Use the Rule of Thirds for Great Story-Telling Photos in the Outdoors

News & Tips: Use the Rule of Thirds for Great Story-Telling Photos in the Outdoors...

Sitting around the fireplace this past winter, the family and I were reviewing photos taken during the previous camping season. Shots of campfires and camp setups, wildlife exploring the campground, and campers in action. Each photo told a story. The stories told in our photos revealed sights, sounds and other senses. It was enjoyable to relive, as we passed them around in front of the hearth.

You've heard it: "A picture is worth a thousand words." Oh how true that is. But there are photography techniques that can improve the storytelling. These results can be easily achieved by anyone and at any photography skill level. Quality camera gear does provide the tools necessary to improve the chances of high-quality photographs, but any camera can capture the story unfolding before the lense.

With outdoor photography, there are four elements to target for a great story telling photo: the primary subject (wildlife, person, landmark), the subject's environment (habitat, setting, supporting landscape), weather or seasonal effects (birds flying before a storm, autumn foliage), and the action or event's theme or topic (hiking a trail, wildlife eating, landmark's impact on landscape).

Composing it All

Identifying these four elements before the photo is taken is only the first step to a storytelling photo. The second and possibly the most important step is composing the shot. After a bit of practice, composition will become automatic. Regarding photo composition, there is a time-tested guideline, and that is the "the rule of thirds." The rule of thirds is simply this, draw imaginary lines (two vertical and two horizontally), dividing the scene into thirds. The points, at which these lines intersect, are where the subject(s) should be placed.

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Use the rule of thirds when taking photos, as the grid above shows.


Following the rule of thirds creates a canvas for painting your picture's story. For example, capturing a child fishing on a pleasant day, with a few puffy clouds rolling overhead, you should do this:

In the camera's viewfinder, with the imaginary lines in mind, position the camera so the child is in one of the lower intersections and the child's focus on the water towards the opposite, lower intersection. Since the sky is a pleasing addition to telling the story, keeping the child in the lower third section, allows the middle and upper third to include as much sky as possible. If the day is overcast, then focus on the water as the secondary subject. For this shot, move the child to one of the upper thirds and fill the middle and lower thirds with water.

Remember, you're telling a story so compose as much of the experience into the photo as possible. The goal is for the viewer to "feel" the scene portrayed in the photo.