The Rule of Thirds and digital photography

Photography Guide - I was recently updating my computer system and, like cleaning out a shed and seeing an old box in a sunray illuminated dusty corner, found some wonderful gems hidden amongst turn of the century digital clutter.

One such gem was a file, aptly named photog-elements.doc, contained the incomplete editing of copious amounts of information gleaned from hours of reading, googling, and trial & error shooting. Just like the Mark 6 Jaguar my father started to renovate back in the 1970's, every thing was there but it just need some dusting off and a bit of honing and it might still be usable.

Elements of Photography

© simon bayliss 2009

Preparing for my first photographic journey from Edinburgh to Netherlands Belgium and then 2 months around France…a lot of learning lay ahead.Started in 2001 as strategy to learn photography, I am self taught, the content of the file had been updated over the years with other ones started when the original could not be found.

So I am dusting-off the note pad and polishing the old file to see if will run and maybe it will be a fruitful effort by referencing it with photographs from over this period. After all the information should be second nature after shooting for nearly 10 years.

While sheltering under a balcony at a Gare de l'Est hotel, a summer shower started to produce the most amazing light against the Paris architecture along Rue du 8 mai. As the light peaked, a man walks into shot. 10er arrondissement Paris, FranceAs I learned from others, I present this to share... with the hope of contributing to someone elses journey if any one reads this, learns something from it, applies it to their photography, and becomes a better photographer as a result. After all, that is how the art form has developed and survived though all its transitions.

I am fascinated by the review process and where my journey has taken me so far; places, people, images, equipment, knowledge, challenges, beginnings and ends. I am only one small element that, like my journey, is inexorable link to the experiences and journey of others; a comforting paradigm.

Preparing to Go:

First up, My #1 Golden Rule of Photography (and life)

"It is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it"

Fulfilling a dream, All loaded up and ready for a motorcycle journey through Europe with Greece being the first legTravelling outback Australia is a rewarding journey and the Darling River Run is one of the many great driving adventures though the red outback of Australia. And this pretty much covers everything; equipment, backups, images, reference, knowledge, shots. The image on the left is the start of my photographic journey which start in Greece by purchasing a Triumph and heading off with way too much equipment (I even packed a suit). Fast forward 8 years and some who spotted me in Outback NSW thought I was slightly ambitious (or knew something others didn't) when I always travelled with my trusty Hobie Kayak.



cooeePhotographic Forethought:

The horse yoke of the whim at Mt Wood outdoor museum. Sturt National Park, Outback NSW, AustraliaIt can be beneficial to have some idea and understanding of what photographs you want to capture and their intended purpose.. If you intend to supply you photographs to stock libraries, research the both the buyers and sellers on those online photo agencies to see what photographs are supplied and what imagery is in demand.

South coast commercial photography australia nswI have always had a desire to sell my photography as prints and that, generally, is a totally different style of shooting from stock (neither better, worse, easier, or harder; just different). If ones desire is to sell wall art, understanding and developing a style is crucial and that is an ongoing process whereby the goal can never be fully reached as it is constantly evolving. One should be inspired by others but never copying them. Often, in all fields of art, we can have a virtual mentor to develop our style but there should (IMHO) be a clear distinction between the two; when that line becomes blurred it can be seen as copying and while imitation is flattering, mimicking is of little value unless one can do it better than the mentor.

Some photographers develop a style as soon as they pick up a camera while others may take years; but individual style is crucial.


cooeeSubjective Vs Objective:

Sydney Harbour on a dark and moody day and The Sydney Opera House set beautifully on Bennelong Point, Sydney, NSW, Australia.The prevailing winds create intriguing patterns of the shifting sands of Perry Sandhills. Wentworth, Outback NSW, AustraliaI started out my photographic journey travelling and hence most of my early photographs where very location specific after all that is why we take camera when travelling. I once read an article about objective and subjective photography that had my head spinning for a little while but somewhere in that maelstrom I realised my desire was to create photographs that were not specific to a location but could be contextually linked somehow.

Upon reviewing much of my early photographs, I soon realised that, to a to some extent, I was intuitively shooting subjectively. To capture an image that, may include a contextual reference to location, stands in its own right as an interesting photograph thus becoming not reliant on where it is shot. I believe if one understands and follows this, then one has a better understanding of what the resultant style will be. That is not to say that one cannot shoot both, it is a matter of knowing which is which when shooting.

"... in the photographic camera we have the most reliable aid to a beginning of objective vision. Everyone will be compelled to see that which is optically true, is explicable in its own terms, is objective, before he can arrive at any possible subjective position." (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Painting, Photography, Film, 1925, reprinted 1969, quoted in Charles Traub, The New Vision, p. 28.)


cooeePre-Trip Research:

researchThis is a big part of my trips, and as a Virgo, it is kind of second nature for me. I enjoy the preparation and research of the trip; trawling websites, reading books, and scouring through maps for best routes and vantages. The visiualisation of where I am going and what I 'think' I might shoot.

An important resource I use is the sun and moon times as I like knowing in advance where the light will be (as well as the phases and position of the moon). Essential knowledge (IMHO) when shooting; whether it is shooting in the outback or a city.

Also, I like to know of any type of restriction might be in place for the locations I shoot like sacred sites and/or National Parks, private property. In most states of Australia, a permit is required to sell a photograph that is taken in a National Park.

I fondly remember my father describing a person as rushing around like a 'Blue-Arsed Fly'; I have never known what a Blue-Arsed Fly is but I love the visual of this. Early in my photographic adventures, I sometimes found myself going to a place all charged and geared-up to take photos only to realise that I was actually that Fly; and the resultant images reflected that. Experience is a great teacher and I have learned that it can be a whole lot easier to get help from a local and seeking out local knowledge and/or guide saves time and more often that not enables access to places you would have missed by yourself.

cooeeWhat to Take:

We all know the saying about packing for an overseas holiday, 'pack every thing you think you will need then remove half'. Well, not when I go photographing... this is where and why my #1 GOLDEN RULE of PHOTOGRAPHY was born!

"It is better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it"

I once met a person in the outback who had everything (almost) in his newly acquired and modified 4x4 and camper trailer; as I was shooting we got talking and he told me how he left his camera bag (as complete and ready for any adventure as his 4x4) at home on the kitchen bench and only realised it after 1 full days drive. He said it was to be the last thing he forgot to bring... and it was.

When I pack do tend to have enough for me and Justin (that's 'Just In' case) as I have been caught sort once before and it is more than likely at those times that you will see The Loch Ness Monster, Yeti, or Elvis Presley.

  • Camera and Lenses: I also carry a backup (previous) camera body
  • Polariser: I am never without my polariser as I love the look they can create on blue skies; especially here in Australia. A polariser can also help with clarity and sharpness as it ruduces haze and glare that can affect an image.
  • Tripod: a must for landscape shooting with suitable head (tilt and/or pan).
  • Lights: reflector and shade/translucent screen as well as portable studio light and camera flash (VERY Golden Rule'ish  )
  • Backup system: laptop, external hardrive, blank DVD's
  • GPS: A GPS to track/route where I am and then I am able to automatically Geocode my images (the Longitude and Latitude can be inserted into the image file as metadata) and I can be certain of the location.
  • Maps and Atlases: Not only for travel plans but also essential for bearings, terrain and surrounding features.
  • Power Supply: I always travel with a (Pure Sine) power inverter which hooks up to the car battery for powering laptop, lights if needed and recharging batteries.
  • Wets: Top and bottom and an umbrella. Despite being caught in the rain you can still shoot and eliminate the annoying water drops on the lens by using an umbrella.
  • Release (Property and Model): Be sure to carry releases just in case you need one as it can be had to track down a person in your photograph after the fact and technically you may need a release to use the image commercially.

One procedure I never fail to do is once on the road, I pull over after 10-15 minutes and get my camera out to take a photo. That way I know it is there and works. Yes, very Virgo I know.

Back to Basics:

"The more I photograph, the more I know there is so much I don't know" (me)

There are things that we know, and there are things that we don't know, but what is most important is to 'know what we don't know'.

It is very easy to 'unlearn' the basics of photography in this digital age. I have found digital photography a great, and accelerated, way to learn photographic procedures but I enjoy going back to basics and shooting manually. I feel I am being more mindful of the process and believe the resultant images reflect that.


histograms and digital photographyThe histogram is such a powerful tool in the field regardless if one shoots automatic or manual. Knowing the structure of your dynamic range can be a great saviour that can ensure the image is captured to its greatest potential.

If one considers the nature of photography, analogue general and more specifically digital, the nature of how the light is captured is of utmost concern due to the relationship between the dynamic range and the bit depth of the image as it is the later that determines the 'steps' that make up that range from shadows to highlights. (See 'What is RAW')

It is very important tool as it provides a visual reference to the nature (luminance) and exposure characteristics of you image. (Under or over exposure)

cooeeShoot RAW:

Shooting Raw and digital photographyAgain the Golden Rule applies here. RAW is your digital negative and will allow for greater image potential should it be needed. I have some JPEG images from my early photographic journeys that I would love to have done in RAW due to the 'unprocessed' nature of the RAW and the greater editing potential. (See What is RAW)

Thus, since 2003 I have only shot in RAW. Some say the workflow is much greater but once the workflow and editing processes are determined and understood it is pretty much the same as if you were just using TIFFS or JPEGS. Note Golden Rule, it is better to have a RAW file and not need it than to need RAW and not have it; and its inherent potential.

cooeeThe Rule of Thirds:

The Rule of Thirds and digital photographyThe composition of a photograph is critical in translating what one sees to what one wants the viewer to see. The 'Rule of Thirds' is a handy 'guide' on how to compose photographs to increase their potential; and as a guide can be used or not used. Many great photographs have ignored this 'rule' but 1000-fold more photographs are let own by ignoring this rule.

The Rule of Thirds and digital photographyImagine when looking through the viewfinder that the frame is divided into thirds vertically and horizontally so there are 4 cross points halfway between the centre and the corners and these area are where the Point's of Interest (POI) should be placed. It can potentially create a more interesting composition as the elements of the photograph are presented with a greater consideration to how the human eye sees and interprets what is being viewed.

cooeeDepth of Field:

Mushroom shooter; The beauty and majestic determination of Mushrooms (svamp) are obvious when photographing them on the forest floor close-up, Ånge Kommun, Medelpad, Sweden Sverige.Depth of Field (DOF) is another very important photographic principle that is easily overlooked when shooting in automatic mode. The Depth of Field is the 'range' or zone that is in focus while the area closer than and further from the focused region is progressively blurred. The DOF is controlled by the aperture (f-stop) of the camera.

When I first made the epic leap from automatic shooting to manual, it was aperture control (with auto exposure) shooting which I initially used and I found it a great way to learn and apply other photographic principles.

A billabong forming at Noojee (near Baw Baw National Park). Victoria, Australia.Basically, the smaller the f-stop (and more 'open' the lens aperture), the narrow/shorter the DOF, conversely, the larger the f-stop (and the more 'closed' is the lens aperture), the wider/longer the DOF.

So if one wants highlight a subject matter by having it stand out from its surrounds, the object can be put in focus with a small f-stop thereby determining the other elements in the composition are blurred.

So when shooting landscapes, I generally use f12 as I want all elements in the shot from the foreground to the far distance to be in focus. But if shooting to include foreground interest and I want the background blurred I set back to middling range around f4.8. (This obviously also depends on the lens used.)

cooeeThe Photographers Magic Number:

The MFB Firefighters Calender (Proceeds to The Royal Childrens Hospital Burns Unit) Melbourne AustraliaWedding Photography south coast australia nswIf including several elements to a photograph, it can be best to include three elements in the composition; or to a lesser extent five elements. In a similar way to the 'Rule of Thirds', it can make the composition much more pleasing and similarly is only a guide.




And away we go! (in the field)

Crocodile hunters on the Baltic sea; gotland, Sweden, sverige.I read a quote on a photographers' website years ago that said "Make photographs, don't just take picture" and it has stuck with me as is very relevant and can also relate to the 'Blue-Arsed Fly' potential of any venture.. We all can do it, get to a new location/destination and all the excitement pours out and we start to shoot madly trying to 'push' the visual splendour of what we see into the camera. A step back and a more considered approach will result in not only better photographs but a greater experience and rewarding involvement in the process.



cooeeThe Golden Hour (AKA God's Light):

Godess of 67. Built as a movie set of a not too successful movie. Lightning Ridge, Outback NSW, AustraliaPhotographing the lunette ('Walls of China') at Lake Mungo is one of the main highlights of any landscape photographer's visit to Mungo NP. Outback NSW, AustraliaGod's Hour is the time of Dusk or Dawn when the light is just right, soft and reddish (warmer). This is especially a good time to shoot here in Australia as our daylight contrast is extremely high and light can be harsh. The morning light, especially, is wonderful as everything seems fresh. Another benefit here in Australia, especially in the Outback, is that it is the coolest time of the day.

The 'warmer' hues results form the fact that the higher wavelengths of red and orange hues are less scattered than the blues and purples; as the later wavelengths are scattered more they are less visible.


cooeeSudden Impact:

Long exposure image of the surf at Werri Beach crashing over the rocks at the rock pool end of Werri - Gerringong - South Coast NSW - Australia.Regardless of what one shoots, it must have an impact to the viewer (subtle, sudden or otherwise) and that comes from not only the composition but how the image is rendered. I personal favourite genre of mine is monochrome as they have a timeless quality. But an black and white image is not the result of simply de-saturating a good colour image. Mono images are great for compositions with great contrasts, textures, lines and light and often one sees those elements in the field by thinking and see without colour.



 cooeeColour Vs Monochrome

Sketch-artists group in front of the S Pierre de Montmartre ‘Tableaux and Souvenirs’ shop in Montmartre (Rue Norvins). Saint Pierre de Montmartre is the lesser known of the two main churches on Montmartre, the other being the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur. Montmartre, Paris, France.Sketch-artists group in front of the S Pierre de Montmartre ‘Tableaux and Souvenirs’ shop in Montmartre (Rue Norvins). Saint Pierre de Montmartre is the lesser known of the two main churches on Montmartre, the other being the Basilica of the Sacré-Coeur. Montmartre, Paris, France.That is not to say that I dismiss colour, quite the contrary. In the field you should be aware of both and learn, through trial and error, to see what might make a good colour or black and white image.

"If in doubt, leave it out". Another quote I know, and not the last one, but I have always benefited from a quoted reference. I look back at my early photography and remember what I wanted to 'show' in the photograph but I realise the message is lost as it is too clutter; a result of trying to 'push' the process. I was told several years ago at one of my early exhibition to a wise photographic Master that " Painters include but photographers should exclude". That I believe is so true and it his advise that I carry with me wherever I go with my camera. With this in mind, try composing the image with a full frame and try to minimise cropping at the editing stage (which can loss precious pixels)


cooeeLook outside the square:

A black and white image of the Eiffel Tower shot from underneath the eastern span. It takes on a slightly surreal appearance due to this perspective of the shot and the use of a wide angle lens. La Tour Eiffel (The Eiffel Tower) Paris FranceThe forecourt steps of the Sydney Opera House with the Opera Theatre and 'Guillaume at Bennelong' Restaurant in the background. Bennelong Point; Sydney, NSW, Australia.Take the Eiffel Tower, it is one of the most photographed and visited icons in the world and a google search results in over 2.5 million images online (and that is only form a search in English) . No looking at the images there are many 'straight' shots of the beautiful structure. It is no surprise as when one sees it for the fist time it is a surreal experience. But the ones that grab people's attention can be the non-standard shots where the photographer has 'thought outside the box'. The more famous an icon the easier it is to take a more abstract photograph as people identify the larger context, and are more drawn due to the less than obvious story of the photograph.



image-22A personal favourite as it is one of those images that leave the viewer wondering what has caught this ladies attention. Shot from the other side of Louvre-Rivoli metro station as the train pulls into the station. Paris Metro, Paris, France. (Monochrome)Including context in a photograph greatly enhances its potential impact and resultant story. Including a foreground or background element in addition to the Point of Interest places a context to the photograph.




cooeeHuman Nature:

A wonderful iconic, contextual and human (humour) element and something many of us have done over the years. Trocadéro Paris france image-26Few things enhance a photographic experience more than the inclusion of people; this is two-fold as it personalises the story which turn has a greater potential of viewer interest as we are able to relate to the human qualities portrayed in the image; it is human nature. Add to this something that is humorous and it is further enhanced.



cooeeGo wide and go long:

Montmartre Paris, France. A busker outside Sacre Coeur shows his football skills.Understand the image differential that results in using various lenses; this can be done by trial and error or viewing other peoples work. I remember when I first used my 7-14mm Zuiko wide-angle lens after shooting with a 14mm-54mm Zuiko and could not believe the initial difficult I encountered. I felt like I had to relearn photography. It is now my everyday lens; it is the wonderful thing about photography in that by challenging oneself and getting out of the comfort zone, what is learned can be applied to other types of photography.

The Concorde Obelisk with La Tour Eiffel in the background, also known as 'L'aiguille de Cléopâtre' or 'Cleopatra's Needle', from the temple of Ramses II at Thebes was placed at the Place de la Concorde in 1836. paris franceIn a similar way, shooting long also posses challenges as one (IMHO) is removed form the subject which enhances the perspective of the photograph.

On a recent trip overseas, my partner and I were walking around Paris shooting with three lenses each and were surprised the resultant images compositionally 'confused'. Chatting over dinner we concluded that it can be better to stick to one lens and stick with it for a period as you photographic eye adjusts to the lens that one is using and switching lenses, like that Blue-Arsed Fly', only confuses the process.

cooeeSunrises and Sunsets:

Mansfield SunsetNot something I often do.. not sure why and it has been noted by colleagues. Sunrises and Sunsets are spectacular in real life and rarely translate to a photograph nor represent the true experience, especial without context or some other element to hold the viewer like foreground interest.

Hyams Beach Jervis bay nsw australiaCombining a few of the guidelines above and inverting the context can make a sunrise or sunset photograph really work. Instead of applying context to a sunset, include the sunset as the context and utilise composition, including DOF, to tell the story.

If shooting sunsets in cities and towns with the intention of capturing illuminated buildings and streets with a glowing blue sky, there is a small window of opportunity to capture the vivid sky before the street lights tinge the sky a murky brown (due to many streetlights using sodium which gives a brown tinge to dark skies).

cooeeGet personal:

Swedish Kajsa Anka posing on the SS Sankt Erik (originally named Isbrytaren) near the Vasamuséet (Water Museum) Djurgärden Stockholm Sweden SverigeCheeky Lauren poses at Minamurra rainforest south coast nsw australiaIncluding people in shots not only personalises the photograph but also includes and translates and experience. This type of imagery is enhanced but closing in on the subject. Wide shots of people can have them feel isolated and difficult to relate to the experience.



cooeeGoing vertical:

The Kiama lighthouse is dwarfed by a spectacular spout of water from the Kiama blowhole when a huge southeast swell (4-5m) in April of 2006 created perfect conditions the blowhole to perform at its best. Kiama, South Coast NSW, Australia.A huge southeast swell (4-5m) in April of 2006 created perfect, although dangerous, display at Blowhole Point, Kiama, South Coast NSW, Australia.Experimenting with the aspect ration of the shot is a great tool to learn and can dramatically alter the feeling of the photograph. Landscape (horizontal) or portrait (vertical) composition have their own strengths and weakness and can be mixed and matched for great effect. Also tilting in between vertical and horizontal is also great compositional variant but needs to done at a sufficient angle to infer it is deliberate but not so far as to have the viewer turn their had in order to decipher the context of the photograph.


cooeeNight Stalker:

An evening shot of The Sydney Opera House as viewed from the Lower Concourse. Bennelong Point; Sydney, NSW, Australia.

An evening shot of Sydney Harbour Bridge as viewed from Bradfield Park at Milsons Point. Sydney, NSW, Australia.Shooting at night is a great way to experiment with elements not available throughout daylight hours. A city takes on a whole different feel at night, signs pop out, roads car lights become rivers of light, and famous icons subtly sit in the background. Some situation will require a tripod but one can also successfully capture brilliant photographs free-hand.



cooeeImage Stabiliser NOT!

Métro de Paris (Paris Metro) dragging the shutterDragging the shutter or spinning the camera with a slow shutter can create very effective 'natural' special effects; more appeal and skilled (IMHO) than doing it in image editing. Blurring though movement is relatively simple and similar to 'Going Vertical' needs to be enough to be deliberate but not too much that renders the image unrecognisable (but eiffel tower la tour eiffel paris francethose can sometimes work also)

Spinning the camera is an old technique whereby you set a slow shutter (say 1/60th) and as you take the shot, spin the camera on the lens axis. The result is that the out regions of the image is blurred and less so towards the centre due to the fact that the spin has less effect closer to axis of the spin.

cooeeWhere am I:

Not lost in translation – scouting for a route at the Norway Swedish border Sverige.I always use a handheld GPS and have it running all the time I am out shooting, either in the car or hooked onto my camera back pack. When the time of the GSP is synchronised with the camera a ready reference is available for each photograph I take; made especially easy with the likes of Google Earth and Google Maps. And it is only a click away and all resultant images are embedded with the longitude and latitude.



After Shooting:

To this point, a lot of effort, energy, time and often expense so the run to the days 'finishing line' is in sight but the last process is just as important. It is easy, after a long days shooting to put of the edit and backup process till the next day, but should be done on the day for a few reasons; safeguarding your images will minimise lose potential and enable a better nights sleep; a quick edit will allow you to review the what's been captured for the day, if you have missed something you can redo it the next day, and my favourite, I find I process the images before and during sleep and the following days shoot benefits from the processing of this information.

Upload to laptop ensuring all files are complete and then screen images getting rid of out of focus images, bad exposures and just bad images. I find this process normally reduces the image quantity by about 20-30%.

Add the file information to the photographs. (Location, city, subject, names etc) if done now there is no need to commit those things to memory.

cooeeBacking up:

I still can see some images I took that I don't have due to not backing up; they are gone for good and the more I think about them the better they get. I not only backup to the computer but also the DVD each day and keep these copies separately from everything else. If I am away on a long trip, I even post home copies. A photographer friend used to create backups but kept the backups in his camera bag which also contained the laptop, all good until the camera pack was stolen out of the car. 2 weeks shooting gone. Insurance covered his kit, but the photos were gone for good.

Then repeat tomorrow, starting early for the sunrise...

Now that is it for shooting, editing next.

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