Having a problem keeping those horizon lines straight or placing your subject within the image frame for a balanced composition? There is more than one way and more than one reason to use the built-in functions of your camera, so check your camera manual to see what’s provided.
Look to see if it has built-in grid lines, a virtual horizon or a spirit level. If your camera has none of these options, you can always add a leveling aid, such as a hot shoe-mounted spirit level or use the focusing points within the viewfinder.
I prefer using the architectural grid lines (using the focusing points can also apply, as they typically also include lines). I find they are helpful in a number of ways.
First, the horizontal and vertical lines of the grid make it much easier to photograph landscapes, seascapes and cityscapes. All too often the ground or flat body of water in the final photograph is sloping downhill because the camera wasn’t level when the photo was taken or a building is leaning to one side or the other.
With the grid lines it’s easy to line up a horizontal or vertical line so everything stays nice and level. Even if you don’t have a horizon, the horizontal lines are handy. Suppose you’re photographing a swimming duck that is isolated against the water. The horizontal lines make it possible to keep that duck swimming flat on the water rather than swimming uphill, a rather unnatural position unless the duck is swimming in waves.
A second important use is for composition, such as the Rule of Thirds – a guideline for better composed images. By having the screen divided up into several boxes, composition can be improved because it is easier to analyze how the subject occupies the frame.
The ‘power points’, ‘points of interest’ or ‘crash points’ as they are sometimes called are located where two lines intersect and are located one third in from each side of the image frame. With the grid lines, it’s pretty easy to avoid dead center compositions since the center of the screen is so easy to see.
If you want the subject to occupy the right one-third of the screen, again you know exactly where to place the subject and your grid lines show you the way.
And should you want to do double exposure moon photos for instance, the use of grid lines will make it much easier to accomplish. Double exposures involve photographing the scene and then adding a moon or vice versa. Naturally, you don’t want the moon superimposed on your foreground subject so you have to know what part of the frame is empty.
The grid lines divide the screen into boxes. This is how I use them: When I am photographing a vertical composition, I call the full rectangular box on the top left box number one, and the other full box on the top right box number two. Within the box, I call the top left quarter A, the top right quarter B, the bottom left quarter is called C, the bottom right quarter is called D and right in the middle of the box I call area E.
Since the moon takes up about one-fourth of a box with a 200mm lens, this is a useful way to keep track of the moon. When I photograph my scene, perhaps a dead tree in silhouette, I note the position I want my moon to be in so it won’t overlap the tree. Perhaps I want my moon in vertical box number two at the C position (lower left hand corner).
Then I photograph my moon and put it at that position before creating the next image with my finished in-camera double exposure. Find a system that works best for you.
Third, grid lines help me photograph a much higher percentage of razor-sharp photographs. Here’s an example of how it helps. I use a 200mm macro lens a great deal to photograph spider webs, flower portraits, butterflies, and other fragile things that blow in the slightest breeze.
In the past, I used to lock up the camera mirror, sit behind the camera, and watch my subject carefully to see that it wasn’t being moved by the wind. When everything looked perfectly still, I depressed the remote shutter release. In time, I learned that I was often creating pictures when I thought my subject was not moving, but it really was moving slightly.
The 200mm lens gives you such a large amount of working distance that small subject movement caused by gentle wind currents is difficult to detect with the unaided eye from behind the camera. I found that I could make a higher percentage of sharp photos if I didn’t lock up the mirror, but instead, used live view along with the magnification capabilities. I am careful not to touch the camera and use a cable release so my quivering body doesn’t cause the camera to vibrate.
The grid lines are important because they don’t move as long as the camera isn’t moving. By watching one of the lines on the screen where it overlaps your main subject, any subject motion is easily detected since the subject moves relative to the grid lines that don’t move.
The grid lines are not perfect, but are merely an aid to creating better images. There will be many times when the horizontal or vertical lines do not fall exactly where you want, but you’ll be able to eye those lines more closely. And, the photographer certainly has to do their part to ‘see’ a well-balanced image.
Some people have told me the grid lines distract them while trying to make their photos. Using grid lines may not be a solution for everyone, but I have grown so accustomed to the grid lines that I don’t even notice them until I need one for the reasons discussed. With practice it will become easier.
Perhaps using grid lines will solve some of the compositional problems you encounter when making photos. Give ’em a try!
by John Gerlach