Found a peanut!

Cropping digital landscape photos for a better composition
John's earlier article on using GIMP to straighten photos

Wikipedia's article on the Rule of Thirds

Photospot's article on the Rule of Thirds

Wikipedia on iPhoto

Wikipedia on Windows Live Photo Gallery

Wikipedia on Windows Photo Gallery

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The term 'landscape' here has two related meanings.  When you take a picture of rural scenery, that's a landscape photo.  Doing that, you usually hold the camera so that the photo will be wider than it is high, and that's called the landscape orientation, as opposed to the portrait orientation, which produces a photo that is higher than it is wide.  Landscape photography is fun and easy because, generally, the scene just sits there and lets you shoot it, as opposed to puppies and children, for example, that don't.  But there's an artful way to do anything.  You can see a beautiful scene and immediately take a picture of it only to be disappointed in the resulting, less-than-beautiful photo.  If you take some time to compose each photo and keep a few simple principles in mind as you shoot and also as you finally edit your landscapes, you'll have better results with the pictures you take.

Compose the elements

After you straighten a photo, identify its most interesting part or parts-- its subject.  It's probably what made you decide to take the photo in the first place.  It might be the sky or the way the light shines on some water, or a particular object like a tree, or a group of such things.  Notice how these parts fit together and into the scene as a whole.  Now decide which elements of the scene don't belong and that distract from the interesting parts.  The simpler the composition, the easier for the eye of the beholder to take it in and recognize it as such.  Organizing the elements so that everything is just where it should be is best done when you shoot the photo, but consider using the crop tool of your editing software to eliminate the distractions and simplify the composition.  Keep in mind that cropping is a “lossy” thing to do and that your photos will be physically smaller for it.  This is a good reason to use a camera with lots of megapixels and always use the setting on your camera that produces the largest photos.

Tell a “story”

A good landscape composition has a foreground, a middle and a background, in much the same way that a good story has a beginning/introduction, a main section and an ending.  In the foreground we see details related somehow to the subject.  Behind the foreground, in the middle ground and in very clear focus, we see the interesting part or parts.  Behind those things, in the background, we see elements that complete the setting of the scene: rolling hillside, sky, mountains, or whatever.

Apply the Rule of Thirds

Artists realized centuries ago that if the subject is in the center of the scene, the composition is not nearly as effective as when it is off to the side.  Photos with this centered-subject problem just look like snapshots.  According to the Rule of Thirds, there are ideal locations for the subject.  To find them, imagine four evenly-spaced lines drawn across your scene, dividing the entire photo into horizontal and vertical thirds as in the figure below.
Gracie finds a peanut
The Rule of Thirds
The four places where the lines intersect are the most effective spots for the subject, though along any of the lines is better than at center.  Further, the most effective use of those spots, in the case of a subject in parts, is to locate those parts in diagonally opposite spots if possible. 
In photos that include the horizon, crop to place the horizon on or near one of the horizontal lines.  If the subject is below the horizon, use the upper line for the horizon.  If the subject is in or is seen against the sky, or if the sky or part of the sky is the subject, place the horizon on the lower line.  When using the rule of thirds this way, it may NOT be necessary to locate the subject at or near an intersection of the lines.

Cropping tools

Looking for photo editing software with a cropping tool?  Macintosh computers come with iPhoto, which has a good set of basic editing tools, including a crop tool with Rule of Thirds guidelines.  Windows 7 comes with Windows Live Photo Gallery, which also has a good set of  basic editing tools, including a crop tool.  Windows Vista comes with Windows Photo Gallery, which does include a crop tool.  Windows XP comes with Paint, which is pretty useless in this context, but XP users can install and use the free photo editing application, GIMP.  A future article in this series will detail cropping with GIMP.

There are other things that add strength and interest to a composition, like diagonals and S-curves that lead the eye to the subject, and there are ways to use the Rule of Thirds in portraits and portrait-oriented photos.  Further, the Rule of Thirds is meant to be broken sometimes, too.  Experiment with it.  Do some reading in the links at the left and begin to compose your photos and crop them to enhance your compositions.
May 27, 2012

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