule of thirds goes further by dividing the picture into thirds from left to right (Figure 4.4). This results in two vertical lines at the divisions, which become useful places to put strong verticals in a landscape. Which side you put your photographic element on will depend a lot on the scene, but because we look at things from left to right in the Western culture, there is a difference in the way that a composition looks when the strong element is on the left versus the right. In Figure 4.5, there is a strong visual element on the right which creates a dynamic image that goes against our Western way of looking.

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4. The rule of thirds then divides the picture vertically into thirds.

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5. Here the strong vertical of Balanced rock in Arches National Park lines up closely with the rule of thirds.

Next, put the two horizontal lines and two vertical lines together over the picture (Figure 4.6). They intersect at four points and are very strong positions for composition (Figure 4.7). Landscapes often have things that are larger than these points, such as a horizon or Balanced Rock, but when there is something that has a strong presence in the picture that can work at one of these points, this can create an attractive composition.

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6. Now the horizontal and vertical lines come together to help with placement of a strong visual element in the landscape.

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7. In this small-scale landscape, the yellow maple leaf contrasts strongly with the late fall landscape and is placed at one of the intersections of the horizontal and vertical lines.

A lot of the ideas about composition come from the art world where they’ve been refined for centuries. The rule of thirds has been taught to painters and other artists for a very long time because it works. However, there are two challenges that come from the rule of thirds:

  • You lose the subject. If you start paying too much attention to the “rules,” you can lose sight of the actual subject. The rules become more important than what’s being painted or photographed.
  • Photography is not painting. Art forms like painting and sketching are very different from photography. They start with a blank canvas where everything is added to the composition as appropriate.

Let’s look at those two ideas in a little more detail because they have a strong effect on composition. I once had a student in one of my workshops show an interesting landscape photograph for a critique. This image had about one-third sky, one-third trees, and one-third ground with grass and garbage. That’s right—the bottom part of the picture actually had trash in it that didn’t seem to fit the rest of the picture at all. So, I asked the student why she had included the trash in the composition. She said she had to because of the rule of thirds!

That little story points out how the subject can be lost when distractions take away from the subject. Sometimes people try so hard to find a rule of thirds for their landscape that they don’t fully see the subject itself. It’s easy to miss important things that should be in the photograph simply because they don’t fit the rule of thirds.

It’s also important to understand that photography is not like painting or sketching. As landscape photographers, we have to deal with what’s in front of our lenses (Figure 4.8). We can’t simply place rocks, flowers, and trees where we want, as we could if we were working with a blank canvas. Sure, some photographers use Photoshop to change a scene, but even that is difficult to do compared to what the painter does in creating his or her work.

Figure 4.8

Figure 4.8. Storm clouds breaking over the Columbia river between Washington and Oregon makes a dramatic landscape that isn’t easily put into the rule of thirds. The contrasts of land, clouds, and light are what matters.

Sometimes a scene just needs a different composition. The sky might be so fabulous and so outstanding that all you need is the barest sliver of landscape with it (Figure 4.9). On the other hand, the sky might be awful, so you’ll need to show only the top edge of the landscape so that the viewer can understand something about the place.

Figure 4.9

Figure 4.9. The landscape here at Cades Cove in the great Smoky Mountains National Park would be pure black against the sunset, so there is little need to include more land than needed because that would mean loss of the sky.

I like to look at a scene and try to understand what’s truly important about the scene, not what’s important about my art technique. Then I compose the image to show off what’s important about the scene, making sure I’m using my composition to clearly communicate this for a viewer.

What’s Your Photograph About?

One thing that can really help the photographer is to ask this very important question: What’s your photograph about? The answer isn’t simply the subject that’s in front of you. It’s more than that. And the question shouldn’t be seen as a challenge, but as an aid to looking at your composition.

This also can help you clarify and refine your composition to what’s really important. Figure 4.10 isn’t simply a photograph of the redwoods; it’s about tall trees in a dense forest, and the composition uses the trees at the edge, as well as the light, to show that. There is no ground showing because the photo is not about the ground.

Figure 4.10

Figure 4.10. This photograph is about tall trees in the redwood forests of Northern California, and the composition is designed to reflect that.

Too many photographers try to throw everything into their compositions of the landscape. They see this beautiful scene in front of them and try to capture the entire scene in the photo. The image is often disappointing because you can’t put an entire scene into a small picture. You have to decide what’s truly important about that scene and then make sure that your photograph reflects that.

What’s your photograph about? With experience, you’ll answer this question very quickly and intuitively. But if you’ve never asked yourself this question before, you should stop, pause, and really think about it. Your landscape won’t be moving so if you take a moment to figure out what your picture is really about and what you want to emphasize about it, you’ll find that your composition will come together much more readily.

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