Underwater Photography Essentials: Part 4


Tips, ideas and advice for budding underwater photographers

by Nick Robertson-Brown FRPS

Part 4: Composition – Rule of Thirds

Rule of ThirdsSo far in this series we have discussed the technical aspects of how we get the right amount of light onto our subject in order to present it as we would like people to see it, i.e. as we imagine it looking through the viewfinder or on the screen. This technical part of capturing the image has more than a small element of artistry, as changing the f-stop will create a greater or lesser depth of field, allowing more or less of the background to be a part of the image. However, composition is pure art, and as you manoeuvre the viewfinder to your eye, or look at the screen on the back of your camera, you should now be thinking about how you want to frame the situation that you have in front of you. If you have got all the technical aspects, correctly set, then all you now need to do is to compose the scene.

The first thing you have to decide when composing or framing your image is to know what the subject is. This may seem like a ridiculous thing to say but you need to decide on a single focal point; something, or someone you want to draw the viewer’s eye towards. This does not mean that you can only photograph one subject in the image, but you should make one individual, or one group of individuals, the centre of your attention – the subject. It shouldn’t necessarily be in the centre of your framing either, rather you should try to lead the viewer’s eye line through or towards it. You may capture a fantastic image of say a cuttlefish in aggressive mode attacking it’s reflection in your lens, but if the background is messy or interfering with the shot, then the image probably will not work. Anything in your image that distracts the eye away from the subject should be eliminated. Another important factor is the negative space, and any negative space that you use in an image can be as important, sometimes more so, than your subject. Negative space is simply the area that surrounds an object and so this, by definition, defines the boundaries of the positive space that you are using for your subject.

Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds There may, of course, be occasions when you deliberately want to put your subject in its environment. A common, but often successful, use of this technique is the anemone fish protecting or guarding its host anemone or another example is a pygmy seahorse in its sea fan.

In any photography book, you can find rules and guidelines about composing images, but you should always remember that they are just guidelines and some of the best pictures can break all the rules. It is, however, a good idea to have them in your head as it has been proved many times over that there are certain formats that the human mind find appealing.

Rule of Thirds

The first of these is the rule of thirds, and this should be one key component to consider when you are framing your image. The idea of the rule of thirds is to divide your frame into nine equal sections and using this imaginary framework, you can then decide where to put your subject. Many cameras have a function where you can see this grid on the screen to help you with this. This can be very helpful as it may assist you in composing your image in a variety of ways. Firstly, you should look at the four centre crosses where the lines intersect, and rather than putting the centre of interest (your subject) in the middle of the frame, you should pick out a prominent feature from your subject and place it at one of these intersections. Putting your subject right in the middle of the image is called bullseye-ing and generally, although not always, doesn’t work.

Rule of Thirds

Another way to view the rule of thirds is to look at the horizontal divisions where, for example, the top third could be used as negative space, with the subject placed across the middle and the supporting baseline, running along the bottom. This technique is particularly useful when photographing subjects such as underwater landscapes or a wide-angle shot of a wreck. You can use the foreground as a supporting baseline, with a reef or a wreck along the centre and the top third should be the negative space, although this would also work really well with a diver or other subject hanging in it to balance the overall image.


Nick bookDo you want to learn more? You can pick up a copy of Nick’s book “Underwater Photography Art & Techniques” by clicking here. For a signed copy, click here.

Underwater Photography Courses

Contact Nick for information on the Frogfish Photography Complete Underwater Photography Award, designed for 1:1 and small group sessions to improve your underwater photography at your pace.underwater photography

                    www.frogfishphotography.com | frogfishphotos@gmail.com  | +44 (0)161 9177101

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown

Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown are a husband and wife team of underwater photographers. Both have degrees in environmental biology from Manchester University, with Caroline also having a masters in animal behaviour. Nick is a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in underwater wildlife photography and he also has a masters in teaching. They are passionate about marine conservation and hope that their images can inspire people to look after the world's seas and oceans. Their Manchester-based company, Frogfish Photography, offers a wide range of services and advice. They offer tuition with their own tailor made course - the Complete Underwater Photography Award. The modules of the course have been written to complement the corresponding chapters in Nick's own book: Underwater Photography Art and Techniques. They also offer equipment sales and underwater photography trips in the UK and abroad. For more information visit www.frogfishphotography.com.

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