DOF and composition…


Two elements of photography that are keys of taking your pictures from snap shots to “artistic photographs”.  Take a look at photography books, magazines and the online community dedicated to photography and you’ll always find and read that they will harp on these two elements.

Why am I mentioning them if you can read about it elsewhere?  Well, in case you haven’t heard about yet.  I also find that these two elements are the easiest to understand but more difficult to get in the habit to think about.  I don’t know how other photographers instruct at their workshops (if they do workshops) but I talk about these two things first and try to get everyone thinking about the shot before the shot.

With all that being said you will also find that photographers can defer on their opinion of how something should be shot but we still hold on to some basic photography “guidelines” or “rules” but understand that sometimes the rules can be broken. I’ll explain as we go along.

The picture of the spider hiding behind the leaf of a plant is an example of the use of a couple of the basic photography rules…composition and DOF.  For those of you who doesn’t know what DOF means it means Depth of Field.  DOF is the term for the area in front and behind the subject and how much is in focus and out of focus.  This one thing alone can make a tremendous impact on a photograph as you can see in that picture.  Depending on your subject will often dictate on what kind of DOF you need to give the photograph the most impact possible.

I’m sure that by now you have heard of the f-stop.  The numbers that represents how much light gets to your sensor.  I’ll break it down simply for you.  The lower your number (example f/2.8) the more light that hits your sensor.  The more light that hits your sensor the shallower your depth of field will be.  A shallower DOF means that more of the area in front and behind your subject will be out of focus. Now just reverse that thought and you’ll figure out that the higher your f-stop number (example f/22) the greater your DOF.  That’s right.  How much of the foreground and background is in focus.  Pretty much every professional photographer and serious enthusiast have what are called fast lenses.  Fast lenses are considered any lens with an aperture (f-stop) of f/2.8 and lower.  Most lenses that have a maximum aperture of f/2.8 or lower (we also call this faster) is a fixed aperture lens.  In other words, if it’s a zoom lens with a fixed aperture of f/2.8, no matter whether you are zoomed all the way in or out you can shoot at f/2.8.  Lucky for you fast lenses are fairly inexpensive if they are small lenses.  I will talk about lenses in another blog so these pieces start to tie together.  One thing I can tell you  is that a shallow DOF can be had even with slower (f/3.5 and up) lenses just by getting closer to your subject.  If you keep your f-stop at it’s maximum setting (the lowest number) then the closer you get to your subject the more you’ll have out of focus in front of your subject and behind your subject.

The picture above also gives a great example of composition and how it can impact a photograph.  This other key photography rule is called the rule of thirds. A lot of the digital cameras that are out now have an option within the menu to display a grid on the LCD.  Check your camera menu and see if you can get this option as it will help train you to compose your subjects in the thirds portion of you frame.  If your camera doesn’t have that option then you’ll have to mentally think about a grid cut into thirds (below).

Rule of Thirds

Most everyone who are casual shooters tend to always center their subject in the middle of the frame rendering the look of what is called a “snap shot”.  If you are reading this then I’m sure you would like to go beyond snap shots.  Right?!  Good!  You are already on your way.   I have added a “Rule of Thirds” chart that I created (it’s not perfect but you’ll get the idea if it shows up here correctly when posted).  Just think about the area of the circles as the rule of thirds area along with the inside lines.


Landscape photography is one of those that can be a bit tricky depending on what the landscape is.  A lot of people will line of the horizon in the middle of the frame.  Even in landscapes you should be thinking about the thirds (in this case for the horizon line).  To get the most out of your photograph try and line up the horizon towards the upper or lower third of the frame.  Be careful here though.  Once photographers start developing the “thirds mentality” they then need to start thinking about the space within the frame.  I don’t have an example picture for you but lets try the art of visualization.

Think about a beach scene.  There is nothing on the water other than small waves.  The sun is past midway to the high noon mark.  The sky is blue with some white puffy clouds.  The first instinct is to line up the horizon (where the water and sky meet) in the center of the frame but now you are thinking about the rule of thirds so you decide to line up the horizon in the upper third of the frame.  This gives you less sky and more water.  You snap the picture and you look at it on the camera’s LCD.  Your thinking you like it…but wait!  Look at it again.  I mean really look at it.  Look at the water and what do you see?  Water!  Lots of water.  Endless water doing the same thing all over two thirds of the photograph.  Hmmm….now it’s beginning to look a little boring right?!  Take another picture but this time bring the horizon to the lower thirds of the frame.  Take the picture and look at it.  It looks less empty doesn’t it?  Less empty water and more sky with white puffy clouds makes it more interesting and full.  If the sky  was clear of any clouds and the water empty as well then don’t take the picture.  Wait for a boat or ship to come into the picture so there is something taking up space in the water or come back when the sun is low or have clouds in the sky.  It gets a bit trickier and complicated with scenes with a lot of things in it (such as buildings, mountains and so fourth).

The picture above with the bridge you’ll notice that I not only kept the horizon in the lower third but I made sure that there was more to the picture than just the buildings.  I used the bridge to make it more interesting and kept it to the right thirds of the frame.  It would have still worked without the bridge because of all the clouds in the sky but lots of people have shot that type of landscape scene.


In this picture there is no bridge but what I did to make it a little different is by shooting it at an angle that gives the feeling of the buildings getting further from me.  The horizon in the lower thirds and turning the camera to the right rather than shooting it straight on makes it feel so different doesn’t it.  That’s one of the fun things about photography (especially digital because we won’t waste money on bad shots) is that you can try many angles and so forth to give that photograph a unique look.

Sometimes you can even break the rule of thirds and have the photograph work. This will be more up to you and your vision than anything else but the type of scene that usually works with the rule breaking are scenes involving reflection in the water (your land based subjects are also reflecting on the water clearly).

I could go on and on with this subject but I’m not.  If you are interested in going out with me as a group or one on one let me know.  I’m more than happy to share with you and help you go beyond snap shots.  In the mean time…get out there and start shooting!

Best ~ R

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