Teachable Photos

If you compose with a fixed method like the rule of thirds it is easy to miss the composition a landscape calls for.

Center of interest: The all-important part of an image to which all other elements are supportive and do not generate distraction. Competing portions of an image can diminish the power, intensity, or preferred focus of the center of interest.

The following composition is built on a strong center of interest and the rest of the photo supports and emphasizes it. The vertical shaped bird is emphasized by a contrasting horizontal landscape. Repeating shapes that support the center of interest include the bird's shadow and the shape of the land mass on the left with a similar one on the right. Also, the size of the bird compared to the vast landscape emphasizes its personal relationship with nature.

I shot this on a 35mm format knowing the best composition would require cropping off the bottom. It's not something I normally do but this landscape called for it. For the "lay of the land" this composition works better than any of the possible rule of thirds choices. 

A good composition organizes a photo in a way that communicates the photographer's intended message


In The Natural Beauty of Alabama I wrote:

As this old heron walked cautiously close by, the dim light of dusk yielded an other-worldly blue plumage. He judged me no threat and I judged him a wise old bird, unerring from his intent, even in my presence. As he made his solitary way into the distance, I felt an affinity with those who live and die in nature. He posed for a moment, then disappeared into the shadows. 

The cropped rule of thirds version does not convey that message as well as the original. The original captures the thoughts and feelings I wanted to convey. The other is just a cookie cutter rule of thirds version. Composition is more than a matter of placing a center of interest at one of four points, as the rule of thirds would suggest. Every landscape contains obstacles that limit your choices. You don't need a rule that limits them further.

Creative composition

The rule of thirds relies on a strong center of interest but as the original photo demonstrates, the center of interest does not really have to be where the rule of thirds suggests. The lay of the land and the subject suggested a somewhat more symmetrical composition.

For a beginner, the rule of thirds is an excellent first step to composition. If you are an experienced photographer an appropriate way to think of the rule of thirds is that it offers four prime places to consider first for placing your center of interest. It is only a starting point and should never be the end of thinking about the best possible composition. If the goal of photography was to have everyone's work look alike,  then everyone should use the rule of thirds but if you want your work to be unique you have to be more creative. If you haven't already read it, the 5C Photo Course explains how to compose with structural frameworks or use a structural center.