Some Words On Thirds…and a few birds. (the revised, less wordy version)

Besides being a great number in a still-life, Three is a good rule-of-thumb number when arranging and composing your photograph. An overly symmetric image can look too static. This, of course, is frequently used for an iconic effect. However, in this post I want to demonstrate how to set up a picture in thirds, creating drama and a dynamic viewing experience. The following are examples on how that can be achieved:

This group of birds forms a band that’s about a third the length of the photograph. The water and other darker landforms help visually to form this division.

Catch A BreezeWeb

The extending tree limb this heron is perched on is roughly one third the way up from the bottom, while the head and highlight on the wing are about a third the way from the right. Normally I avoid directing eyes out of the picture, but the tree limb helps counter an unwanted symmetry that occurs from the whole of the bird visually dividing the image in half.


I’ve included this next example because it covers another rule of three repeated often in the world of landscape painting and photography: Foreground, middle-ground and background. The key elements in this image are the organic shaped form in the foreground, the dark land mass behind it and the tiny dark land mass at the extreme right of the image.


There is a clear left dominance in this image with the form in the foreground clustered with the land mass on the left (not unlike a still-life composition where an apple might be grouped with a glass or bottle.) In an otherwise sparse scene, these uses of thirds, as well as the application of dominant and subordinate themes, can make your pictures become more dynamic and engaging.

I hope you find this tutorial helpful. Please contact me if you would like other tips or just want to say hi!

Happy Shooting!

Shawn Pagels



Go Ahead, Be a Square

We are all taught in art school or photography classes about portrait and landscape formats and the appropriate uses of them. Today, I want to demonstrate the power of the square! If done right, presenting an image in a square format can make a bold statement. There is something kind of hip about ignoring rules and putting something out there that looks a little different from the rest. With that in mind, there are a few things you want to look out for to avoid making your image look less like a statement and more like a mistake!


As in other formats, you want to remember some basic rules of good composition. Think thirds and avoid dividing the picture in half will keep the image dynamic(if this is your intent). Try not to pull the eye out of the picture by cropping lines or high contrast objects out of the frame.


In this example, there are lines leading away from the subject matter, but they are minimized by the use of value. The brightest and highest contrast is on the Slug shaped fallen tree.


Another great way to use this format is by creating an abstract image. Use pattern, shape and rhythm to make images that resemble abstract paintings.

Rothko Day

I titled this one “Rothko Day” after the famous painter. There are three major bands going across this picture with enough detail to retain a natural element, but remain abstract.

Keep It Moving:

To counter the stagnant nature of the square, choose a photograph that conveys motion.


The lively nature of this small waterfall keeps the square format lively and visually compelling!

Thanks for reading. Please follow my blog for further articles with examples. Contact me with any questions or comments.

Happy Shooting!

Shawn Pagels

Create Stunning Black and White Images

As some of you may know, I LOVE black and white photography. I am going to show you a few steps that combine some old school techniques with some of the best ways you can use photoshop to make amazing looking photographs. First of all, for optimal control of your image, Always shoot in color. I know cameras now have settings that are really cool like sepia mode and panorama, but to get top quality black and whites when shooting digital we can use all that color information to our advantage:

Original Image: 



Bland, greyscale mode switch or desaturation:

When I first started exploring black and white photography with my digital camera, I would often just switch the color mode to greyscale or simply desaturate the color.


The images were left looking flat and I would try to compensate by adjusting the contrast or the brightness levels.

Black and White Conversion:

For better results, make a duplicate of the original image and do a black and white conversion. In photoshop, select image, then adjustment, then black and white.


Once you select this, you will see a color adjustment slider window.



This is where your eyes are your real tools. Different scenery will benefit from different settings. In this example, I achieved more detail and some interesting tonal variation in the background rocks by sliding the reds to the left (making them darker) and the yellows to the right(making them lighter) Some other adjustments were made across the spectrum to give the image more sparkle.


As you can see, we are already seeing more detail and greater tonal variation across the whole image. Now to apply an old school technique.

Dodge and Burn: 

(well in this case, only dodging). Ansel Adams used this technique for darkening and lightening areas of his work in the dark room, If he did it, so can we! In the tool bar, select the dodge tool and adjust the brush size to lighten some small areas. Make sure the setting is for highlights.


In the rock in the foreground, I selected some areas to lighten, including the bit of water underneath the rock.

dodge application



This next step can make or break a good photograph. Sharpening an image can take it to a higher level. Too much sharpening can create unwanted halos and strange artifacts. To avoid a large halo effect where the sky and cliffs meet, I duplicated the layer and created a graduated mask starting from top to bottom. When I apply sharpening, It will only be seen on the bottom two-thirds of the photograph and will not create an unwanted halo effect along the skyline.



Finally, I apply an adjustment layer with curves. Curve adjustments are a better choice than simple brightness, contrast adjustments offering you much more control. It also doesnt degrade your image quality near as much as simply adjusting the brightness and contrast.

curvenotice the slight “S” shape created by inserting points along the lights and darks, this is a good starting point for making effective adjustments.


Here is a sample of a simple greyscale mode change versus a Black and White Conversion, followed by a large image of the final result:




I hope you found this helpful. Happy Shooting!

Shawn Pagels

Adapting to all weather conditions

Like many other photographers, I often get that “itch” to head outside and capture something amazing. Many of us have family and other responsibilities, so often we can’t just rush out as soon as the light is just right or other atmospheric conditions that would make an absolutely AMAZING picture. I get out and shoot when I can, and when I do, I often take with me those ideas I had worked out from the previous day when I conceived the perfect shot. The only problem is, it’s cloudy and windy and it was perfectly sunny yesterday! There are niche photographers that focus on this or that and that is great, but for the rest of us who are always seeking to improve the craft of photography, being adaptive is crucial to exercising our creative minds and being productive. Here are a few “non-ideal” weather conditions and a few things you can do with them:

Cloudy and Overcast: 

Color! That’s right, color radiates in these conditions because there isn’t a harsh light source bouncing brightness around.

It’s anti-intuitive in a way, but bright sunlight washes color out of a lot of scenes. Longer exposures with a tripod is more effective in these conditions too!


Bright Mid-day Sun:

Painters and photographers alike have always praised the early morning and evening light for the color and the wonderful drama it can create. But, what if you can’t get out at this time and when you do get out, the sun is beating down creating hard shadows everywhere?

Black and White! While these conditions might not be best suited for lush and colorful landscapes, they can be perfect for creating striking black and white images with lots of rhythm
and contrast.


Windy, Rainy, Yucky:

Now might be a time to consider setting up a still life and doing an interior shot. There are many artists you can research online that have made careers out of doing incredible still lifes that are profoundly beautiful. Select items that either convey a theme with the objects themselves or share a color relationship. If you had your heart on going outside and facing the nasty weather anyway, make sure you have your camera protected and be mindful about all the things blowing around out there. Landscapes might be out of the question because trees, grass and other foliage will be moving around too much. This of course might also be a nice effect if there were a stationary object of interest nearby. City-scapes and architecture can be lovely in these conditions. Again, black and white photography could be a good choice for capturing moody street scenes. Try a faster exposure time to freeze a drop or two!

DSC_3519Complete(a painting I did recently, sorry couldn’t find a photoraphic still-life…but, you get the idea;))
Now, be adaptive and shoot!
-Shawn Pagels