Lesson 53: The Rule of Filling the Frame

One of the oft-cited quotes of famous photographers is:  “If your photos aren’t good enough, then you’re not close enough” (Robert Capa).  Given that Capa (famous for his images from wars as a photojournalist) reportedly died when he stepped on a land mine, it’s probably best to bear in mind that there is such a thing as too close.

There is an important message to consider in the context of our earlier lesson on filling the frame, however.  As I said before, your frame will be full of something.  Make sure it’s the something you wanted.  In Lesson 3, I used the example of taking a picture of my dog and how I would caption each example based on what was included in the frame and what wasn’t.

But what about when you’re shooting large landscapes?  Landscapes don’t often present themselves with logical end points.  And part of the impact of a landscape is expansiveness and scale.  There absolutely is such a thing as being too close when the story you want to tell is about vastness.  (The following examples were taken with iPhone 4S and Pro HDR app.)

You have to make choices about what will fit in your frame and what won’t when you’re shooting a landscape.  One of the things I love about landscape photography is that there is usually time to figure this out.  Granted, changing light, weather, or a rising moon may make me feel rushed, but even then, a little bit of planning gives me lots of time to choose what I want in my frame.

There are many details to consider.  One of the things I look at are the edges of my frame.  Am I cutting off a city scape smack dab in the middle of a building?  Could I change my angle slightly or take a step back to hit between two buildings instead? (The following examples were taken with iPhone 4S and Camera Awesome App.)

Similarly for a wilderness scene, I’m often shooting through tree branches.  I want those foreground branches to create a frame for the distant view.  I also want those tree branches to be in focus because I find blurry branches distracting.  Sometimes, I have to pick one, no matter how much I love pick-two menus.  (The following examples were taken with iPhone 4S and Camera Awesome app.)

Your Assignment:  You’re frame is full every time you point your camera at something.  The key is to decide what you fill it with.  Get closer when your subject warrants being close–like people or subjects where the details make the difference.  Get further away when your subject needs distance–like vast landscapes.  Then look for what else is in your frame that you didn’t pick.  Do you want it there?  Can you do something differently to exclude it if not?

Lesson 52: The Rule of Thirds Revisited

We talked about the Rule of Thirds very early on in Lesson 2.  In that lesson, we talked about framing a dog or a person and placing the intersection of the rule of thirds grid on the subject’s eye.  However, there are lots of ways to apply the rule of thirds.

Today, let’s talk about landscape scenes.  Landscapes are usually divided between sky and ground or sky and water.  To apply the rule of thirds to big sweeping scenes, you can make a simple choice:  is the scene more about the sky or the stuff below it?

If it’s about the sky, make two-thirds of the frame sky.  If it’s about what’s below it, make the sky one-third of the frame.

Here is an example of a landscape photo where I split the sky and sea about down the middle of the frame. I did this on purpose.  I wanted both rocks, the bird, and the water washing back to sea over the sand.  There was no way to apply the rule of thirds and get all of these elements into the frame the way I wanted them.  I happen to like this photo (sorry, it’s not an iPhone photo, but it makes the point).  I’ve also included two cropped versions that put the line between the sea and sky at the lower ⅓ of the frame.  In this case, I prefer to break the rule of thirds.

On the same beach, I took the following shot of a bunch of seagulls rising off the beach.  I was pretty far away when this happened, but I liked the breadth of the flock of seagulls (for all you old enough to remember, no, I’m not referring to the band).  I also like the expanse of beach underneath them with an almost equal expanse of sky.  However, I thought we should try this with the rule of thirds applied, so I cropped with ⅔ of the frame beach and another with ⅔ of the frame sky.  I think the one with ⅔ of the frame sky works rather nicely with the gulls taking off.

The next example splits the sky and land about ½ way.  This one is an iPhone photo, by the way.  I’ve cropped the photo to show ⅔ sky and again to show ⅔ land.  I prefer the one with ⅔ land in this case.  The sky is not particularly interesting or well exposed.  The land is a bit dark, but the bridge in the foreground adds more interest to my eye than the sky in the previous version.

My final example, another iPhone photo, is one where the rule of thirds was perhaps over-applied in the original photo.  The foreground rock starts at the ⅓ point on the left.  The mountains in the middle of the frame end at the ⅔ point on the right.  It’s almost too stripe-y.  I cropped this one very slightly to put the mountains at the ⅔ point on the left side of the frame.  To me, the first version confuses my eye as to which element the photo is supposed to be about.  The second version makes it obvious to me that the photo is about the river valley and surrounding mountains.  I would prefer if the barge were further in the frame, but somethings can’t be fixed.

Your Assignment:  Take a look at any landscape photos you’ve taken with a strong horizontal line.  Is that line at ⅓ or ⅔ of the frame?  If not, try cropping the photo just to see if you like it better (Snapseed provides a nice cropping tool–see Lesson 41).  Sometimes you will.  Sometimes you won’t.  Just remember that the rule of thirds can help you emphasize the part of the scene that you most want to draw the eye to.