Natural lawn of No Mow fescue 938-026
In our last lesson, we learned to fill the frame of a composition with only those elements that contribute to the story—the most important lesson to remember in creating a good garden photo. A painter will not waste canvas space, and a photographer should not waste image space either. Using the entire frame, then, is a given, whether it’s accomplished in the camera or by cropping on the computer later. Every other technique assumes that you will use the whole frame. Now, how do we arrange the elements into a balanced composition?

Throughout the book, we will discuss balance and the techniques used to fill the frame and guide the viewer to engage with the subject. A concept called the “rule of thirds” will underpin many of the ways to achieve good weight and balance, using the shapes and spaces, the colors, textures, lines, and focal points that make photos interesting.

Here is the “Fill the Frame” succulent tapestry from lesson 1.1. Its composition is a full frame of shapes that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Recall that I found this composition from a wider view of the garden.

California drought tolerant succulent garden 871-16

How did I decide that this was the best image within the photograph? I chose a frame that would reflect an image of 1/3 and 2/3—the rule of thirds.

diagonal lines within frame 871-15

From lesson 1.1, a full-frame crop and now showing the thirds balance line.

From lesson 1.1, a full-frame crop and now showing the thirds balance line

The rule of thirds can apply to horizontals, verticals, and, as in this example, diagonals. It is a simple concept that gives a natural, pleasing sense of balance by dividing the composition into two unequal shapes (here, roughly 1/3 of the photo and 2/3 of the photo) and thus creating some subtle interest and tension. The rule of thirds can be thought of in many ways and can be applied to shapes, lines, and color. On a basic level, look for the lines of a horizon to place in the upper part of a composition, as below:

Tulip Festival, Skakgit Valley

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

The bottom row of tulips fills almost exactly 1/3 of the frame, but the distant hills offer another good way to consider the composition. Note that the hill on the left is about 1/3 in from the left edge. This was not accident: I played with framing in the camera viewfinder until the hills filled the top of the image with just the right balance.

Let’s find another composition here using the rule of thirds concept, this time using a telephoto lens. This same scene sequence will reappear when we talk about lenses in section 4.  The bands of color divide the frame into a composition of thirds.

Tulip Festival, Skakgit Valley

There is never one best photo in a beautiful scene. It is the great creative joy of all photographers to interpret what they see and tell their own stories. Just be fully aware of which elements you need to use in each composition and balance them in a way that invites your audience to linger. This is especially true as you consider the art of garden photography. Be very aware of how you fill that canvas that is your framed composition. Later in the series, we will explore special artistic effects and the capabilities of computer manipulation [Book 4].  One photo can morph into a series of distinct images with filters and post-production techniques.

Tulip Festival, Skakgit Valley

As an example, our tulip field has now been reduced to pure shape and color. Note how the green element appears in the bottom 2/3 of the frame, interlocking the pink and red bands I really like to use such interlocking shapes of line and color to block a photo I’m composing. I use blocking as a loose term, the way theater folks block out a scene—a way of thinking about what elements will balance a photo.

Here, even in a vertical photo we see the rule of thirds at work, as the bottom 2/3 of the frame (the lavender) merges with the top 2/3 (the orange wall).


I have blocked out the image using the edges of the frame to create a balanced interlocking composition In the next section of the book (“Think Like a Camera”), we will deal almost exclusively with techniques and lessons pertaining to composition, but it all goes back to blocking and balance. There are different kinds of balance in an image; interlocking them is the height of good composition. Let’s look at various ways the rule of thirds can be used for blocking within a photo.


In this autumn tapestry of fall color at Filoli Garden, I was giddy with all the foliage and garden color; there was so much going on. I felt the key elements of a photographic “jigsaw puzzle” were the colors, the reds, yellows, and greens, laid over the more rigid shapes of the tree and wall. No matter how complex the composition, it still needs to feel balanced. In this composition, I was careful to use the rule of thirds, first to include the piece of garden wall that divides top and bottom, and then the tree that separates left and right.

holt_287_6266-thirds.jpgThat bottom right intersection of the grid of thirds lines, where the tree and wall come together, is a “sweet spot” and is impossible to miss in the composition. In this photo, that sweet spot is vital to recognizing this as a garden photo, for that small piece of wall only appears at that one point.

There is another subtle use of the rule of thirds going on here, too. There are the three main colors, each using about a third of the space. They are carefully balanced within the frame and the overlay of the grid of thirds. What really made me realize this was a special photo was seeing those colors presented (perhaps subconsciously) in blocks of thirds. I filled the frame and arranged a balance of the green interlocking with three blocks of yellow and three blocks of orange/red.


I will admit it is a fairly sophisticated composition. It takes years of practice to get a personal style where you can envision the balance within a scene. But it is a constantly evolving and enjoyable process, for beginner or professional, and becomes simpler as we better understand photography and gardens. There is more to balance than the rule of thirds. I like to talk about the lines and triangles within a photo that help achieve a sense of balance. Earlier, we saw diagonal triangles in the succulent tapestry. Now, look at this quiet photo from Mt. Cuba Center in Delaware:


The light streaming into the photo creates a fine triangle that, combined with the reflection and the line of the water’s edge, makes a composition that moves the eye past the chairs to the rock focal point, creating a bit of yin-yang dynamic balance. The three sides of any triangle offer wonderful ways of seeing interconnecting shapes and linking together a composition. Can you also see the various ways this photo benefits from the rule of thirds?

The rule of thirds is not the only way to create balance. The balance of two elements—the concept of yin and yang—is well illustrated in this photo:


The diagonal line, carefully composed to achieve balance with the negative spaces and leaf shapes, divides the photo neatly into two equal shapes; the leaves are positive shapes, while the blurred background is negative space. Negative spaces can create their own blocks and can be powerful composition tools; we will work with them later in Section 2. Dividing a photo carefully in two culminated in the image of “The One“, where I worked my way into seeing the blocks of color with lines zipping through, creating a balanced yet interconnected image.


Even though an obvious balance can be seen in in the two halves of the photo, careful study shows a wedge-like triangle in the middle, taking up about 2/3 of the space, leaving 1/3 for the flanking grasses. Overlaying the entire composition are the three blocks of color (green, orange, and gray), all laced together with those zipping seed heads. Love those thirds! Now let’s revisit that opening photo for this lesson.

I think you can see the rule of thirds used in several ways here: vertically (tree trunks) and horizontally (bands of turf and grasses); a balance of rectangular shapes and straight lines; light grasses and dark trunks; and other “tricks” of composition that we will learn about in Book 2 – Think Like a Camera. When you are working in the garden with the camera, you may not have time to fully analyze each scene for good composition before taking a photo. Much of this step becomes intuitive with practice: things simply fall into place. The second Section of this workshop series, “Think Like a Camera,” focuses on specific tools and techniques for creating fine compositions. There are lessons on perspective, focal points, leading lines, shapes, and framing. But, for our introduction to Good Garden Photography, we now move on to “Finding the Light.”

Additional posts for Balance. Lesson tag.1.2

The One – Getting to a final balance composition.

Prairie Delights – Natural shapes balanced in the frame.