The Curious Case of the Christmas Tree

The Christmas Tree I’m referring to here is the famous lone pine tree in Hokkaido, Japan that just so happens to be nicknamed the Christmas Tree because of its shape and location.

Composed on the right half of the image with the top of the hill acting as a leading line element to the tree.

This beautiful piece of nature may be just a regular tree to some, but I find it fascinating and challenging to photograph. It’s this very reason why I’m dedicated an entire blog post on the various compositions that I feel work well for this one tree.

Composition

Composition in its simplest meaning can be thought of as determining what will go in a picture, and where it will go in it. Generally speaking, there are compositional rules that can be followed to yield in a more pleasing photo. Knowing as many of these rules or guidelines as possible will allow you to further expand the variety of ways you can compose an image—but that doesn’t mean you need to study every single one of these rules. In fact, it’ll likely confuse you the more you start studying them since you’ll be too caught up on which rule you should be using for the scene in front of you. Start off with just a few of the guidelines until you get the hang of them. And once you do, move on to other compositional guidelines and eventually all of them will become second nature to you when you are out shooting.

There are several compositional guidelines that one can consider like patterns, texture, colour contrasts, symmetry, foreground-background, framing, and the list goes on. I won’t get into details of each of these, but I will touch on the ones that I feel work best for this particular Christmas Tree. For this blog post, I’ll go through the following techniques as it pertains to this scene:

  1. Rule of Thirds
  2. Leading Lines
  3. Symmetry
  4. Negative Space
  5. Horizon Placement

Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the most common compositional techniques to use as it effectively creates a flow to an image as the eye moves to the subject. The idea behind the Rule of Thirds is to divide your frame into nine equal squares. You then place your subject anywhere near where the lines intersect with each other.

The Rule of Thirds suggests you place the subject near the point of intersection of these lines.

By doing this, it naturally moves the viewer’s eyes within the frame to the subject. Let’s see how this looks with our Christmas Tree.

Placing the Christmas Tree near the intersection point creates a pleasing composition.
The Christmas Tree is placed slightly off centred naturally creating movement of the viewer’s eyes around the frame to the subject.

Leading Lines

Leading lines within a frame draws the viewers eyes from point A to point B. The leading line does not necessarily have to be a physical line within the frame, but can be anything that draws the eyes to a point such as light posts along either side of a road.

Composed on the right half of the image with the top of the hill acting as a leading line element to the tree.

In this example above, the tree is placed on the right half of the frame, while the curvature of the hill gradually dips down towards the tree, unassumingly acting as a leading line element in this photo. It’s a subtle line but an effective one nonetheless. The short like coming from the right side dips down a little to the tree as well, further accentuating the effectiveness of the curvature of the hilltop.

Symmetry

Symmetry is all about balance of elements within a frame. When you have elements that balance each other from the left to the right, or above and below the horizon, it creates a sense of equality which is pleasing to view. This can easily be achieved through the use of reflections, mirrors, or finding something that is naturally symmetrical. Just know that symmetry doesn’t always refer to the exact same thing on either side, but can be slightly different as long as the sense of balance is equal from one side to the other.

The Christmas Tree sits squarely in the middle of the frame. There’s equal balance of elements from the top and bottom—and while not exactly the same, the left and right side can be considered to be symmetrical.

With nothing but snow on the ground and clouds in the sky, the entire frame is almost all white with the exception of the tree in the middle. The tree itself is pretty symmetrical from left to right, yielding in a naturally symmetrical scene. Note, while the curvature of the hilltop isn’t exactly mirror-like form left to right, they both follow a slight curve up, then move downward as they approach the edges of the frame. This creates a more-or-less balance of elements that ultimately yields in a symmetrical image.

Negative Space

Negative space is considered to be everything but the subject, as long as it helps emphasize the subject. In the case of all of the photos in this blog post, the tree is the subject and its unobstructed surroundings is negative space.

The Christmas Tree is the subject and everything else in the frame can be considered negative space.

Horizon Placement

Where you place the horizon line in your frame will also change the feeling/mood of the overall image. It’s important to note that this reference to the horizon doesn’t necessarily have to be the actual horizon in a landscape. If you were shooting something in the city, a horizontal line that divides the foreground element with the background element will also work.

There are three places where you can place the horizon in a photo:

  1. The top half of the image
  2. In the middle of the image
  3. The bottom half of the image

Placing the horizon in the top half

Placing the horizon in the top half of an image allows the viewer to see more of the foreground element, and less of the background element. This creates a more intimate feeling where you feel closer to the foreground element.

The tree is composed on the top third of the frame to give more emphasis to the foreground, creating a more intimate feeling where you are right there in the scene.

It might be a little difficult to see in this case since it’s all white below the horizon but if we had more details in the snow, it would feel as if you were right there in the snowy landscape.

Horizon in the middle

Putting the horizon in the middle of the frame will create a balanced image from top to bottom. With equal space below and above the horizon, there is no dominating side to the image.

Composed in the centre of the image for a balance of the ground and sky.

Horizon on the bottom half

Putting the horizon on the bottom half of the image yields in less of the foreground and more of the background. This creates a sense of expanse or openness in the landscape.

The tree is composed within the bottom third of the frame to give more emphasis to the sky, creating a feeling of expanse to the scene.

My thoughts on placement

With all of these options on choosing where to place the Christmas Tree, where is the most effective place to put it in the frame? While there is no one right answer, the place I would put it will emphasize the uniqueness of this tree. I like the shape of the tree—almost arrow-like—and how the branches are covered in snow. It’s the details of the tree that I find interesting, in addition to its surrounding—or lack thereof—to be the key points in this landscape. It’s so sparse, and combined with the white snow and white clouds, having one small tree in the expanse of white really brings out the uniqueness of this place.

I wouldn’t frame the tree at the very bottom because I feel like the clouds itself are too common an object, so over emphasizing this isn’t doing anything in particular to the image. I would put it either in the middle or in the bottom half of the frame.

While a centred tree is nice to look at, it can be all too common a scene as well. Because of this I would aim to place the tree off-centred to one side. Which side depends on the curvature of the hill and how the curves on either side affects the feel of the image. By placing the tree on the left, our eyes will flow from left to right where the curvature of the hilltop will naturally lead our eyes out of the frame.

The following two photos are what I would consider to be an effective way to frame this tree for all of the reasons above. The first example allows us to see more of the texture and details of this snow-covered tree which I find interesting.

My ideal placement of the Christmas Tree would be off-centred to one side, with the curvature of the hilltop acting as a leading line moving our eye naturally out of the frame.

And this one with the tree being a little smaller, to emphasize the starkness of the environment it is located in, is also one that I feel works really well.

The smaller tree allows us to see more of the surrounding environment bringing in more context to where we are standing.

As you can see there are really no right or wrong answers to this. But there are compositions that work more effectively than others when trying to get your message or story across.

I hope going through some of the compositional techniques using one landscape allows you to see the different ways these techniques can be effective.


Do you see other possibilities in composing this Christmas Tree? I’d love to hear what you think might work for this particular tree. Feel free to comment below.

Pin the image on the left.

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