Notice your patterns, know your preferences, and experiment with thirds.
Traditionally, the rule of thirds is a composition technique in which an image is divided evenly into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, and the subject of the image is placed at the intersection of those dividing lines, or along one of the lines itself. If you want to know more about the technical approach, Google has a vast amount of information on this rule.
I've been aware of this rule for two decades, but it wasn't until very recently that I noticed a pattern of mine: I tend to place my subject on the right side of the frame and either have a secondary subject or leave empty space on the left (when looking through the lens). Once this came into my awareness, I started to get curious about why that is, and what I came up with is based on my culture, values, spiritual beliefs, and personal experiences.
I already knew that I valued photography because it facilitates a spiritual, mindful, and calming connection with the Earth. What I came to realize over time is that my ways of understanding the world connect the feminine, subtle, receptive with the left side, and the masculine, strong, active with the right side.
As I looked through my images, I had a sense that when I left space on the "feminine," left side, I felt called to slow down, take space, go inward. Using that insight as a baseline, I created a personal framework for using the rule of thirds to communicate a more personal narrative through images and to enhance the traditional approach with greater meaning.
Before I move into my personal insights, I want to be clear: this is by no means the only way to view the rule of thirds, feminine/masculine, mind/body/spirit, or any abstract concept. Feel free to take what you want and leave the rest and/or adapt it to your own culture, values, spiritual beliefs, and personal experience. Continue reading below for examples of how to use the rule of thirds to tell a story.
The framework for the horizontal line placement below came from my background in portrait photography, where I started working when I was 17 years old.
For portraits, we were taught that lowering the camera and looking up created a sense of power and greater presence, and that raising the camera and looking down created a softness and a gentle presence. To be honest, we were also taught to photograph men looking up at them to make them appear more powerful and women looking down on them to make them appear thinner. So, there's that...
What I like about photographing nature subjects in this way is that is looking up helps me understand the big, powerful, and all-encompassing perspective of nature and I feel a part of that power. In looking down, I feel a sense of awe for each tiny detail in nature and I feel humbled to be connected to such wonder.
When you notice your patterns, know your preferences, and identify your message, you can be more intentional about making images that are purposefully beautiful. Read more about the relationship between photography and life, and the connection to the rule of thirds by clicking here.
How will you use the rule of thirds?
Get clear, know your preferences, and experiment with simplicity.
Try changing your position - knowing my subject and shifting left a bit created a thin highlight that separated the leaves from the background and softened the image, aligning with my style and intentions. Minor changes in your position can help highlight your subject.
Try getting closer vs. zooming - knowing my subject and my preference for soft, gentle images, zooming in is more aligned with my style and intentions. The spots of light and extra background shown when getting closer still feels too busy for me. Regardless of the camera (DSLR or phone), zooming should cause the background to appear closer than it is in real life.
Try blurring the background - knowing my subject was this group of leaves and not the woods themselves, the image with the blurred background is more aligned with my intention. There are many options for blurring the background of your photo, but it will require experimenting with the technology you use. To blur the background here, I used a wide aperture on my DSLR.
When you get clear about your subject, know your style preference, and get familiar with your technology, you can be more intentional about making images that are simply beautiful. Read more about the relationship between photography and life, and the connection to the rule of simplicity by clicking here.
Which method of simplifying do you prefer?
Take a slow approach to nature photography by noticing subtle details.
When photographing landscapes, it's been easier for me to immediately identify what captures my interest. When photographing nature's details, though, it can be a bit more challenging to know what to capture. As a starting place, I slow down and look for textures, connections, movement, variation, uniqueness, asymmetry, contrast, layers, and patterns.
What details do you notice when out in nature?
Staying open to simple pleasures offers opportunity for rejuvenation.
Nature can hold us during Dark times, and she will also be there when we are ready to rediscover Light. She allows us the opportunity to reconnect with our inner desires, to move in and out of connection with others, to stay aware of the present moment, and to explore our relationship to the environment. If we can accept her gifts, we will rediscover our joy and return to our daily lives rejuvenated.
Here are a few rejuvenation ideas from my trip to Great River Bluffs in Winona, MN:
What simple pleasures rejuvenate you?
Nature provides a nurturing space for processing grief.
Having a nurturing space can provide support and comfort when processing difficult emotions. Spending time in nature has helped me connect with my own grief, which has allowed for deeper connections with myself, my friends and family, and my purpose. It's helped me integrate multiple tragedies into my life story while maintaining mental health.
The following questions came to me while photographing Rice Lake State Park in Owatonna, MN. They have helped me begin to write a new narrative while navigating trauma. If you find yourself processing difficult emotions, try asking yourself:
Where do you go when you need to feel supported?
Art serves as a connection to our shared humanity.
I had the privilege to learn with adults from around the world during my time teaching English as a Second Language. They spoke Kinyarwanda, French, Somali, Hmong, Karen, Karenni, and Nepali...and I spoke none of those languages, so we had to be creative and deeply present with one another in order to communicate. These generous humans brought new perspectives and experiences into my life and I did my best to honor their perspectives while teaching them how to speak a new language, handle money, manage cultural expectations, and, for most of them, how to read and write for the first time.
Regardless of all the practical things that needed to be taught, we teachers decided to take a break from the typical curriculum and teach a short unit on art. Of course, I knew it was going to be fun, but it was so much more. When a student didn’t know the word for stars as we gazed upon Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” she named them “moon babies,” the quietest students started asking questions and sharing opinions, and most importantly, for just a brief moment, we got to see the world through each other’s eyes.
In fact, this was the first time I really got to experience how my students saw the world rather than showing them how to see the world through mine and I was forever changed.
Looking at the exact same painting, they were experiencing its symbols very differently. No one got angry, no one refused to work with another, no one stormed out of the room. They each shared their view points and we all had the opportunity to see the painting through different lenses. They disagreed and we moved forward with a little more information about our school community than we had before.
I got to experience the value of art I'd always held in my heart and put into words answers to the question, "Why Art?"
Over the years, I've realized we can’t ever truly experience what another is feeling or accurately see the world through another person’s lens, but we can get glimpses into other's perspectives if we keep an open mind and heart. And we can believe people when they share that they’ve experienced the world differently than we have.
At a time when social justice issues are rising up again and as equality evolves into equity, art can help us to both shine a light on our differences and connect us to each other's humanity.
Why is art important to you?
To be human is to create.
When children, creative play comes naturally: we paint, draw, pretend, sing, dance, act, play. But, for many of us, we slowly grow away from that creativity. That separation begins when we start comparing ourselves to those around us. We find evidence that "proves" we aren't good enough or that creativity isn't our thing or that there's just not enough time to have a creative practice.
Maybe someone stifled your creativity because of their own insecurities. Maybe it got broken by the system of education that values logical and rational thinking. Maybe your creativity drifted off quietly as you focused on "adulting." Maybe your creativity has been hidden because you're afraid of being vulnerable.
In order to recover our creative health, we need to redefine what it means to be creative. In Brené Brown's book The Gifts of Imperfection, she defines creativity as a means of expressing our originality and making connections. Her research on shame shows creativity is vital for living lovingly.
No matter the reasons for our stifled creativity and no matter how we define creativity, here's the reality: we are creative beings. Every single one of us. Let's look at how we can reframe our artistic shame and recover our creative voices.
We are all here on this planet making a life, making meaning out of our experiences, and making connections. We can be more creative and more intentional about what we create by cultivating our artistic voice.
How do you express your creativity?
Nature can teach us valuable life lessons.
Getting into nature with a camera can have some unexpected consequences. In addition to feeling refreshed, there are lessons to be learned from viewing the world through the lens of a camera - more than how to use a camera, and more than how to make a great composition. There are deep life lessons available when one becomes still and learns to see in a new way.
Here are three life lessons I've learned by experiencing nature through the lens...
Lesson 1 - Letting Go
Just as trees freely release their leaves, so can we choose to freely release that which the mind stubbornly holds as truth...even when the heart knows differently. Freeing our imagination helps us to reconnect with our heart-centered, intuitive selves.
Through the lens of a camera, we have an opportunity to slow down and shift our attention to the shapes, colors, and textures of life simply by relaxing our focus. Look at the image below. With a relaxed focus, we can ask: What does my heart see?
Lesson 2 - Impermanence
When witnessing nature, we can see that there is exquisite beauty to be found in the cycles of life and death. We can find beauty in imperfections, in the cracks, in the decay, in the slow unfolding. When we accept change within nature, it's easier to accept our own impermanence.
With photography, we use our cameras to freeze a moment in time, but nature doesn't stop cycling. Look at the two images below. What has changed?
Lesson 3 - Embracing Shadows
We are taught that light and dark are in constant battle with one another. When we clear out those conditioned thoughts, we can look at our experiences and we begin to understand that life is more nuanced, that we are not all one thing.
When we step into the shadows, it becomes easier to see the nuances that makes your subject unique. Look at the image below. What textures are seen from within the shadows?
What photo experiment will you try?
Nature-based art supports a mindful life.
Over the years, I have tried multiple forms of meditation, but the one practice that has been the most consistent is mindfulness through nature photography. When I go into nature, I am fully alive, energized, and in-tune with the world.
Mindfulness and meditation are intended to help us fully drop into our lives. When we practice mindfulness, there are very real benefits:
Don't feel you need equipment, clothes, apps, and/or a "guru" to guide you. In fact, if you're spending a lot of money on meditation, you are likely contributing to cultural appropriation since meditation is an Eastern concept that Westerners have co-opted to fit our consumer culture. It's not that Eastern forms of meditation can't be beneficial to Westerners, but be conscious of the impact. Be aware of who is benefiting and at what cost. If you feel you need more information, search "cultural appropriation" and, specifically, "cultural appropriation in the field of wellness."
If you become aware that you are causing or have caused harm, it's not too late to turn it around! Quit the practice, confront your privilege, clarify your intentions, make amends, and do better moving forward.
Since the terms mindfulness and meditation are abstract concepts, here are a few ways one might describe the experience.
Nature-based art is a wonderful tool in helping us to simply secure our connection to a meaningful, healthy life. Bringing nature-based art into our homes, offices, and social media spaces, we can receive the benefits of a mindfulness practice as we go about our day-to-day lives.
Here are three ideas for beginning a nature-based art mindfulness practice:
Mindfulness is a practice; it becomes easier and more beneficial over time. Nature imagery can make your mindfulness practice simple, accessible, and stress-free. Look around your house for a piece of nature-based art and display it for a reminder.
Also, remember that mindfulness is a self-care practice to help you stay grounded and focused so that you can take action toward creating a better world - it is not meant to be a consumer product and it is not meant to stand separate from compassionate action. Keep it simple, get centered, and then use that divine Love to fuel the fight for freedom, equity, justice, and peace.
How have you used art + nature to stay mindful?
authenticity. beauty. courage. creativity. curiosity.
exploration. inspiration. transformation.
These values have become the focus of my life over the 25 years I've been consistently practicing nature photography. Personally, I’ve found that photography has helped me to become more aware of my values, process my emotions, go safely and confidently into the world, and more easily find calm in times of stress and change.
These values are my constant guides and I keep them in focus by regularly getting out into nature with my camera. I’ve found that by taking on the challenges of making meaningful images with a camera, I've also been presented with ample opportunities to become more aware of my surroundings. And taking advantage of those opportunities has slowly transformed the way I see the world. I believe being thoughtful, understanding, and capable in making images inspires the same in living life.
Yes. It’s absolutely possible to make great images using your camera on automatic and pointing the lens at nature’s stunning beauty. To tell your story through images, though, takes self-awareness, thoughtfulness, an understanding of the way your camera sees, and an ability to navigate manual settings - even on a cell phone.
How has your life been impacted by nature photography?
Kristin Perry is a nature photographer navigating life's complexities by focusing on beauty.