Simple Photo Tips

Photography Composition – Three Zones Method

Photo of a boat house

Composition is perhaps the most written about photography topic.  And for very good reason.  It’s something you do on literally every single shot you take.  It is the very essence of photography, i.e. capturing a scene or a subject.  Read on to learn about the three zones method of photography composition.

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

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Technique for Photography Composition

Rules for photography composition

If you’ve spent any time searching for information about photography composition, you already know.  There are a huge number of common “rules” or guidelines out there.  Some of them are practical and some of them would require a degree in math and a protractor to apply.  Here is a list of the most common ones you are likely to encounter:

  • Rule of Thirds
  • The Golden Ratio
  • Leading Lines
  • Symmetry
  • Negative Space
  • Complimentary Colors
  • Rule of Odds
  • Fill the Frame
  • Diagonals and triangles

Photography composition guidelines

I could go on for a while listing dozens of rules/guidelines.   The main point here is that there are a ton of ways to compose a photo.   Many of them only work in certain situations and circumstances.  Some of them are just downright hard to apply.

Personally, I have never really figured out how to apply the golden ratio in real time in the field.  I feel like I need to spend too much time thinking about it, when I should be focused on getting a good shot.

I use some of the ones listed above here and there.  For example, I love symmetry and that really shows in all the reflections photos I take.  And, I like to use negative space, with everything on one side of the photo and negative space on the other.

Photography composition techniques in action

As mentioned above, when trying to apply some of the guides mentioned above, I often found it impractical in real time.  I was spending too much time thinking about the method and not enough time thinking “wow this looks cool I should press the button”.  It’s often more efficient to just shoot first, ask questions later

You could probably apply the one of the guidelines after the fact while sitting at your computer and say to yourself, yeah that’s why this photo looks good.  This photo fits the “xyz” rule, you say to yourself.  But that’s not going to help you in real time out in the field taking photos.   You need something that will be easy to apply at photo taking time.

So, be warned here that I am going to talk about yet another method.  BUT before you run screaming, take a quick look.  This is one that I have created for myself because it’s easy apply in real time.  Get ready for it.

A new method of photography composition

I call this the three zones method.  It really works great for landscape and outdoor photos but could be applied to almost any situation.  Any situation that is where the scene has depth and something interesting going on from front to back.

Simply put, the idea is to break the scene into 3 parts.  The foreground, or near distance.  The middle area or mid distance, and the far distance area.  In a typical outdoor or landscape photo, this would equate to the bottom area, middle area and top area of the frame.

This method of photography composition is easy to do in your head while looking through the view finder. You want to have something of interest, an object, person, animal, a terrain feature, etc. in each distance zone.

Perhaps a visual example would help

Below is a photo I took of Bumping Lake near Mt Rainer in the state of Washington that uses the three zones method:

Bumping Lake Reflections
Photo by Loyd Towe Photography – Bumping Lake

Three zones method of photography composition

The Near Zone

This is the area that closest to you.  As a generality, this is all of the image that is within about 250-300 feet from you.  In the above photo, what you see in the foreground (bottom third) is sandy shallows, driftwood, some reflections, etc. 

The Mid Zone

This is the area that extends from the end of the near zone usually out to the horizon.  It is the area that comprises the middle of the scene usually.  In photo above, in the mid zone you see an island, trees and tree reflections, more shadows, varied water surface. 

The Far Zone

This is often the area beyond the horizon.  The far zone usually makes up the top half or third of an image. In the photo above, it the far zone, you see mountain peaks, clouds, blue sky, etc. 

The above example illustrates a practical application of the three zones method of photography composition techniques.  And you can see how it gives the photo a great sense of depth. 

The best part is I didn’t really have to think about it that much.  I have used this method so much its sort of become second nature.  Its what my eye looks for when I am shooting a landscape photo now.

A visual key of this photography composition method

Below is a graphical framework with text pointing out the various scene features.   You can compare this example to the photo above to see how it relates.  I would draw your attention to the probable focus target.  This represents a focus point that will approximate the correct hyperfocus distance for your scene.  More on that further down.

Photography Composition Three Zones Method infogram
Visual Example of the Three Zones Method

Three zones works side to side as well

You can also break the scene up left to right as well as top to bottom.   One thing that can be different in side to side versions of this, is that sometimes the zones are not contiguous.  You may have the near zone in the middle and the far zone on the left of right.   Or the far zone may be in the middle.

Below is a photo I took at Canon Beach in Oregon at Sunset.  In this scene the near zone is on the left and the far zone is on the right.  For this photo the focus target was the sand half way between the logs and the edge of the surf.

Canon Beach Rocks Three Zones Method

Photography Composition

Camera Settings – Getting into the correct mode

You need to be in aperture priority mode, designated as Av or just A on the mode dial. 

Mode Dial Photography Composition

This will allow you to control the settings of the F-Stop for you can increase it to the appropriate setting.   I will summarize these again later, but you want to be using at least F8, probably more like F11.

When using aperture priority mode, the camera will automatically take care of the shutter speed for you.  You can keep white balance and ISO in auto if you want, or you can set those manually.

On my canon 5D camera, there is a setting related to auto ISO that will set a minimum shutter speed limit.  When the shot calls for a shutter speed that’s lower than the minimum setting, ISO will increase to prevent the shutter speed from slowing down and causing blur.

For more info on auto ISO minimum shutter features see this post, I keep mine set to 1/90 as the slowest allowable speed.

On some point and shoot cameras, you may instead need to use the “Landscape” shooting mode.  This will set you up for a wide depth of field just like using aperture priority with a high F-Stop.  This is one of many helpful automatic modes on small point and shoot cameras.

Camera Settings – You’ll need to focus

So, you have a scene that has something of interest, an object, person, animal, a terrain feature in each distance zone.  It’s important that each zone has sharp focus.  Especially the stuff in the near zone.

The best way to ensure that is to use a combination of a high F-Stop setting, along with a proper focal distance.  The focus point that you will need is called the hyperfocal distance.

The Hyper what?

Hyperfocal distance, is probably best described as the focusing distance that gives your scene the greatest depth of field.   In  photography composition for a landscape scene, you want everything to be in focus.  However if you focus on objects close to you, the background will appear blurry in the image. If you focus on the background, the objects close to you will look out of focus.

How do you deal with this? You use a focus point that is between the foreground and the background, which makes both the foreground and the background elements of the scene appear reasonably sharp. This focusing point is called the hyperfocal distance.

I am going avoid delving deeply into hyperfocal distance which would add another 5 or 6 pages of dense technical info.  You can thank me later. 

How to find the right distance?

Here are a couple of methods you can use to find the hyperfocal distance:

  1.  Find an object in the foreground that should be in focus.  Try to estimate how far away it is.  As an example, lets say 25 feet.   What you need to do is double that, and chose something at 50 feet to foccus on.
  2. Alternately there are smartphone apps that will help you calculate the proper distance.  Hyperfocal Pro on Android and Simple DOF calulator on iphone.
  3. Just choose a focus target about 30% up from the bottom of the desired scene and focus on that. (this is what I do as mentioned below)

Choosing the correct focus point

I usually choose a focus point that lands about 30% up from the bottom of the scene.  It doesn’t need to be exactly 30%, and it doesn’t need to be in the center of the scene.

This will give you an acceptable approximation of the correct hyper-focal distance.   The higher your F-Stop, the more forgiving this distance is.   However, be careful not to exceed F16 or you will lose sharpness overall.

In the graphic example above I have indicated a likely focus target in the scene.  Something that closer to the near zone than the far zone.  And is approx. 30% into the scene as a whole.

Three Zones Method of Photography Composition

Other settings to consider

Depending on the conditions of the lighting, if not on auto be sure to set your white balance accordingly.  If the day is dark or its near sundown, you might consider bumping up the ISO slightly to avoid longer shutter speeds.

You still need to use other best practices

Such as making sure the light source is in a good place, use a lens hood, use a circular polarizer if you have/need one.  Also, use the right focal length (zoom), mount on a tripod and using a remote shutter switch, etc.

Both of the photos above were shot using a lens hood, a circular polarizer, tripod and remote release.

All of the above still apply, but once you’ve scouted out a good possibility, move on to the 3 distances method to get a pleasing composition.

Conclusion to Photography Composition Techniques

So, here is the quick summary of things you need to set up for this technique:

  • Break scene into 3 zones
  • Make sure there is something interesting in each zone
  • Put camera on aperture priority mode
  • Use a tripod and remote release
  • Set F-Stop to F8 or F11
  • Adjust the white balance setting appropriately
  • If darker outside, bump up the ISO slightly or use auto ISO minimum shutter
  • Focus approx. 30% into the scene

Hopefully this new photography composition method will help you with a new perspective.  Keep in mind that I have given you a lot of the theory here.  But the primary concept is simple.  Don’t over think it.  

Use the general guideline to quickly find the composition through the viewfinder.  Then snap the photo.   The more you do it, the more automatic it will become.  As I mentioned above, I do this automatically now when I am doing landscape photos.

Go out and try it out.  And if you find this interesting, useful, helpful give me a comment below, and share this article on your social accounts and with photography inclined friends.

2 thoughts on “Photography Composition – Three Zones Method”

  1. Avatar for Loyd Towe

    Great Post Loyd! Love how simple your three zone method is. I remember the first time I started to look for foreground interest. It was a big moment for me in my photography journey. The castle is amazing,.. sure, but when you add foreground interest the photo also becomes pretty amazing.

    1. Avatar for Loyd Towe

      Thanks for the comment Michael. Its really easy for this to become second nature. At some point your eye just sees it without you even thinking about it. Glad you got something out of it.

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