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Landscape Photography: The Rule of Thirds & Leading Lines

Whether you're just getting started in landscape photography or looking to refine your skills, I thought I'd offer my take on the importance of a purposeful composition when setting up your shot. It's all too easy for us all to fall into the trap of rushing to our spot at the last minute, fiddling around with all our camera gear - pulling out our polarizers and ND filters - and not affording ourselves time to really put a concerted effort into understanding our framing and composition.

Rule of Thirds

Now, we've all heard about the rule of thirds. If you haven't then check out this link to catch up. This "rule," like so many others out there, are simply guidelines and suggestions for compositional structure and placement within a photo. They typically adhere to commonly accepted concepts of how a viewer's eye recognizes balance and visual interest within a frame. These rules commonly apply to photography, art and design alike.

Applying the rule of thirds is relatively simple to execute. Let's take a look at the photo above to see how it works. Wide open spaces can often make this process much simpler than more complex scenes as the horizon creates a clear line to work from. Based on some of the smartphone apps I use I happen to know the sun would be rising at/near the end of the pier this particular morning. So I set up my tripod in the spot where it would line up to rise over the horizon just off the tip of the pier. I then placed that horizon on the bottom third line and rotated my camera to place the sun on the first vertical third line. Coincidentally, a strong highlight in the clouds was illuminated by the sun just at the junction of the top left thirds as well.

Leading Lines

Beyond the rule of thirds, a great way to draw the viewer into your photo is through the use of leading lines. Many scenes like this one will have natural lines hidden within them. Look for them and exploit them! At times they'll be plainly evident and other times more subtle. It could be a band of clouds, a pathway through a forest scene or even a structure or building. Whatever it might be, find ways to incorporate them into your composition to drive direction to how ones eyes flow through the scene.

In the photo above, the clear leading line is the top of the pier creating a hard edge against the sky moving from the right side of the frame in through the center - pointing directly to the rising sun. This kind of a leading line helps guide the viewers eyes through the frame to the focal point (the sun). Now, there are some additional, less obvious leading lines found in the foreground in the blurred waves. These are helping contribute to drawing the eye up from the bottom of the frame up into the pier, then to the sun - providing a path through the photograph and guiding the viewer through it. So look around you when out in the field; leading lines are everywhere. Scout your location before setting up and seek out elements to include that'll help walk your viewers through your shot.

Now, with all that said, this is not the end-all-be-all of rules. Know when to break them, but do so with purpose. The photo just above is another one of my pier shots (different pier) in which the rule of thirds has been completely abandoned. I approached this shot with a concerted effort to make the composition centered and symmetrical. It really depends on what your end goal is for your photo. My intent here was to draw the viewer into the scene via the converging leading lines of the railings of the pier.

There are a ton of techniques and tricks used by some amazing photographers out there, and frankly I learn something new myself each time I see some of their photos. But ultimately, you're the photographer and you've got complete creative control over how you compose your photos. Go crazy... but do it with purpose; with real intent.


Steve -

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