Thinking In Threes
September 25th, 2017 by David LaBelle

To ensure visual variety in images, photograph a wide overall scene. Photos by David LaBelle

Much of our world works in trilogy. We see God in three persons. There were three stooges, three blind mice and three wise men. Pyramids and triangles get their power from three sides. Most stories have a beginning, middle and end.

Sometimes, a catch phrase or device—a mnemonic—can aid us in remembering a rule or principle. “I before e, except after c” has helped me spell words I am unsure of. “Thirty days has September, April, June and November …” Or the five W’s: who, what, when, where and why.

Thinking in threes might be a way to help you improve your photo coverage.

  • Lensing and composition: wide, medium and tight.

Even if you have only one fixed, unchangeable lens, moving closer or further away and photographing from three distinct distances will offer welcomed visual variety.

If all pictures are shot from the same distance with the same lens, our pictures become one-dimensional, predictable and, dare I say, boring.

Who wants to see picture after picture of the same barn, shot from the same distance, the same time of day?

Imagine listening to a speaker who said only, “Dog, dog, dog.” Or closing your eyes and listening to a note that never changes. I can, because I live with a continual high-pitched ringing in my ears called tinnitus. Thankfully, I have convinced myself it sounds like the singing of bugs in late summer or early fall, which is music to my ears.

Challenge yourself to alternate distances in your compositions from wide, medium to tight or close-up. By changing distances—by lens or legs—you will change the visual notes of your pictures.

Consider starting wide. This gives your audience an overall view, shows them where they are. We often call this giving a sense of place.
Move closer and see if you can show interactions—person to person or person to surrounding elements.

Finally, get close and challenge yourself to capture important or revealing details that add spice—clues to a larger picture or story.

Sometimes the smallest details—what somebody treasures—speak the loudest about a person or situation.

  • People: different times and different environments.

Show a person in three different settings: at work, at play and at rest. This usually offers different locations and different clothing. In addition, photograph a subject full body, waist up and then in a tight facial portrait. In other words, get close, closer and intimate.

  • Timing: BAD, which means before, during and after.

Go early, stay focused during an event and stay late, watching for revealing, storytelling moments.

I see a lot of photos done with the same lens, shot at the same angle, from the same distance, with little or no visual variety. Sometimes, I fear editors have lowered standards and expectations for the sake of just getting “something” in print or on a website. I hope not.

David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit