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.
I use some of the ones listed above occasionally. Also, I love symmetry and that 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.
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
The Mid Zone
The Far Zone
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
The Three Zones Method of Photography Composition continued after the subscription form below.
Subscribe To Our List
No spam, notifications only about new stories, product reviews and updates.
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 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.
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. 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 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:
- 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.
- Alternately there are smartphone apps that will help you calculate the proper distance. Hyperfocal Pro on Android and Simple DOF calulator on iphone.
- 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.
The 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.
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 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.