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The Rule of Thirds

Readers Response

In response to the article on Safari Photography in our special December edition (click here for the article), Steve from Clifton Park, New York offered the following valuable feedback on his own recent experience:

"I'm a serious photographer (not a pro by any means). After learning about Chuck and Martha's experience (including the extra plane ticket for the photo gear) I did extensive research and purchased a (newest technology) Panasonic Lumix FZ35. It's a fixed SLR with a single fixed lens that zoomed from 27mm to 480mm. With the digital stabilization and abundant resolution it was effectively a 1000 mm lens. It only weighed 1.25 lbs complete and I only brought several tiny accessories: (1) extra batteries, (2) several 8Gb flash cards, (3) a UV filter (always installed), (4) Circular polarizing filter, and (5) an aluminum monopod that folded down to 15 inches. (This last accessory was a good compromise to the big tripod, which as you know is useless on safari in a Land Rover, and bought me two stops in extra stability. The camera was Sharp and I got what was probably the best photos of my life. And all for less than $600 including the accessories listed above.

I got great photos of birds in flight and other action shots that my fellow travelers with their big, heavy cameras could not get. I'll send you a CD of some of my photos soon - they are almost ready. You may want to consider such an option for the second and even the third column on your digital photography recommendation. "

The Rule of Thirds

This is one of the simplest but most effective guidelines for photographic composition that has been familiar to artists since the days of ancient Greece. Simply stated, the rule of thirds asserts that a photograph has more vitality and visual appeal if the subject is not in the center of the photo, but is roughly one third from the edge.

The theory is that a viewer's eye is instinctively drawn to the center of a picture - if the focal point is not immediately detected, one's eyes scan the rest of the image. Sooner or later the subject is located but, in the course of searching, other attractive elements of the photo are discovered. The eye is continually drawn back to the center of photo but, finding nothing, the search begins anew, perhaps following a different path each time. This dynamic process engages the viewer's visual sense and sustains interest in the composition.

The technical instructions for composition according to the "rule of thirds" require one to imagine two vertical and two horizontal lines dividing the image into thirds from left to right and from top to bottom respectively. The ideal location for a subject is at one of the four intersection points between these four lines (marked by white ovals in the adjacent picture).

One of the most common applications of the "rule of thirds" in safari photography is for landscape photos, and particularly sunset shots. Try to divide your scene into three horizontal layers of roughly equal proportion such that the line of the horizon falls either at the bottom or top third of the photo, never in the middle. This essentially creates a photo with a "foreground", "mid-ground", and "background".


Try to compose the photo such that each of these three dimensions contains features of interest such that there is no "dead space" in the photo - the "foreground" (bottom third of the photo) is often the most challenging in this regard, but try to make use of interesting rock formations, vegetation, reflections on water, lines of movement, etc. to lend visual interest in this part of the photo as a complement to the dramatic colors of the sky.


The "rule of thirds" also has application in photographing animals. In most instances, the subject matter for a single animal is its eyes (or face). Try to compose your animal shots in such a way that the eyes are not dead center, but at one of the intersection points described above. This typically requires locking the camera's focus on the subject matter (the eyes), then moving the camera to recompose the shot. The simplest way to do this, with most cameras, is to push the shutter release button down half way to establish focus on the eyes, and hold the button in that position while you recompose the photo; once you're happy with the composition take the shot by fully depressing the shutter release.

The "rule of thirds" is not absolute, and there are instances in which centering the subject produces a pleasingly symmetrical image, or having the subject closer to the edge creates dramatic tension. But most safari scenes lend themselves very well to this basic composition rule and, with just a little practice before the safari, most travelers can significantly improve the quality of photos that they bring home by becoming familiar with this valuable guideline.

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