Home ESSAYS AND INSPIRATION Professional Development: A Different “Rule of Thirds”

Professional Development: A Different “Rule of Thirds”


As photographers who regularly visit photography web sites and blogs, we all seem to be driven by very personal commitments to learn new things and to improve. Over the years I’ve been using my own ‘rule of thirds’ – not as a composition technique – but as an approach to help me direct my own development efforts when it comes to photography. As is often said, “So much to learn, and so little time!” Basically my “rule of thirds” focuses on three factors that are always involved when creating images and can also help guide our development as photographers:

  1. My skill and vision as a photographer
  2. The equipment I use
  3. The software I use in post processing

(Note: I hope you don’t mind that some of my favorite images are sprinkled though this article to provide visual breaks)

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR VR 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 30mm, ISO 800, 1/20, f/5.6

Our skill and vision as a photographer

Above all else, I think this is the most important ingredient in the images that each of us makes every time we press the shutter. There are technical, creative and emotional aspects to this ingredient. For most of us, the technical aspects are the ones easiest to pursue. The internet is full of websites and videos that provide all kinds of solid information about the technical aspects we need to understand in order to take specific types of images. Just reading the selection of technically oriented articles here on Photography Life alone would take hundreds of hours.

NIKON D800 + TAMRON 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 600mm, ISO 6400, 1/80, f/6.3

In my own journey, I think I’ve learned the most by identifying a hole in my understanding and then searching out specific articles and videos to begin to learn about it. I know I’m just a big piece of Swiss cheese. I’m all full of holes and as soon as I begin filling one, others seem to emerge. And, the more I think I’ve learned, the more I realize that there is so much more ahead. While dedicated information searches have proven very worthwhile, it has also been beneficial to simply take some time and surf around the web. I’ve stumbled on many interesting articles and videos this way and as a result I’ve been exposed to some great ideas I may not have found otherwise.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 7.3mm, ISO 160, 1/125, f/5.6

One of my favourite things to do when I have some time, is to go to a site like Google Images and type in a geographic location, subject matter or photographic technique and just browse through the resulting images. Invariably, a few images will hit me right between the eyes! When that happens the first question I ask myself is “What do I need to learn to make an image like that?” Then the journey to fill that specific hole begins. The creative aspects of my development are usually driven by one of three things: a challenge that I set for myself; forcing myself to see the world around me through ‘big eyes’; or seeing it with a ‘narrow focus’.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 165mm, ISO 3200, 1/40, f/5.6

Self-imposed challenges can be going to a specific location with only one camera/lens combination, or choosing to only shoot very specific subject matter. One of my favourite pastimes is going to the zoo with a specific image challenge, and it has yielded some interesting images.

NIKON 1 V2 + NIKKOR VR 70-200mm f/4G @ 200mm, ISO 1600, 10/500, f/4.0

Looking at the world around me with ‘big eyes’ allows me to see angles, shapes, colours and contrasts that I may have missed otherwise. I find this technique is often useful when I’m on holidays as it helps me see image opportunities that I may have missed with ‘tourist eyes’.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 110mm, ISO 160, 10/25000, f/5.6

Seeing with a ‘narrow focus’ is when I take the time to study the details around me. Not just a flower or an insect, but the eye of an insect or a particular petal on a flower. Looking at the intricacies of small things always seems to make me appreciate the design and balance that is found in nature. It forces me to see the world around me differently, and can help stimulate my creativity.

NIKON D800 + NIKKOR 70-200 f/4G VR @ 200mm, ISO 1000, 10/5000, f/11.0

The emotional factor can often be the most interesting one to pursue. To me, this one is all about taking risks with images and ‘putting them out there’ in some kind of public way. Whether that is done by posting them on the internet, sharing them with friends or associates, or at camera club meetings, makes no difference. Whenever any of us chooses to take a risk with an image and share it, we face the potential of eliciting a negative reaction and criticism. When we are willing to take that risk, we put ourselves on the road to self-improvement.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR VR 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 18.9mm, ISO 800, 1/200, f/4.8

The equipment we use

Obviously, the equipment that each of us uses can have a direct impact on the types of images we create. Sometimes if we don’t have a particular piece of equipment, it can make it almost impossible to take a particular type of image. Many times I think we suffer from gear acquisition syndrome. We make the assumption that owning the newest and the ‘best’ gear will somehow make us better photographers, and we’re often disappointed when we make an investment in new gear only to discover that the quality of our images hasn’t changed. Having said that, I think that it is true that there are times when the gear we own does help make us better photographers. It all depends on the impact that gear has on us.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 30mm, ISO 160, 1/2, f/5.6

Like many folks, I have a decent investment in camera gear. At some point, if I ever wind my business down, I’ll likely have less, but right now I’m settled in with my current FX/CX approach: Nikon D800 and Nikon 1 V2’s, along with my assortment of FX and CX lenses. If I had to choose between my D800 and my Nikon 1 V2 in terms of which camera helped me improve the most as a photographer during the time that I’ve owned it – the Nikon 1 V2 would win hands down.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 51.2mm, ISO 1600, 1/200, f/4.2

The obvious question to answer is “Why?”

Shooting with my D800 is a wonderful experience. As other owners will attest, it is a superbly capable piece of equipment and it does provide for all kinds of creative expression that some other bodies may not allow. It can also be a somewhat unforgiving camera that requires good technique in order to get good results. So, in many ways, I’m sure owning a D800 has helped many people become better photographers, and it has also helped me – but not as much as my Nikon 1 V2.

The inherent limitations with the Nikon 1 V2 continually force me to be creative. To look for innovative ways to use it. To shoot around its limitations. When I use my V2, I know that I am much more aware of the camera, its capabilities/limitations and the subject I am trying to capture with it, than I am when I use my D800. Shooting with the Nikon 1 V2 forces me to be more engaged in the image making process, because there is a larger element of risk involved.

NIKON D800 + TAMRON 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 600mm, ISO 1250, 1/250, f/6.3

There is an unbroken level of confidence that comes with shooting with my D800. It’s the feeling you have when you simply ‘know’ at your core that you’ll get the shot. And, it’s one of the reasons I always shoot client work with it. That same level of absolute confidence does not exist with my Nikon 1 V2 – and it’s one of the things I love about the camera. There is always an underlying risk, however small, that I feel when I use one. I’m never quite sure if what I’m trying to do with it is actually going to work out in terms of creating the image that is in my mind. As strange as it may seem, it is because of its inherent limitations that the Nikon 1 V2 has had a greater impact on me as a photographer than has the D800.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR VR 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 11.3mm, ISO 160, 50/10, f/5.6

For the same reasons, some photographers intentionally pick film cameras, because they know that the camera will make them slow down. There will be no live view, no image preview, no way to see the image until it is fully developed. John wrote an excellent piece on why he shoots film and Laura wrote her thoughts about using film professionally for her wedding photography. Without a doubt, slowing down and understanding limitations made both John and Laura better photographers.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 97.2mm, ISO 800, 1/60, f/5.3

One final thought about gear is simply this: it is far better for me to learn about the gear I currently own and push myself to experiment with it and use it as fully and as creatively as possible, rather than chase after the latest stuff. All that does is force me to spend time learning the fundamentals of another piece of gear, and put my personal development on hold as a result.

The software we use

During the past year I have learned one critical lesson about photographic software. For many of us owning it and using it can be akin to a religious experience. It is simply incredible to witness how animated discussions can be – sometimes past the point of civility – when software programs and post-processing approaches are discussed.

NIKON D800 + TAMRON 150-600 @ 600mm, ISO 400, 10/12500, f/8.0

The use of software is a very important ‘third’, and in my mind ranks second behind skill and vision in terms of its potential impact on the images that each of us creates. Advances in software are leveling the playfield between various camera formats and can go a long way to enhance the overall quality of an image. I struggled for a number of years trying to figure out what software program to use and I wasted a lot of time trying to learn new programs. All that did was slow down my development as a photographer. Quite simply, I paid too much attention to the opinions of others and not enough time concentrating on the final images I was producing and what was working for me.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 110mm, ISO 3200, 1/500, f/5.6

As photographers, we are often looking for the ‘secret sauce’ for our images. I think that most of us already have the tool(s) to create our own ‘secret sauce’. It’s probably the software we have on our computers right now. I really don’t think it matters at all whether we choose to use Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, or any one of a host of other programs. They all provide us similar capabilities to enhance our images. The key is to find what feels most comfortable for each of us.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR 32mm f/1.2 @ 32mm, ISO 160, 1/60, f/5.6

So, we need to use what we have. Study it. Learn all that we can about it. Then, be prepared to do the most important thing of all – experiment with it. Put everything we’ve learned on a back burner and just play with it. Pull all of our sliders to the extremes and watch what happens to our images, and make a mental note. Throw ‘incremental’ improvements out of the window when we experiment and purposely go ‘over the edge’ on everything. When we climb back up from the precipice we will have found our own ‘secret sauce’.

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 110mm, ISO 800, 1/320, f/5.6

‘Rule of Thirds’ review

Once a year I make a big pot of coffee and take some time to think about how I’ve been using my ‘rule of thirds’ in my own development as a photographer.

I ask myself some simple questions:

  1. What have I learned from a technical standpoint and how is that new knowledge making my images better?
  2. How have I challenged myself creatively? What did I learn?
  3. What risks have I taken with my images? What did I learn?
  4. What have I done differently with my equipment or learned about my equipment that is making my images better?
  5. What have I learned about the software I’m using and how I’m using it that is making my images better?

NIKON 1 V2 + 1 NIKKOR 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 129.4mm, ISO 1600, 1/100, f/5.6

If I can answer those questions with clarity, then I know I’ve had a good year. If I can’t – then I’ve let myself down and hurt my development.

You can tell from my photo I’m a grizzled old guy. With good genetics and some luck, I may have another 30 years or so ahead of me. My intent is to stay green and growing. Let’s do that together for many years to come!

NIKON D7000 + Nikkor 70-200 f/4G @ 200mm, ISO 400, 10/25000, f/6.3

Article and all images Copyright Thomas Stirr. All rights reserved. No use, duplication, copying or adaptation of any kind is allowed without written consent.

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