1.3 – Composition – Depth of Field

Ladies and Gentlemen, we can go really deep into composition theory, but we won’t. This is why we’re calling this course an Intro to Photography. Remember that composition is all that comprises an image, including subject choice, shapes, light, color, and on and on. If you are interested in expanding your horizons quickly on the subject pick up this book that I mentioned in Section 1.2 – Subject, LINK. The next item I would like to discuss is something that should be pretty intuitive: Foreground and Background. Of course, there is such a thing as midground, but I’m trying to get you focused on the concept of “dividing the frame”, so we won’t over-complicate it at this point.

Look at this picture:


Subject in foreground

Clearly, you can see that the tree line is not the subject and it’s beyond the subject. The trees are in the background of this photo. How do you know the trees are not the subject? Easy, they’re blurred. Subjects don’t always have to be in the foreground. For instance, look at this photo:

Subject in background

Subject in background

Notice how the foreground helps play a part in telling the story. The father and son’s out of focus heads help to frame the woman’s head and make you feel like you’re peeking into a private conversation between the man and woman.

It’s important that you begin to see a photo not just as a two-dimensional, flat image. That’s easy to do when you’re using a point-and-shoot (we’ll get into what that means in a later section) rather than a quality camera and lens. Cheaper cameras give you less control over the photographic elements which help create three-dimensional quality in a picture. Let me introduce you to a phrase you’re going to be hearing quite a bit…DEPTH. We see the world as three-dimensional, but photos are displayed on a two-dimensional plane. Therefore, the struggle we have as photographers is to make people feel like they’re looking into a three-dimensional scene. Remember, we’re trying to help them experience the scene.

Depth is the primary way we accomplish this. There are many tools that help us in this: light, contrast, sharpening, and intended blur (a.k.a bokeh). Intentionally using out-of-focus items in the foreground to frame a subject in the background is one way to create depth. Conversely, using out-of focus background items like walls, trees, Winnebagos, and Scud missiles, are a way of creating depth for foreground subjects.

You don’t always want the entire photo to be blurry. I was using the previous examples to create the concept of depth, according to how the eye sees it.

Here’s an example of something that is pretty much in focus throughout the entire photo:

Lots of depth

Lots of depth

Here, you are wanting to show the people in the foreground of the Lincoln Memorial steps and also show the Washington monument, so you’ll have to have good depth. The technical phrase we use is Depth of Field (D.O.F.). I was hesitant to mention that phrase too soon, because I didn’t want your head to explode. I couldn’t have that on my conscience. But, we’ll be saying D.O.F. quite a bit. Another cool phrase to use at dinner parties. “Dude, I used a really shallow depth of field so as to emphasize the loneliness we all feel. Art, man, it’s art.”

I have a little exercise for you: hold your fist about 3 inches out in front of your face and focus on the details of your hand. Can you see anything in focus more than a couple inches beyond what you’re focusing on? No. That’s because your eye is the greatest camera in the history of mankind. Canon will never compete with God in this market. Your eye can instantly focus in and out and control the flow of light through it’s lens. When we get into the “How to work your camera” section, I’ll go into greater depth about the parallel between eyeballs and cameras. Back to our little exercise, which I did to actually serve a point, but I bet you looked like quite a dufus when you were staring at your hand all cross-eyed. I hope you weren’t reading this while at a Starbuck’s. The reason everything is blurred so quickly beyond what you’re focusing on is also the reason why your eyes help you to see three-dimensionally. Depth! It’s like your brain is doing a million little calculations as it scans back and forth in the foreground, midground, and background of the world you are viewing. Taking little snapshots, it composites a topographical map in front of you. A bit like the Terminator.

So let’s think of how to apply this to your photography. I want you to start looking at “subjects” and thinking about what is in front of and beyond the subject. You might want to move back and put something in the “foreground” to frame or highlight the subject. Or you might want to get really close to your subject and “knock out” everything else beyond it. Experiment with depth of field and your subject within the frame.

ASSIGNMENT: Take at least two pictures of a subject. In the first one, get up close to your subject, focus on he/she/it and snap a photo. In the next one, put something in front of you, but slightly to the side and focus on the subject in the background. Think of the image above where you see the woman’s face between the father and son. When you get done, upload them to our community right here LINK.

main - August 10, 2009 - 1:22 pm

Thanks for the humor in what can, quite often, be boring. I am highly interested in seeing you insert some Winnebagos in upcoming work! Keep up the great posts!

PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS: Using Composition To Make Your Photos Better | Know How of Photography - November 20, 2013 - 8:19 am

[…] all photos have to be half-blurred to show the depth of field. The following photographs are examples of how showing all the details help to create a different […]

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