Thinking in threes
Today’s idea is a simple concept that when properly grasped and practised will be a very powerful tool for you in your box of skills and ideas. It’s something you can use straight away when you are out in the thick of shooting and want some help composing.
It is, put simply, to learn to compose your photos using just three elements, so let’s start ‘thinking in threes.’ Let me explain.
Humans love a pattern and three is the smallest number that you can use to create a pattern. Patterns are pleasing to look at, we also like to talk in threes (‘small, medium, large’, ‘blood, sweat and tears’, ‘past, present, future.’) and they are interesting to create with.
When I am composing in threes I am trying to keep things simple. An element can be weather, textures, lines, shapes…things! Anything that is strong within the frame that contributes significantly to the balance and relationships and is enhancing your subject. Remember, the only purpose of supporting elements is to make your SUBJECT look better.
Now if you can learn to compose really simple photos, using only three elements (one subject and two supporting elements) it will also enhance your photos when you take on more complex compositions. You will be more confident in organising and placing your elements.
“What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.” William Albert Allard
Why three elements?
In a lot of photography I see from people the subject is drowning in complexity. It’s all alone in a sea of confusion with nothing to save it. No support, no lifejacket to be had. There is just too much going on for the eye to focus on the subject. In most of my favourite compositions there are only three things in them. I start with 1) a subject and 2) one or two supporting things (elements).
(And for inspiration from the masters, have a look at some of Edward Weston’s still lives, especially the pepper and the cabbage leaf. Wow. Or Imogen Cunningham’s still lives of plants. Also Edward Weston’s son, Brett Weston had a beautiful way with photographing simple subjects like plants.)
When you are looking at these photos, or my photos below, I really want to encourage you to think – what are the elements at work here?
(An aside, but slightly relevant to that last point, I’ve been reading my daughter an excellent children’s book about Imogen Cunningham which she loves because Imogen is a photographer like me 🙂 Even better is the same author’s book about Georgia O’Keeffe, sub-titled ‘When Georgia O’Keeffe painted what she pleased.’ I’m always looking to promote a bit of rebel spirit to my daughter.)
Now – this is not a simple concept to put into practise, because the less you have in a photo the more significant it is. The louder the voice of each element really becomes. But it is the most excellent training for your eye (and your feet!) – and most of all when you find a subject or an element that you really love, that you really want to show off, creating a simple composition around it is the best way to do so.
So let’s look at some examples.
Now, what do we think are the three elements are here? Well, we have the lovely pretty pink cloudy sky, and then it’s the heavy grey columns creating a fantastic frame for the sky. All pretty cool. Now the third element – that oval shape at the top of the image that’s created partly by the light coming through the roof. If you took that away the image would be much flatter, but instead the contrasting textures, sky and bricks, distinctly improve the image.
And this photo is a great of example of how you can truly see that a third element gives the image a bit of added complexity so that it’s not too simple, but in reverse there isn’t too much to overload the image. It’s a perfect balance of three.
Now to the photo below. This was taken in Paris when I was wandering around the grounds of the Science Museum, which is more than a little eerie at dawn. It looks post-apocalyptic. I was walking around not really finding anything when I walked past this. I liked that this giant silver ball ( The Geode) was cut off by the leaves. And with this beautiful framing of bare branches seen in real detail on the soft, almost transparent sky. There is a lot, a lot you can do with bare branches – and here they are framing the photo really nicely – always look out for them when you are outside in the winter and need another element to add something interesting.
Now below, I am going to say that this is very typical subject for me – beautiful cloudy sky. I have hundreds, maybe even thousands of photos where cloud and the colour of the sky are the subject. But the sky is almost never on its own. I always need a third element. And I will say that here what’s effective is that the third element is very small, contrasting so nicely with the vastness of sky.
I think I am drawn quite often to the macabre. I like that interplay of beauty and desolate. Here we have almost a painterly blue sky. And then this dead tree. Bleak man. And then the last element is the ground. It’s almost the same composition as the photo above, but instead of going dead centre with the tree, I placed it along one of the ‘rule of thirds’ points of interest (if you want to know more about rule of thirds check this out.)
This was taken in Joshua Tree National Park in my native California. It’s a weird place, baking hot desert full of all these gnarly, stumpy cacti. I liked this one in particular because it sort of looks like a fighter or a belly dancer leaning backwards. There is beautiful movement in this tree – and you know what, I think there is a lot of suggestion of movement in trees.
In this photo below the three elements are – the building, the sky and the window washers. I think what works here is this contrast of the small men and the vast tower. But what makes it so pleasing to the eye is the two colours of blue and yellow, along with the epic pattern of lines. See – eyes love repetitive patterns!
As you can see from a bunch of my photos I love weather and I love colour. So here below I have my perfect combination. But the third element that brings it all together is the ships. You almost need a break in all that wispy floaty colour. You need something solid in there as a contrast. This is a great example of how a subject does not need to dominate the frame.
A young swan in a Hackney canal, early one Sunday morning. Clearly the swan is one element, and then you have the swampy looking water as the second. And as the last element you have the building, which when meeting the water, creates a strong line. Because the colours are quite subtle there needed to be something strong pulling it all together and I think the line in the horizon does that.
One day I found a skeleton of a horse. It was such a weird thing to see and so I just had to shoot it (can’t think of a single TOG who would pass this up). So the three things here are obviously the skeleton, then the lush green of the grass and then the sky. Very simple, clean and impactful.
I am probably a biggest fan of this ‘thinking in threes’ when it comes to portraits. Simple, colorful backgrounds are probably my favourite types of backgrounds.
And what I liked about this portrait is that the subject is in a shallow depth of field, creating a strong focus on her face. And then you have these big green colours behind her that contrast nicely with her skin tone. The third element is the train track leading her away.
When you have very simple elements that are well organised, it gives a photo a sense of balance and order. You can then have a little fun – adding your own little quirks, like having your subject facing away from you.
I love this portrait, it shows what a couple of simple colours and shapes can do to create something fun and lively. I saw the wall and the sign together and immediately thought – brilliant. It was one of those strokes of luck that I was walking past it with this lady in her perfect stripey jumper. Sometimes the universe just gives us these great shots!
Now once you’ve mastered this ‘thinking in threes’, you can start building up your compositions and adding more complexity to your photos with more elements. Once you have that ability to organise your elements in shot, really the sky’s your limit. You will be able to create photos that have more elements but they will still be simple, strong and striking.
Here are two photos where there is a strong fourth or fifth element, which work really nicely.
Here the elements are the man, the blue blue sky, the lines, clouds and then finally the structure that I’ve used as a counterpoint to the man. There is a lot of complexity in this image but it still is a simple composition.
And lastly, I love the colours on my final image. I would say this is a photo all about colour and shape.
Can you see that without the blue this photo wouldn’t have popped in the way that it did? And similarly I think if the background was only blue it wouldn’t have had that sense of balance that the yellow brings?
So here you have the man, the blue rectangles behind and the yellow frame. The fourth element is the floor, and that’s pretty strong even though it’s not colourful; the line that it creates is strong, and then lastly – the little lamp above his head. A final little flourish almost. There is great symmetry in this image – another thing the eye likes. This was a situation where I found a background I loved and waited and waited until I saw someone I liked, then talking them into standing in exactly that spot. Patience people. Patience….and coffee.
I don’t go around counting these elements when I am taking photos because I have been doing this for so many years and these things become instinctive with enough practise. But when you are developing techniques like this it wouldn’t be a bad idea to count your elements as you go, really examine what they are and ask yourself – what is every single thing in my frame doing? Is it adding to my subject, or not? What is going to happen to my element relationships if I move over to the left a bit? (for example).
So that’s it for today. Thank you so much for reading. I hope there were some useful ideas in there for you. And as always I love hearing what you think – please comment below.
And – please do share with any of your photo-lovin buddies, sharing is much appreciated.
All the best,
Anthony and Diana