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The Power Of Three

Reaching beyond the basics of the Rule of Thirds for more dynamic landscape photos
This Article Features Photo Zoom

Double Arch at dawn, Arches National Park, Utah
In this fish-eye view of Double Arch, I believe having three openings in the scene is more powerful than two or four. Why? It goes back to the enforced simplicity of three and the uncomfortable design of two. Balance is achieved by the use of three that wouldn’t be as easily accomplished by another number. Actually writing down what you were trying to accomplish in a composition, as I’m doing now, can be a helpful aid. The very act of this kind of appraisal helps clarify your intentions and access your successes and failures.

From the Greeks, who worshipped the amazing properties of triangles, to The Three Stooges, the number three has had a special relationship with human perception, art, music, science, religion and every other field. Pythagoras called it the perfect number. Landscape and nature photographers are also immersed in a world of threes. We spend a great deal of time wrestling with the three-legged support for our cameras. The most widely quoted photography compositional rule, the Rule of Thirds, exists because most of our brains seem to respond more favorably to works of art with subjects based on odd numbers and placement of important forms on a grid created by dividing the scene in segments of three.

What is it about three that we like so much? It could be that, like a tripod, the power of three gives our compositions stability, and as importantly, simplicity. This small, odd prime number is easy to identify and manipulate. It helps avoid three hobgoblins of aspiring photographers: too much bald, featureless sky, subjects that are bull’s-eyed in the middle of the frame and compositions that include too much stuff.

Most photographers are attuned to shapes and ideas that can help compositions like the Rule of Thirds: S-curves, diagonal lines, lead-in lines, framing, perspective and balance. Some time ago, I began to theorize that the number three could have a great more potential in photographic compositions than simply adhering to an elementary rule. Consciously and unconsciously, I now use the idea of three as much as I can. It doesn’t solve all my compositional problems, but it often adds power to parts or the totality of my overall scene.

The trick comes in using the power of three strongly and literally sometimes, and at other times, in a more subtle and understated way. Bracketing compositions is one of the great benefits of digital photography and is a great way to experiment with this technique.

Once you get the idea of three and its power implanted in your head, you’ll start to see it everywhere and figure out ways to use it.

Delta Pool, near Moab, Utah
Triangles are out there. You probably won’t find one every day as shapely as this one, but there are lots of opportunities where more subtle shapes from several elements may come together as a triangle. This triangle also points and leads the eye up and along the line of cliffs. Other important elements in the image include sidelighting and some subtle, but interesting clouds, all compositional techniques I use constantly.

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Luck has played so much of a role in my photographic work. Capturing three iffy events at the same time in the same place is unusual, but another example of the power of three. Also, trying to get a new take on a classic and iconic subject is always a huge challenge. Though I did know I was going to have a photographer’s full moon (usually the night before the astronomical full moon) and that it might somehow work with the eruption of Old Faithful and sunset, I couldn’t be sure. Old Faithful isn’t as faithful as it used to be, and much of the day was overcast. With clearing at sunset, all three events appeared on cue.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The Grand Teton, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Often, when shooting layer images, I feel that more is better. Six ridges of the Smokies, for example, might show three dimensions and the expansive nature of the landscape better than four ridges. Frankly, with that many, who’s counting? Showing layers of differing content, however, is one of the prime ways to show three dimensions in a landscape with no foreground, especially in an image like this one where perspective doesn’t work. Without the layers, the Grand Teton is too large a subject to recede into the background. Choosing three layers with this more complex material is a great way to simply and pleasingly portray depth and distance: clouds as foreground, the peak as the second placeholder, and the distant blue landscape and sky complete the scene.

Goegap Nature Reserve, South Africa
The three kokerboom trees add a solid, firm structure to the chaotic forest of agaves surrounding them in this African desert image. Use the power of three as a way to add stability to an image with other complicated elements. The perspective of the trees also creates a diagonal line, which gives the three trees more power. Anytime you can arrange to have your three subjects create a diagonal line is a plus. As with most of the images included in this collection, I’ve also worked to use sidelighting and have some kind of cloud cover.

Monument Valley, Arizona
Nature provides lots of subjects in threes, like the three classic buttes of Monument Valley. The area also has the Three Sisters, three stunning spires, which carry the same name as three rock formations in Australia. Arches National Park has the Three Gossips, and the list goes on and on. Spotlighting, very common during stormy periods in the Western United States, is a favorite tool of mine. Having just one of the Mittens lit by the dying sun makes a stronger statement to me.

Ofu Beach, National Park of American Samoa
Just to show how every facet of an image can work in threes, this image contains deep blacks, bright highlights and midtones. Though deep black is often avoided now in digital photography, Ansel Adams was certainly a fan of it in his work. Also, I find that this wide range of tonal values gives the image a “film” look, which I sometimes want to return to, and, of course, the black subject wouldn’t be as effective if it didn’t have a strong shape. The combination of the strong lights and darks is another example of chiaroscuro lighting. Here, the third element, the medium-toned water and forest, balances the very strong light-dark effect.

Go to to see more of Tom Till‘s landscape photography.