The Rule of Thirds Isn’t Enough

  • Leading Lines in Nature

    What Varina Photographed

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    What Varina Saw

When I arrived at the beach near Jökulsárlón in Iceland for the first time, I couldn’t stop grinning. This was a magical place. Brilliant, blue icebergs rocked in the waves that crashed along the shoreline – leaving streaks of white foam that stood out in smooth patterns against the fine, black sand.
I wandered along the coast, setting up my camera and taking a shot every few minutes as I noticed one interesting subject after another.

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    I noticed a crystal-clear ice sculpture on the black sand – and left my shutter open long enough to capture the foam framing it, and pulling back toward the sea.

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    I noticed a shiny rock on the sand, and just for fun, I pulled out my macro lens to focus on my tiny reflection on it’s surface.

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    I got in close to a large block of ice, and filled the foreground with it – creating a monochromatic image that highlighted the patterns and reflections in the ice.

I took one photograph after another, loving every minute of the process – and finding a thousand subjects that wanted my attention.
In the years that followed, I’ve returned to this beach time and time again – and each time, I am inspired. But, after returning to the same place several times – no matter how incredible that place might be – it’s hard to produce a completely new photograph. That’s my goal, of course. I don’t want to recreate the images I’ve created in the past… and I don’t want to imitate the work of others either. I want to create something unique. Something that showcases the location in a new way.

So, the last time I visited, I ignored the obvious compositions, and I wandered the beach more slowly… looking for a subject that would challenge my creativity.

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I stood beside one iceberg for a long time – noticing the patterns in its surface, and watching the soft light begin to paint the sky behind it. I noticed that if I got down on one knee, I could look through the iceberg and see the mountains in the distance… and I knew I had found my subject. The challenge would be to create the composition I wanted before the color faded from the sky.

I set up my camera so that the mountains were framed by the beautiful patterns in the ice, and I got in as close as I could to eliminate anything distracting from my frame. I focused on the ice near my camera – and adjusted my aperture so that the mountains in the distance would be soft… but not so soft that they faded to nothing but blur. I chose my shutter speed for proper exposure, and fired a shot… and I love the result. It’s different – totally unique – and it shows the intimate beauty of this incredible place.

Composition is about so much more than most of my students realize. It’s about choosing your subject – and deciding which elements in the scene will complement it. But you can’t stop there! The best photographers are the ones who pay just as much attention to what they don’t want in their frame… and when they have considered subject and background, light and shadow, contrast and shape and form – they still aren’t finished. Because it’s not just about what you see through your viewfinder – it’s about what you want your viewer to see in your finished artwork.

  • Remember that first photo I took? With the smooth lines of foam pulling back toward the sea? I used a long shutter speed to show those lines.
  • Remember the close-up shot of the iceberg that was all about patterns and reflections? I used a neutral density filter to smooth the surface of the water for a more subtle foreground.
  • Remember the tiny self-portrait in the rock? I used a special macro lens to get low and close to my subject.

The choices I made with settings and lenses and filters, had a very real impact on each finished work.

When I’m teaching, I get more questions about composition than just about any other subject – but most of the time, my students don’t realize they are asking about composition. That’s why I created our new Creating Impact Course. I wanted to share more than the basic rules. I wanted to push way beyond the standard teaching of composition – which is so often glossed over or dismissed as beginner fare. There is so much more to composition than most photographers realize.

Feel free to share your own examples in the comments below.

Check out the following tutorials on Visual Wilderness:

About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.