Rules of Composition for Panoramic Photography

The first rule that many people are taught when they first pick up a camera is the rule of thirds. However, given the wide format of panoramic photography, the question has to be asked: is the rule of thirds still applicable?

As a way of background, the rule of thirds is a compositional rule of thumb in all visual arts, but has particular relevance to landscape photography. The rule states that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.

The photograph below demonstrates the application of the rule of thirds. The horizon sits close to the horizontal line dividing the upper third of the photo from the lower two-thirds. The famous sea stack of the twelve apostles sits at the intersection of two lines, being the left vertical third and the upper and lower horizontal third. These intersections are often refered to as a power point or a crash point. Points of interest in the photo don’t have to actually touch one of these lines to take advantage of the rule of thirds. 

There are, however, a number of hurdles that make it difficult apply ‘the rule of thirds’ strictly to panoramic photography. 

  • The narrow elongated format of panoramic cameras and the associated wide-angle lens can cause the panoramic photographer additional problems with vertical lines in their vistas, that is they converge. This problem is associated with line convergence, which in turn is associated with lens design and evident in all forms of photography, but sometimes exaggerated in panoramic photography. This is true for both stitched digital images and film. This is illustrated below:
  • Leveling the horizontal axis causes the horizon, in most instances, to be half the way through the scene. This makes composing using the rule of thirds difficult. 
  • The wide format of panoramic photography means the horizontal axis is far longer (typically 3 times longer) than the vertical axis. Strictly applying the rule of thirds to a 3:1 ratio is difficult in the best of scenarios. 

If we cannot strictly apply the conventional ‘rule of thirds’ in order to compose a balanced, unified and powerful panorama we must first establish a guideline. This guideline I like to call centre dominance.

Centre Dominance

It is generally accepted that to compose a balanced, unified and powerful panoramic vista that has a sense of depth, you should concentrate on the middle third of the format, i.e. arrange your subject at the cross points or thereabouts, and extend supporting entities or natural features centrally long and parallel to the longest length of the format. Concentrating, arranging your main subject/s about the middle third is referred to as, centre dominance. 
Like most photographers l actively try to follow established or personal variations of the centre dominance guidelines when composing and framing scenes, personally l believe the elongated format naturally dictates how you should arrange your vista compared to conventional formats. Of course, we don’t have to compose all our scenes as per the guideline, after all photography would be boring if we always followed convention. 
 Arranging selective entities in the foreground and/or around the edges will provide a sense of depth/scale and frame your scene. Background entities placed appropriately in the top third of the format will contribute to the sense of depth, scale, balance and unify the vista. The power of panoramic vistas comes from the aspect ratio. This is best explained in the below image.

The rule of centre dominance essentially states that the main photographic vista should be composed in the centre horizontal third of the image. Any points of interest, typically, should be composed at the intersection of the centre third and either vertical guide line. This is illustrated below.

Applying the vertical guide lines 

While the rule of centre dominance mainly applies to the centre horizontal portion of the frame, I also like to split the frame into three vertical sections. I always try to have at least one of the sections as a “framing third”. 

The best way to describe a “framing third” is at least one-third of the image that does not contain any main elements of the photograph. The purpose of the “framing third” is to help lead the viewer’s eye to the main composition elements of the photograph. This is examined below:

While all rules are made to be broken, I’ve found the above guidelines as a useful tool when composing panoramic vistas. 

 But remember: nothing beats your photographic instincts!