Rule of thirds and storm photography

Jan 14, 2011
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St. Louis
stormhighway.com
I'm curious to hear thoughts from other chasers on the applicability of the "rule of thirds" to storm photography. I've always held to more of a "rule of fourths or fifths" for storms, simply because I can't justify cutting out part of the primary subject simply to have a proper third of the ground in the view. The storm is what I want to capture, so why cut off the top of a picturesque supercell or lightning bolt just to give the ground more real estate for photography purists?

I think there are instances where a more standard 1/3 ground composition is in order, especially if there is some object in the foreground that is a major element in the photo (city skyline, etc). But even then, if I have a sky-filling storm (lightning or storm structure), I can never bring myself to cut part of it off - I want as much of it in the image as possible.
 

John Farley

Supporter
Apr 1, 2004
1,570
777
21
Pagosa Springs, CO
www.johnefarley.com
I tend to think of the rule of thirds in terms of what is in the photo horizontally, not vertically. As to ground, I have always heard it is best to go for about 20 percent ground, and I think most of my better storm pics are ones that are somewhat close to that. In terms of the horizontal aspect of the rule of thirds, sometimes I end up with storm pics that fit that fairly well, but that is usually more an artifact of what the storm looks like than anything deliberate on my part. I generally try to concentrate on getting the best view and picture of the storm possible, and other than the 20 percent ground principle, that is what governs my composition, unless there is some interesting land feature I am trying to get in with the storm (barn, church, mountain, etc.).
 
Oct 26, 2007
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Topeka, Kansas
When it comes to storm photography, I also want very little ground or horizon, because the subject is the storm or tornado.(like my avatar). If there is NO ground though, you don't get a good perspective of the size of the subject.
 
Dec 13, 2003
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La Plata, Maryland
Well, seeing as 90% of my chase photography is lightning, as long as I capture a bolt(s) anywhere in the frame I'm happy LOL. But yeah, other than that, generally speaking, I'll aim for around 2/3 sky- 1/3 ground, depending.
Aside from chasing I shoot sports at the high school / collage level (I shoot freelance for Referee magazine ) and biker events for Easy Rider and sister pub, In the Wind. In those's cases I try to fill the frame with the subject so I don't really use the rule of thirds.






 

Jeremy Perez

Supporter
For me, when I'm considering horizon position, the rule of thirds isn't usually top of mind. If I need to compose an element along a horizontal or vertical third to provide interest, balance, proportion (that I'm not finding another way besides thirds), then I'm more likely to look for a storm structure or foreground element to serve that purpose.

The worst case is when I've got a static foreground—most likely shooting perpendicular to a roadway with a completely flat horizon. In a lot of those cases, I feel like I'm doing nothing more than documenting. No art or vision, just snagging hopefully well-exposed images of the storm doing its thing. At that point, putting the horizon on the bottom third won't do the image any favors and I'll probably push the horizon pretty far down.

If I've got an interesting foreground, and better yet, If I can get some elements to pop up over the horizon, then I hope I'll go after those and try to add something compelling to the shot. And again in that case, bottom third for the horizon probably won't be top of mind.

What does make me anxious is if I've got a shot where I'm tempted to put the horizon at the halfway point—especially if it's fairly flat—since I worry that will give the sense of two separate images. So I will tend to fret those to one side or the other of the halfway point.
 
I'm pretty much a 15% or 20% guy, especially if I don't have a foreground subject. I've really tried the last couple of seasons to include something in the foreground though (flowers, trees, buildings, etc) so it may still only get me to 30 or 40%. The sky is always the story and main subject in my photos so it gets as much room as it requires.
 

Rob H

EF5
Mar 11, 2009
825
6
0
Twin Cities, MN
Why use the rule of thirds? Because in a 3:2/4:3 landscape orientation it is very effective at giving a sense of balance and being pleasant to the eye. Why are several people in here advocating against it? Well, look at the words they're using:

"The storm is what I want to capture"
"the subject is the storm or tornado"
"The sky is always the story and main subject"
"important to include all of a whole storm"

Documenting a scene accurately conflicts with creating an artistic image. The rule of thirds is one of many composition guidelines to help make your images more aesthetically pleasing. For many chasers, I suspect that the first goal is to document the scene as best possible, and aesthetics take a back seat. This isn't a bad thing, it's pretty much a necessity to be successful as a chaser. This decision is made even easier because we don't have time to do many of the things that landscape photographers do such as waiting for different lighting, or considering multiple angles. Landscape photography is also typically done at narrower apertures to capture all details, but we can't afford to stop down to f22 when we're under a storm.

Since we can't pick our foregrounds, we are very limited in aperture and shutter speed, and documenting the storm takes priority over aesthetics, the proportions need to be compromised. The truly stunning storm pictures that document the scene *and* are aesthetically pleasing from an artistic perspective are few and far between, and require a small degree of luck. It's like street photography except the subject can kill you, the lighting conditions are horrible, and sometimes there isn't a single person out in the streets.

Let's look at one of Mike H's pics because he's a great photographer, and has seen some great storms:





What's that, a rule of 6ths? :) There's some great contrast in there, and blue/orange are very appealing, so it would have been a mistake to crop out too much of that foreground. There are two focal points that some lines converge on, and neither are in optimal position. The focal points/lines are almost wasted because of the intense highlights on the left side of the image that keep drawing the eye over.

Cover up the top half of the image with your hand - there's a lot of contrast and detail, it's an interesting image to look at. Cover up the bottom half of the image with your hand - it's pretty darn boring, banal even. All of this was out of Mike's control for the most part, he could either document the storm from that vantage point, or turn the camera off and wait for that 1% chance of getting a perfect image. So Mike did a few things: he left the top half as part of the image to provide scale, so the viewer really feels the size of this storm. He balanced the highlights on the left so that they were present and provided weight, but kept them minimal. He left just enough ground in to provide a base, some reference, and some good color synergy. Given the scene he was presented with, he did the best he could to make it aesthetically pleasing even if the composition couldn't be perfect. Most importantly he documented the storm.

Now try thinking about all that in your head while an EF-4 is about to cut right in front of you and you're in 50mph inflow. I've seen several dozen tornadoes, taken tons of non-weather pictures, and I still can't do it. Something has to give, and I'd rather document the storm than create art if I'm forced to decide.
 
Jan 14, 2011
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St. Louis
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The success of Mike H's images does seem to validate a less-than-thirds approach. A Google image search for "supercell", "lightning" and "tornado" also shows that the 1/3 ground composition is the exception with storm images. There have been a few times when I framed for the big sky-filling lightning bolts over a city, but only got a few smaller ones. In those cases, the composition was clearly out of balance - but I was able to work it into a usable image by simply cropping it or presenting it as more of a panorama.
 

Rob H

EF5
Mar 11, 2009
825
6
0
Twin Cities, MN
Thats my point - Mike's success is because his goal is to document the storm and tell that story, not to make art. Some of its probably subconscious to him at this point but he still gives some thought to composition.

I can fire up a Pentax 67 and take a banal shot of the anvil underside and photographers/artsy people could drool over it, but most chasers would just shrug at the boring clouds.

Pick a goal, compose and shoot to accomplish that goal, and you'll succeed with some effort. The rule of thirds is just a helper for composition and if the storm is more important than composition sacrifice the latter.
 
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ngjere

EF1
May 10, 2010
74
16
11
Saint Paul Minnesota
I've always been a "document first, compose later" type shooter. When in doubt, shoot as wide as the lens will allow, in RAW format, and compose to your hearts content later. As has been mentioned, you may have very little time to record much less "compose" the subject matter.
 

kmreid

EF1
Mar 3, 2011
89
1
6
Arkansas
I am a graphic designer/artist by profession and while I am new to photography, I can say that I agree that getting the layout of the storm supersedes the aesthetic side. ngjere brought up a good point in that you can always shoot in RAW and edit/crop the images down to what you deem to be pleasing to the eye (it's amazing what a little cropping can do). I will say from a fine art standpoint, that you want your works to move your eye around the whole of the image. Strong focal points that do not compete, and subtle lines that suggest movement in the image, to me, are what makes something appealing. That second image that RobH posted is a great example of showing the "movement" within that image, not in literal terms necessarily, but in that it makes the viewer move all across the entirety of the photograph. Shoot broad scale, shoot high res, edit if necessary.
 
Jun 14, 2009
328
155
11
Altoona, Iowa
toddrector.com
I am finding I need to pay more attention to the little things which get forgotten in the excitement yet can utterly ruin a decent shot - most notably, power lines and the presence of other chaser vehicles in my shots. Wide angle lenses are unforgiving in this regard.

I could have greatly improved many of my shots this season by simply walking 200 feet into a field, putting power lines and traffic behind me.

Not sure you can see it in the thumbnail, but the below image was completely ruined by power lines.


SCALEDSC_0379.jpg
 
Jun 14, 2009
328
155
11
Altoona, Iowa
toddrector.com
Sadly, I am not nearly as good with photoshop or lightroom as I wish I was, although I recently drank the Adobe kool-aid and signed up for Creative Cloud.

I try really hard to "keep it real" by not adjusting anything other than brightness and contrast, but obviously neither of these adjustments can remove power lines. I recall for this particular shot, there was no option to go further into that field. It was muddy, and there was a hail core just to my north so I stayed by my car in case I needed to get out of there quickly. Safety > Composition.
 
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Mar 15, 2004
1,049
53
11
Tucson, Aridzona
www.flickr.com
I'm curious to hear thoughts from other chasers on the applicability of the "rule of thirds" to storm photography. I've always held to more of a "rule of fourths or fifths" for storms, simply because I can't justify cutting out part of the primary subject simply to have a proper third of the ground in the view. The storm is what I want to capture, so why cut off the top of a picturesque supercell or lightning bolt just to give the ground more real estate for photography purists?

I think there are instances where a more standard 1/3 ground composition is in order, especially if there is some object in the foreground that is a major element in the photo (city skyline, etc). But even then, if I have a sky-filling storm (lightning or storm structure), I can never bring myself to cut part of it off - I want as much of it in the image as possible.
There is no 'proper' ratio, only that which looks good to your eye. Blindly following ROT is just as mindless as blindly centering the the main subject. If composition, beauty and art were as simple as placing things on a tic-tac-toe board, we'd all be masters.

When shooting sky, lightning, storms, etc., I usually compose with a tiny sliver of ground along the bottom of the frame - just enough to provide a frame of reference for the observer. (If there is a lot of interesting, well lit foreground detail, a vertical ROT division it not at all out of the question.) When cropping in post, I most certainly do not consciously think about ROT. I just look and trust my 'eye' to best judge how the various areas of the image balance one another. A dash of color here, less there; textured vs smooth; light vs dark, etc. It's all about allowing the various elements to play off one another without overwhelming the image, not about simple area ratios. Sometimes, my 'eye' chooses a ROT-centric crop, sometimes not. I try not to think about it.

As for the notion that conscious implementation of ROT is somehow required to make 'Art,' suffice to say I strongly disagree. AFAIK, 'Art' is about shaping your creation to match your particular sense of aesthetic, not about following a pre-defined list of dumbed down 'rules.'

Here's a good discussion of the topic that approaches the notion of ROT in a less than literal manner, while adding several interesting twists, such as diagonal thirds, etc. IMO this guy's YT channel is one of the best photography sources around - highly recommended!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cEKmpIngy8

See also (his later videos get better in terms of focus and timing. #5, the ROT video above, is kinda erratic in that regard.)
https://www.youtube.com/user/theartofphotography
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-3zOuqaUBY
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uKDObRUywhE
 
Mar 15, 2004
1,049
53
11
Tucson, Aridzona
www.flickr.com
Power lines. Urk!!

I used to take a purist approach, as still vastly prefer to find a clean horizon, but when shooting near a large city, power lines are everywhere!
What filters, plug ins, or apps are best for eradicating the damn things?