The Rule of Thirds

Who knows why, but dividing something into thirds is more pleasing to the eye than dividing it in half. This principle is applied to photography through the “rule of thirds.” My videography professor reminds his students of this “rule” all the time. It’s a simple guideline—not actually a hard-and-fast rule—that will help you compose better-looking photos and videos. Here’s how to use it:

  • Visualize a tic-tac-toe board over your screen, or enable the “guide lines” or “grid lines” feature in your camera’s options. This separates your potential picture (or video frame) into thirds.
  • Place the subject of your image on one of the lines, not between the lines. That is, if your subject is a person, put their eyes two-thirds of the way toward the top, and their head two-thirds of the way toward one side of the picture.

Heed the natural flow of the picture. For example, if a person is looking toward the right, put them near the left side of the picture and leave more space on the right side, so their eyes have “somewhere” to be looking.

This couple is walking toward their right, so I left more room on that side than on their left.

This couple is walking toward their right, so I left more room on that side than on their left.

In addition to providing room in the picture, so people’s gazes aren’t “cut off,” placing a subject off to one side simply makes the photo more interesting.

The dividing lines are slanted, but there are still three layers in this image. Can you see them?

The dividing lines are slanted, but there are still three layers in this image. Can you see them?

Of course, you may sometimes want to center a subject—to make it dramatic, for example, or to emphasize symmetry. As I’ve often said on this blog, use your own aesthetic judgment, experiment, and practice!


Brainstorm Before You Shoot

I tend to think of photography as an intuitive, spontaneous activity. I see something cool, I get my camera, and I shoot. I usually don’t plan how my pictures are going to look.

But I’m learning that I should. Years ago, I would have objected to any forethought that curbed my candids or squelched my spontaneity. Now I recognize that I should walk into some situations with specific shots in mind.

Rehearse it

When photographing events, try to talk to the person who planned it, or look at a schedule. Walk through the event in your mind, or, if you can, watch a rehearsal. The run-through may give you some ideas: “When he does this, I’ll get it from that angle.” It’s a photographer’s dream to know where people will stand and which way they’ll be facing, but even if you don’t know that much detail, you can still guess where the “big moments” will happen, and be on the lookout for them.

Invent it

Another way to be prepared is to keep a list of ideas for unique photos—writing them down will help you remember—and look for ways to capture them or set them up. Look back through your own shoots, and think of what you may have missed. Who else might have made an interesting face at that moment? Where else could you have been standing, and how would it have looked from that angle?

Wait for it

I had a great opportunity for repeat photo ops recently: rehearsals for a play. I saw people do the same thing over and over again, and get consistently better at it. While watching one scene, I got an idea for a caption, and decided that, next time they rehearsed that scene, I would take a picture specifically for that caption. My chance came, and the cast liked the end result. Win.

...he's doing the best he can.

I captioned this scene to mimic a saying from the old West.

The Sight of Music

Ahh, music and cameras—two things I love immensely—what combination could be better? Actually, it can be a tough combination. Photographing concerts is a challenge for several reasons:

  • Pictures can’t capture the main point of the concert—music.
  • Hoards of people who don’t want to be distracted by your flash.
  • Singing people make funny faces.
  • No control over the venue: lighting, placement of the subjects, background, etc.

This is a cool photo except for the mic in front of the performer’s face! Microphones may be the most common intrusive object I encounter in my photographic endeavors.

Despite these, I love photographing concerts (provided I won’t get in trouble—I ought to advise you, before we go further, to be respectful of your venue’s rules). I gravitate toward the challenge of shooting a situation I can’t control. Here are some things I’ve learned from shooting concerts:

  • I can’t control the background, so I must be careful to shoot from the right spot. Once, at a classical performance, I didn’t notice a light fixture on the wall behind the singer. I got home and found that the fixture was right behind my lovely main subject, and if I had sat a few feet to one side or the other, I could have avoided giving her Mickey Mouse ears in half my photos! Move around until you get a good background.
  • Even if the background is good, the subject’s face is constantly changing. Many singers and musicians express the emotion of their music in their face as well as in their voice/instrument. Take as many pictures as possible to increase the chances of getting good facial expressions. For singers, focus on words with “ee” sounds, as they make the singer “smile,” in a way. Also, don’t miss the moment the song ends, as the performer will smile for the applause!
  • I wrote about flash not long ago, so I won’t dwell on it in this post. I’ll just say it’s your own, individualized judgment call. Flash appears more intrusive in some venues than others. It can distract performers, which is why it’s sometimes not allowed at certain kinds of events (like figure skating shows). It may also be useless if you’re not close enough to the stage. As I said, your call. It depends on the individual event.

Photography can’t capture the heart of a musical performance as well as an audio recording, but concerts are fun to shoot and can afford lots of fancy lighting, costuming and facial expressions to play with.

Camcorders & Cameras: Double-Duty Devices

Multi-tools for multi-taskers—that’s what almost all companies try to sell nowadays, and the trend extends to cameras. You would be hard-pressed to find a still camera (or tablet, or phone, for that matter) that doesn’t also take videos, or a camcorder that doesn’t capture still images (perhaps even while it’s recording). But are these devices truly interchangeable?

Still cameras taking videos


Many point-and-shoot cameras come with HD video capabilities now (oh, how I wish that was the case seven years ago, when I got my current point-and-shoot!). The options, however, may be more limited than they are on a camcorder. For example, all HD formats are not created equal. There are two common resolutions classified as HD—720 and 1080—and 1080 is higher quality. Check the specs and see how many resolutions and video formats your camera will record, especially if you want to shoot high-quality video that stays sharp even when displayed on a very large screen.

Image & Sound Quality

A DSLR will give you the same amazing image quality in a video as in a photo. If you want a short depth of field in your video, a DSLR is especially helpful. I know a professional videographer who uses DSLRs to get short, crisp, close-up clips for his videos while also running camcorders for wide angles. I have read online that the sound quality from the best still camera can’t match that from a camcorder, but my limited experience has been that the sound from a Canon EOS 60D (DSLR) is at least as good as that from a Sony AVCHD camcorder.

…But Not for Long!

The main problem with still cameras comes with long, high-quality videos: you’ll have trouble taking them. That 60D I mentioned? It shuts off after about 12 minutes of recording at its highest quality. The screen says, “recording has stopped automatically,” I push the record button again, I wait for it to stop again, and so on.

This limitation is because of (a.) internal overheating or (b.) memory cards that can’t write data fast enough (depending on whom you ask). There are also import regulations that limit still cameras to recording no more than 30 minutes at a time, as mentioned in this article.

Camcorders Taking Stills

What about the other way around—can you get away with taking still images with a video camera? Don’t try unless you’re in a real pinch. The same general issues mentioned above apply to video cameras taking stills: lack of options, and the fact that if a device isn’t made to do something, it probably won’t do it very well. The other day, I tried taking pictures with a small, Sony camcorder, in a slightly under-lit room, and the photos turned out horribly grainy. Now, that’s not necessarily the case with all camcorders, but if you want pictures, invest in at least a point-and-shoot. Besides, not all camcorders can take photos while recording.

In a Nutshell

My opinion: buy a good still camera that can take video, unless you want to record an entire concert/recital/event, or record anything for over 12 minutes straight. Then get a camcorder.

Here’s a nice little article on this topic: Camcorders vs. Cameras: Both Take Video; Which Do You Need?

Turn Off Your Auto-Flash (or risk dirty looks from ushers and mountains)

There’s a common mistake that I see beginning photographers make–-I mean, I SEE them make it as I watch them take the picture. It’s called using automatic flash. “But flash is good; it makes everything brighter, right?” You would think! But no, not always. I thought that for a while, too, but over time, I’ve learned better.

“Automatic flash” means the camera measures how dark your subject is and decides whether you need your camera’s flashbulb to go off. This becomes a problem with two types of subjects, in my experience: those that are far-away and those in high-contrast surroundings. Today let me explain the far-away subject predicament.

Light Can Only Go So Far ( <– not 100% scientifically accurate, but this is photography, not physics).

Your camera, as smart as it may seem, doesn’t actually know what it’s looking at. It doesn’t know you’re pointing it across a river, toward a mountain. It just senses the amount of light around it and goes, “Oh, it’s dusk! Let’s flash!” So you flash at the mountain. Since the mountain is several thousand feet away, the light from your camera doesn’t reach it, and the photo comes out as dark as if you had used no flash–or, possibly, darker.

Wait, why would it come out darker?

Because when your camera turns on the flash, it quickens the shutter speed (unless you have manually set the shutter speed–in which case you may disregard this entire paragraph). That means the shutter stays open for a shorter amount of time, and less light gets into the camera. The less light, the darker the photo. (Can I get a “duh”?) So, using flash in most automatic or semi-automatic modes, and shooting a subject too far away for the flash to reach, will probably give you a darker photo than if you had not turned on flash in the first place.

Now, do “they” make flashes strong enough to reach that mountain? I don’t know. If the shutter waited a millisecond longer to click, would the light waves travel farther and reach the mountain at the right moment? I don’t know.

But I know activating a typical, built-in flash is pointless from Route 15’s scenic overlook, or from the back of a thousand-seat concert hall. Plus the usher might give you a dirty look. Better to rely on the venue’s lighting techs to provide the illumination, and turn your ISO up higher.

Hey, here's an example of one time I did what I'm telling you not to do! I didn't want to light up the flowers, but my flash accidentally went off.

Hey, here’s an example of one time I did what I’m telling you not to do! I didn’t want to light up the flowers, but my flash accidentally went off.

In editing, I made most of the flowers black-and-white and adding a darkening filter to the top. That took some emphasis off the flowers and made the image more visually consistent.

In editing, I made most of the flowers black-and-white and added a darkening filter to the top. That took some emphasis off the flowers and made the image more visually consistent.

Focal Black and White De-emphasizes Distractions

Sometimes I edit photos for fun, sometimes out of necessity. Sometimes I don’t like a photo very much until I mess around with it for quite a while on my computer. For example, at the local Renaissance Faire last year, I hastily took what I thought was a great picture. After getting it home, however, I had second thoughts.

The problem:

The subject was a couple walking hand-in-hand, and it was pretty cute. Just beyond them, however, was a bright red kiosk, and beyond that was a wall of bright green trees.

The solution:

The vivid colors in the background distracted from the muted tones of the subject. You know what that means: the black-and-white filter! I liked the flowers on the lady’s skirt, though – they were the only colorful part of the subject – so, instead of applying a straight black-and-white filter, I used Picasa’s “Focal B&W” option, which allows you to keep the coloring only within a particular part of the photo.

The problem with that filter is that you can’t select just any area to remain colored; it has to be a circular area. The way I got around this was to use the filter multiple times – first make the right side B&W, then the left side. Slowly, I “shaved off” areas of color, until everything except her was B&W. It wasn’t super precise – there was a bit of ground and background that was still colored, too (one reason I should really start using Photoshop instead of Picasa), but it was good enough if you didn’t look too closely. Adding another filter called “Cinemascope” helped to hide this imprecision.

  1. Putting a photo through a filter multiple times can yield results that you can’t get by putting it through only once, especially in a less powerful/flexible editing program.
  2. Don’t be too quick to toss an image because you don’t like it. Work with it for a while, and you may come to like the edited version. Of course, this tip comes with the disclaimer that your time is valuable, and you should develop and eye for which images CAN be rescued and which aren’t worth the trouble. This will simply come through experience.

Let it Be

I’m not a big fan of the Beatles, but let me tell you, “let it be” is a good piece of advice. It’s also one of the hardest for me to follow. As a photographer, my job is to make sure things look just right, both while I’m shooting and afterwards, on the computer. But there was this one photo last year: one photo that made me think about how much editing I do, and wonder if it was too much.

I was strolling back to my room on a particularly foggy evening when I noticed the way the fog got caught in the lights that shine up onto our flagpoles. The beams of light were clearly defined by the mist, and the mist was constantly moving – I could see particles of water dancing in the air, even though there was barely a breeze. I took a lot of pictures that were essentially the same, hoping to capture the almost magical quality of the scene.

Back in my room, I loaded the photos into Picasa. This was one of my favorites:

I tried making it brighter, the color more saturated, and the shadows deeper, but nothing made me like it more than I liked it when I first took it. This was almost frustrating at first, because, for me, half the fun of photography is editing. It’s counter-intuitive for me to not “fix” something, regardless of whether it’s actually broken. This photo wasn’t broken, though, and in the end I decided it didn’t need fixing. I posted it to SmugMug as-is.

As I hone my photography skills, and get experience with better cameras, I’m challenging myself to take better photos, in the first place – so I don’t have to edit so much – and to recognize when a photo starts out bright enough or with the right coloring. As a perfectionist, that’s hard, but it’s part of having a good, artistic eye. Know when to let an image “be”.