Rules of Thirds
When taking a river, if we include leaves in the foreground, pay attention that the leading lines lead to the main subject
- Big to small
- Dark to light
- cool to warm
- High Contrast to low contrast
Essayer de mettre un premier plan plus sombre que le sujet principal, ca aidera bcp la composition.
The eye will naturally want to get throw the image to the background
Essayer de mettre le sujet dans la partie haute de l’image, vers le centre haut.
Composition in Landscape Photography
The rule of thirds
Curiously, an off-center main subject is almost always better highlighted than when it is in the middle of a picture.
Or, more precisely, everything around a centered subject seems to be in the order of filling in, so it’s a pity that this subject is not taken in close-up to occupy the entire image.
This phenomenon leads to the fictitious cutting of a photograph into three identical strips: three in width, three in height, hence the expression of the 1/3 rule.
This forms an imaginary grid of nine squares.
The first principle is to always place your main subject at one of the corners of the central square, but not in the center.
This positioning actually makes the scene more natural and harmonious.
Whether it is an animal, a boat, a tree or a mountain, the strong element will be more likely to attract the eye and will seem better in its place.
If the subject is too large to occupy only one angle, the marker becomes one of the lines (vertical or horizontal).
You must memorize this principle by heart.
When your image has no main subject strictly speaking, it will often have a horizon line (sky/land boundary, sky/sea, treetops, mountains, etc.): this boundary must also be off-center at one of the two horizontal lines.
The horizon will therefore be placed in the upper third of the image or the lower third.
You will then favor the top or the bottom of the landscape, depending on its interest: a sunset or a tormented sky will incite you to go down the horizon line, a meadow in bloom or a beach to go up it.
This rule implies that you make choices in what you want to favor; there is no room for half and half.
However, you can compose landscapes in three equal parts: for example, a lower strip of land, a central strip of trees and an upper strip of sky.
Sometimes horizons and subjects are deliberately focused.
However, these sprains are limited to a few specific cases.
First of all, it is a question of playing with symmetry.
Certain landscapes, or certain details, sometimes make up geometrical patterns.
You may have in mind the famous photograph of a river “seen from the sky” whose meanders form a perfect heart.
Centering it in the image then reinforces its astonishing graphics.
It can also be the branches of a tree, equally distributed on both sides of the trunk, or a majestic mountain perfectly pyramidal.
Another form of symmetry, very often used in landscape, is the result of aquatic reflections.
A forest that is reflected in the calm waters of a lake, a setting sun swooning into the sea,
or the Eiffel Tower that shimmers in the basin of the Invalides, incite to center the horizon line, in other words the water line.
A perfectly centered reflection can even make you doubt the direction in which the image is read.
I have seen a photograph that won a prize in the prestigious BBC Wildlife competition be resolutely hung upside down: the organizers of the exhibition consulted three quarters of an hour before putting the photo back in place…
Another obvious exception: close-ups.
When the subject occupies almost the entire image, where do you want to place it, if not in the center?
Less obvious are subjects that occupy a minority area;
in this case, the rule of thirds must apply unless the subject is very isolated or is characterized by a very singular color or aspect.
Thus one can sometimes center a spare tree in the middle of a field, a small white pebble among these gray congeners, or a cloud lost in a blue sky.
This reinforces the exceptional, even strange, character of the scene, as well as the impression of loneliness given by the subject.
Exploit the entire frame
This famous small rectangle of sight, which often represents 90% of the surface of the final image, is already not very large.
We sometimes even get caught wishing that it would lie down or stretch out to capture more things (as in panoramic photography).
Of course, its dimensions are invariable and offer only one alternative: horizontal or vertical framing.
But once the photo is taken, everything in it will be submitted to the viewer’s gaze.
From the center to the smallest corner, each element must serve the composition.
Even if the eye lingers more or less long on certain key areas, everything is important.
And when enlarged, nothing can go unnoticed.
So get into the habit, or better yet, make it your duty to use 100% of the available surface.
Don’t let yourself be blinded by the main subject alone.
We often forget to take an interest in what’s around, in front and behind.
Unlike shooting in a studio, you never start from a blank page: the world already exists outside your control and nature has set its scene.
So you have to deal with it and find the ideal layout.
“If the landscape doesn’t come to you, you’ll have to go to the landscape”: in the absence of a perfect composition, custom-made for your camera, you’ll have to move around and play with different focal lengths until you are satisfied.
Everything that appears in the viewfinder is yours! Behave like a demanding owner.
A greasy piece of paper lying around, take it off.
Unsightly electrical wires, an annoying car, a badly placed branch, it’s up to you to change the angle.
Bystanders enter the field, a cloud gives you shade, wait a moment (sometimes a long time).
This must be your attitude so that nothing is left to chance.
Imagine a canvas whose artist would have neglected the periphery, under the pretext that the essential is painted in the center.
There would be reason to be astonished, even afflicted by such amateurism.
Exploiting the entire frame is not only a personal issue, it is also a mark of respect and consideration for those who will be interested in your image.
On the other hand, mastering the composition does not necessarily mean filling it up: a clean sky is also a bias, the apparent emptiness can be an artistic and emotional choice as long as it has been thought of in this way.
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The strong element
The basic rules of composition will only be useful if you know how to identify and analyze the famous “main subject”.
A portrait, a still life, a photo of report imposes the subject in an obvious way.
A landscape, on the other hand, is by definition a set of elements that respond to and enhance each other.
Determining which one of them would be the hero, or the point of attention, is much more difficult.
In some cases, this star element does not exist: like a house of cards, everything contributes equally to the building of the image.
This applies especially to homogeneous compositions, on a single plane, such as aerial views of forests or mountain ranges, geometric effects such as the water reflections mentioned above, or even archetypal images.
Thus, an immaculate beach, bathed by a transparent sea against a background of blue sky evokes a concept (paradise) in its entirety.
The salutary intruder
Conversely, an intruder sometimes intrudes into the decor: a cottage among the larches, a flower in the desert, a bridge over a river, your cousin on the ice floe… In short, something you notice right away.
Some of these elements can make a mess (your cousin), others bring a touch of life or catch the eye simply by their presence.
It is precisely because they are “brought back” elements, foreign to the raw landscape, that they become anchor points around which the rest of the scene is organized.
They are not necessarily the most precious, or the most “beautiful” element of the photo.
It is not always this object that provoked your desire to make the image, but it is just the right moment to structure the whole; it is a plus for the form.
It will become a nerve center in terms of graphics and composition, not necessarily in terms of the background.
On the other hand, this intruder will always be a dream factory: understand that it will mobilize the imagination of any spectator, including you.
A photograph does not simply deliver a frozen, timeless situation.
It questions us about the past and the continuity of the scene.
Any element likely to tell a story is immediately used by our unconscious to give meaning to the image, to re-inscribe it in a temporal continuity.
The intruder will play this role wonderfully: ” … this cottage, it must have been there for a long time, the people who live there are lucky, they had to buy it for a bite of bread, a few hours after the light was supposed to be even more beautiful … “.
The light that designates
Light or color can also designate the strong element of a landscape.
Any subject lit in a darker environment is magnified.
As a general rule, daylight floods the earth evenly, regardless of the weather.
When this universal principle is broken, Homo sapiens marvels: the smallest lake, the most insignificant rock can be literally transcended.
It is the power of storm lights or rays piercing through the clouds.
There is something divine and bewitching about this kind of phenomenon.
Light designates what it touches; nothing can contradict it.
This effect can concern immense areas as well as tiny plots of land.
But “it is in the dark that we see the brightest”: for it to become a point of attraction, the illuminated subject must remain a minority in the image.
A color dissonance can play the same role: a poppy in a field of daisies or a daisy in a field of poppies cause the same effects.
More simply, a deciduous tree among conifers in autumn will bring the only touch of bright color.
The ruler designates as a strong element any subject that attracts the eye by its originality, brightness, evocative power or contrast.
But nothing is more mobilizing for attention than life and movement.
Any character moving in a landscape acts like a magnet: by affinity, curiosity or personal projection, we immediately spot the target.
The notion of character extends to the entire animal kingdom (even the plant within the mineral).
A bird or a sheep, as long as they are clearly identifiable, concentrate in them as much life as a hiker.
Beyond a simple silhouette or an insignificant size, the figure becomes somehow more important than the landscape.
It is therefore essential to watch whether such a subject enters the field; the composition of the image will depend on it.
In case of an unexpected appearance that would not serve your project, it is better to wait until the intruder leaves the frame.
This is what we do instinctively when a person stands in the middle of the set…
Life is also brought by movement, the perception of an action in progress.
It can be a lightning bolt that briefly zebras the sky, like a waterfall that is constantly flowing.
Beyond the photographic treatment of such phenomena, it is their very nature that designates them as acting: it is because we know that they are mobile or brief in essence that we automatically feel this action in a photograph.
A wave, frozen by the speed of the shot, will still be felt moving by the viewer, precisely because he knows that a wave always moves in reality.
The general principle remains that the most “alive” element is the one that will hold our attention first.
But it’s all a matter of context.
You will have to try to prioritize things according to what you have in front of you.
Likewise, the strongest element is not necessarily an individualized subject: it may be an entire area of landscape, such as a particularly striking sky, or a vast reedbed.
In this case, it is not a question of placing an object in space, but simply of judiciously positioning the horizon line.
Lines and perspectives
Every composition is dominated by volumes, tints, contrasts and lines.
We are not always aware of this in everyday life, but a landscape is always animated by movement and organized along dominant axes.
Documentaries on the evolution of species always approach with emotion the distant era when humans stood on their legs.
The need to orient ourselves, to anticipate dangers, to hunt and, already at the time, to dominate the landscape made us “vertical beings”.
Since then, we have benevolently (and by opposition) appreciated the horizontality of the world.
Not so long ago, the Earth was reputed to be flat.
This notion is still deeply inscribed in our collective unconscious.
Even though we now know the spherical shape of the planet, we continue to perceive lines rather than volumes: the simple terms “horizon” (horizontal), “planet” (flat surface), “expanse” (flat surface), “beach” (flat) to designate a landscape are symptomatic of our reading of space.
The foundations of the world are horizontal and it is the horizontal lines that dominate it.
The boundary between heaven and earth, sea and coastline, lakes, moors, plains, plateaus, peat bogs and meadows, everything that hugs the surface of the ground obeys this law.
This notion is so important that the ability of the objectives to avoid distorting the horizon line is a determining factor in their optical quality.
Very wide-angle lenses (14 mm APS-C and shorter focal lengths) tend to slightly bend this sacrosanct line.
A treasure trove of technology is therefore available to compensate for this distortion (aspherical lenses).
So we’re ready to spend a fortune to make sure that what should be flat stays flat at all costs… Similarly, the shooting formats include horizontal framing as a starting standard.
You have to turn your camera with discomfort to frame vertically.
Only 6 × 6 film viewfinders push heresy to the point of imposing a square format, but no one goes so far as to favour vertical framing.
The horizontal viewfinder is the one that most closely resembles our human vision because our eyes scan a field that is wider than it is tall.
Cinema, and more recently television, have very quickly understood the power of panoramic images.
More realistic, they give breadth to any setting.
In landscape photography, this extra-large format, and therefore extra-horizontal, is still very popular but difficult to handle.
With digital everything is possible, just play with the pixels or crop the image at will on the computer.
Some cameras have integrated panoramic functions when shooting.
It is also possible to take several slightly shifted images that will be “glued” on software to form a continuous band.
One of the best panoramic stitching software is Autopano, but it is quite expensive.
The most common tool is the Photomerge command in Photoshop.
Another is Microsoft ICE, which is free and efficient.
When a landscape is governed by this horizontality (large bare spaces), it is important to blend in and respect the trend.
But the danger is to end up with a flat image, where the planes seem layered one above the other, rather than in depth.
It is then necessary to play with the alternations of colors, luminosity or a light relief to give a perspective.
The quality of the light is very important and can make the difference on its own.
Similarly, it is often advisable to use a short focal length to give breadth to the scene, and to adopt a low point of view to shave the ground.
Like an airplane flying low, this gives power and a more spectacular side to the composition.
Remember that you always have to have a bias: if it’s space that you want to express, then you might as well get physically close to that expanse.
The use of a long focal length will essentially allow you to play with the graphics of successive reliefs.
The typical case is that of a slightly hilly moorland, a distant mountain range or a stormy sea.
A telephoto lens will concentrate hollows and bumps, and the associated play of light.
Another great classic of horizontality: the sunset.
Apart from the circle of the sun, the image is always strongly elongated.
Horizon line, clouds in bands, light diffusion in strata are its essential components.
Here, the star goes to the sky except when a body of water is mirrored; the reflections are then often more striking than the rest.
A telephoto lens, or a zoom lens in general, proves practical and efficient to precisely frame the most colored area. In all these configurations governed by horizontal lines, the management of shots, as well as the respect of the rule of thirds (for the horizon line) are crucial.
Finally, note that the eye generally explores an image from bottom to top.
The different horizontal bands will therefore serve as stairs for the viewer’s gaze.
Landscapes dominated only by horizontality are not so common.
In many cases, something will stand out in one way or another: a milestone, trees, a character, a large waterfall… It is usually the complementarity of the lines that will bring balance to the image.
If the flatness evokes the calm and the forces of the earth, the verticality inspires more an action, a force that rises towards the sky (or descends), the presence of life, an obstacle or a milestone.
Some landscapes are entirely dominated, forged in the vertical.
This will be the case of narrow gorges or forests.
Cliffs or trunks then supplant the cows’ floor and inevitably lead to a specific reading of the photograph.
When we leave nature, we will find the same configuration in big cities: monuments, skyscrapers, bell towers and buildings of all kinds are similar to an artificial forest. Composing with a single vertical subject Let’s first consider the case of isolated or few vertical subjects: a few electric poles on the side of a road, a lonely old oak in the countryside, a lighthouse at the end of a pier, etc.
As long as it is not a close-up, the treatment of the vertical subject will be easy: off-center in the image and restore it in its context (see what is around it).
It must become a reflex.
Of course, this element can also make a perfect foreground.
You must then watch the background: your vertical subject must have a background on which it stands out well, avoiding that this background clumsily cuts the subject.
It will often be necessary to bend down or to rise: your shooting “altitude” is decisive, and this is sometimes a few tens of centimeters.
If the rest of the landscape is strong, your vertical subject can be quite banal: a cactus or an old sign will give character to any American desert, a cairn or a worm-eaten fence post will perfectly embellish our latitudes.
It is important to understand that it is the verticality that makes the subject attractive here (compared to the horizontality of the rest of the scene), not its aesthetic value.
Everything is allowed as long as it remains in context: an ice axe in the foreground of a mountain landscape, okay, planted in the middle of a peat bog, it’s less appropriate…
Framing and sense of Scale
Note that, until now, horizontal framing has always been used.
On the other hand, it will no longer be necessary in the case of a tight shot.
Vertical subjects often make you want to get close-ups, perhaps because they seem particularly well suited to the vertical format of the viewfinder.
Probably also because they often fascinate by their dimensions.
A secular tree, a rocky outcrop or the Eiffel Tower, so many colossuses that impress us.
But whether it’s a flower proudly standing on its stem or a giant redwood, everything will be reduced to the 3.6 cm high film or the 2.5 cm of the APS-C sensor.
Without a reference, it is impossible to find the true scale of size.
Photography makes a mockery of the original size of things.
It is up to you to reconstitute (or not) the right proportions of the world.
And this is especially true for vertical subjects, not associated with a familiar element whose size we know well.
Another factor that complicates things considerably is the distance that separates you from the different planes.
Imagine a daisy in the foreground and a church in the distance: when framed up close and at ground level, the daisy will be large and the church will appear smaller.
This is partly because the church is far away and follows the rules of perspective and partly because the eye will compare the proportions of the flower and the church.
Any normal brain knows that a church is much bigger than a daisy, but the photo will show the opposite, especially if the angle of view adopted places the church “under” the flower.
As a result, not only will the picture be confusing, but it will completely disrupt the notion of scale.
One might even wonder if the church is not a model.
Now imagine the same effect with a stalagmite (whose size is never standard) instead of the daisy and a child instead of the church: quite clever who will be able to restore the stalagmite to its true size, and the scene to its true proportions.
Verticality is not our natural dimension of evolution; our brain is made to apprehend horizontal distances and evaluate depths of field.
We always have great difficulty in guessing the size of a vertical object: as soon as a tree exceeds 5 meters, we just say that it is big, and personally I always had trouble realizing that the diving board of the municipal swimming pool was only 10 meters high… On the contrary, we are perfectly capable of evaluating hundreds of meters, or even kilometers horizontally.
Thanks to the backdiving, it is therefore very easy to exaggerate the proportions of any vertical subject: a short focal length, an upward pointing angle of view, a tight framing so that the base of the subject takes root at the edge of the image and the effect is guaranteed, the subject seems to soar towards the sky like a rocket.
Scattered vertical elements have three main characteristics:
- they balance and “embellish” the all-horizontal aspect of a landscape,
- they constitute good foregrounds
- they remain delicate to “measure” when they are spread out on different planes or when photographed in close-up.
Composing with vertical lines
Let’s now consider vertical subjects in number.
It is very frequent that a landscape with a horizontal base (a flat ground…) integrates many vertical lines.
In nature it is mostly trees, plants or rocks.
In gardens, flowers, bushes, statues.
In the city, towers, lampposts, columns.
In a port the masts of boats, on a beach of umbrellas, in a cave of concretions … All these examples involve a mixed management where verticality will often have the upper hand.
In fact, these vertical subjects will be the real animators of the landscape, the elements whose presence and arrangement will have motivated the shooting. The direction of the framing (vertical or horizontal) is one of the first difficulties: there is unfortunately no infallible rule.
It is above all the solution that will best serve the rule of thirds, as well as the best enhancement of the strong element, that will govern the choice.
Vertical framing can notably prolong or accompany an imaginary or real movement: something falling (a waterfall, stalactites) or something rising (a tree, fireworks).
It is also a way to isolate a part of the landscape by narrowing the field, or simply to introduce a more intimate atmosphere, as if stolen through a keyhole.
This increases the effect of the bias of the framing, of choice, of isolation of a portion of the landscape.
We designate what is photographed as a direction, a course to follow.
We encourage the viewer to want to discover what was next door and what does not appear.
We thwart the ordinary, rather panoramic perception of things.
If you also take care to show some ends of branches, the frame of a door, or any other element that indicates that you have photographed the scene from a “hole”, the viewer will really have the impression of entering somewhere, of going towards what is being photographed.
The photograph will be more in line with the temporality, linked to the situation and the progression imagined in the landscape.
Finally, it is of course a way to reinforce the verticality of already vertical subjects…