Commandment 3: Use the Rule of Thirds
The rule of thirds was first employed in painting, and it’s also really useful for helping to compose photographs. It uses the fact that, generally speaking, we prefer to look at non-symmetrical images, and it helps us to work out the perfect arrangements of elements within a shot.
Using the rule of thirds is simple but effective. When you’re composing an image, try to imagine that it’s divided up into three equal horizontal sections and three vertical sections (see our 10 rules of photo composition – and why they work).
Many cameras have a grid view that will make this a lot easier to visualise, but you may need to shoot using live view rather than the viewfinder to see it.
As you frame the image in front of you, try to arrange key elements along one of the lines or ‘thirds’, and where possible, position important features where the lines intersect each other.
With a landscape this could mean arranging the composition so that one third of the image contains sky, while the lower two thirds contain the land. Other elements, such as a tree in the foreground or a distant spire, can then be positioned where a vertical and a horizontal line cross.
Learn even more about how to use the Rule of Thirds.
Break The Rules: Shoot symmetrically
Using the rule of thirds can help prevent your image from looking like a random snapshot, but there are times when the subject really cries out for symmetry, and breaking the rule can add impact.
If you decide to go for a symmetrical composition, it’s essential to pay attention to every little detail so that the image is balanced and there’s nothing on one side that will distract the viewer’s attention.
Symmetrical images often work well when they are square because the symmetrical frame emphasises the uniformity of the image.
If your camera doesn’t allow you to see different aspect ratios in live view mode, use the L-shaped pieces of card we mentioned earlier to help you compose a square shot.
Go to extremes
There are times when it pays to shift the balance of the composition to extremes so that one element of the scene dominates the image.
This could mean shooting with a tiny slither of land in the shot with a huge expanse of blue sky above for example, or conversely, with just a tiny amount of sky above the land. It can make quite a statement.
Always take a good look at the scene before you, and weigh up which are the most important elements and where the real interest lies.
If there’s a winding footpath that leads to a statue on the brow of a hill for instance, the journey up the hill is of more interest than the sky above the statue, so just include a small strip of sky.
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Commandment 4: Find foreground interest
When we’re out in the countryside or at the coast we look at the view in a very different way to the way we look at a photograph. Our eyes scan around and we home in on small details or the horizon, ignoring things in our peripheral vision – often not seeing what’s immediately in front of us.
However, when we look at a photograph of the scene, the foreground becomes much more important to us, and if it’s a wide, empty area of grass or beach it can create a barrier, stopping us from seeing the spectacular hills and so on in the distance.
One of the cardinal sins of landscape photography is including too much dull, featureless foreground in the image.
However, it’s possible to transform a boring and uninteresting image into one that grabs the viewer’s attention by including something in the foreground.
Foreground interest can improve landscape images in a number of ways – it’s more than just filling an empty space. It helps to give the scene a sense of scale, and it makes the progression from the near to the middle and far elements clearer, creating a journey for the viewer’s eye.
The average landscape is full of potential objects for inclusion in the foreground. Gates, signposts, flowers, shrubs and rocks can all be pressed into service – all you need to do is walk around until you find something suitable.
If there’s nothing in situ, you can always try moving something such as a branch or a few autumnal leaves into the right place.
As well as adding foreground interest, things like streams, footpaths, fences and walls that extend into the landscape can help draw the viewer into the scene. They create what’s often referred to as a leading line.
In addition to physical leading lines, landscape images can benefit from implied leading lines – the direction of the gaze of people in the scene, for example, will guide the viewer’s eyes in a particular direction.
People walking along a footpath will also emphasise the route into the image.
Break The Rules: Use space
Sometimes it’s the uniformity or emptiness of a scene that gives it impact, and rather than looking around for something to clutter up the image it may be better to put the space to positive use. The key is to identify what’s important about the scene and work out how to make the best use of it.
In the example on the right, the bottom two thirds of the frame are almost empty, but this is positive rather than negative space, as it leads the eye in, and directs the viewer’s attention towards the mountain on the horizon.
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