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.
Three zones method of photography composition
Composition is the heart and soul of photography
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 to apply. Here is a list of the most common ones you are likely to encounter:
- Rule of Thirds
- The Golden Ratio
- Leading Lines
- Negative Space
- Complimentary Colors
- Rule of Odds
- Fill the Frame
- Diagonals and triangles
Does your brain hurt yet?
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. Trying it kind of makes me feel like a need carry a protractor with me.
Shoot first, ask questions later
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”
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.
Let me introduce you to a new method
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 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:
Three zones method of photography composition
The Near Zone
In the above photo, what you see in the foreground (bottom third) is sandy shallows, driftwood, some reflections, etc.
The Mid Zone
In the mid zone you see an island, trees and tree reflections, more shadows, varied water surface.
The Far Zone
In 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. And you can see how it gives the photo a great sense of depth. And the best part is I didn’t really have to think about it that much.
Another visual example
Below is a graphical example with text pointing out the various scene features. You can compare this example to the photo above for comparison.
It 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.
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Three zones method – 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. I am going avoid delving deeply into hyper-focal distance which would add another 5 or 6 pages of dense technical info. You can thank me later.
Getting into the correct mode
You need to be in aperture priority mode, designated as Av or just A on the mode dial.
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 some point and click 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.
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.
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
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.
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
- Set F-Stop to F8 or F11
- Adjust the white balance setting appropriately
- If darker outside, bump up the ISO slightly
- Focus approx. 30% into the scene
Hopefully this new 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.
Go out and try it out. And if you find this interesting, useful, helpful give me a comment below, and share this article with photography inclined friends.