Landscape and Nature Composition Basics: Rule of Thirds? Part One: Horizons

A very commonly touted concept in photography is the rule of thirds, the notion that to make a great image, it is important to place the subject/horizon/leading lines along a 1/3rd gridline on the picture.

Looking at non-photographer’s pictures, I often find the subject thrown unimagentively in the center, usually not filling much of the frame. To combat this, someone somewhere came up with the inviolable Rule of Thirds (and the concept of Filling the Frame!). Although the ROT helps, its grinding frequency leads to buccolic and often somewhat purposeless images. The next step for such, and what is really the first step, is to understand the purpose for compositional placement of elements in the frame. As this is a wee mite more to both teach and comprehend, many leave it out of their instruction, and many never learn it, growing later their own buccolic disciples!

Fear not! Here we will try to explain this concept: subject/horizon/leading line placement. It is not wrong to use the Rule of Thirds, or to place one’s subject slap in the center of the frame; one simply must know WHY he is composing for such, or risk having buccolic or worse yet flat images!

We will begin here by discussing horizons. What we will see here applies for whether your camera is in either landscape or portrait orientation (yes, portrait orientation for a landscape! Quite lovely if done right!). Concerning lines, know and understand that the eye does not like to cross lines, especially straight lines. Therefore, rarely will you ever want to place a horizon in the center of an image. Doing so will flatten the image impact, trapping the eye of the viewer to on part or the other of the image and dissociating it from the entire message you are trying to communicate (your images should have the goal of communicating something, some emotion, some thought, some message…)

So, where to place the horizon line? If you place it on the bottom 1/5th-1/8th of an image, it will perform as a frame, while still providing context to the image, so that it is not just a random shot of the sky.

Depending on what your foreground elements are, you may wish to place the horizon line around 1/4th-1/3rd of the way into the image. This will still provide a good view of the sky, yet allow you create with your foreground elements an image which will feel rather balanced without feeling static.

Between 1/3rd and 3/8ths lies an area of caution; still usable, but it depends largely on your foreground elements to keep it interesting, and an attractive enough sky to keep the eyes fastened. This placement leaves the viewer with more of a rooted and stable feeling, much more so than the ephemeral 1/8th framing.

The above applies similarly for framing the horizon in the upper 1/8th, 1/4th, 1/3rd, and 3/8th areas. However, the earthen parts will instead of the sky be prominent. Ensure you have a strong foreground, middle, and background especially in such images (another topic for another day!). Although putting the sky at the top eigth will less commonly be used….

The middle of the image? When may I place the horizon there?

1. If there is a reflection in the bottom of the image mirroring the top. Much more can be said on this matter… later…

2. For symmetrical composition. A completely symmetrical image can be extremely powerful; the difference between powerful and flat is the subject and degree of symmetricity. Formal symmetry, the placing of the suject in the center with as much symmetry as possible throughout the entire image will, if executed properly, render an immense sense of power, royalty, solidness,  either holiness and goodness, else a menacing evil, depending on the subject. Formal composition can itimidate, inspire, strengthen, and propel. If done poorly, or, as the mere result of a thoughtless photo, it will be lifeless, flat, and rather uninteresting.

That being said, formal symmetry should be used intelligently and with understanding of what is being done.

In conclusion, is the Rule of Thirds evil? No, but it is an over-simplification. Instead of randomly selecting the third spots to line things up in your viewfinder, choose intelligently where to place your horizon, to communicate the desired message and convey the desired feel.

“Jesus spake again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” John 8:12

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