workshop assignment 3 – depth of field

Depth of Field

In assignment three we explore composition as a means of growing our understanding of Depth of Field.  We take a high level look at composition in this session on depth of field as different styles of composition lend themselves more readily to shallow depth of field and others to deep depth of field.


During the research for this topic, I ran into many “schools of thought” on composition and I want to share some of them with you.

Break the Rules

At the close of the 19th century, photography, like many of the creative arts of that time, was going through a period of major upheaval. Influenced by great thinkers like Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and many others, creative artists were rebelling against the rigidity of the Classical and Romantic periods and embracing the less formal, more relaxed thinking of the Modern period in the then new 20th century.

This movement was well expressed, in part, by work of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.

The Eloquent Nude - Edward Weston (1936)

Both Weston and Adams work have gone on to inspire many photographers since their time. What I find particularly telling is that Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, along with Imogen Cunningham and others, went on to found the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Photography.

“Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before talking a walk.”
Edward Weston

At the turn of the century this was probably considered more than a bit cheeky but I believe there is significant import here.  For me, Weston is telling us to trust ourselves and how we perceive the world around us.

Yosemite - Ansel Adams (1932)

“The so-called rules of photographic composition are, in my opinion, invalid, irrelevant and immaterial.”
Ansel Adams

If photographers of this stature are telling us to throw away the rules, there must be some merit to that thinking.

I feel it is fair to say that in photography, there are no rules per se. This isn't what some would like to hear as many feel the need for structure and rules. I believe this only limits our imagination and creativity. I know there is no greater creative force than imagination.

I believe it is more important to trust in your personal vision or view of the world. What is most important is getting your photographs to convey that vision, that view.

The “rules”

Good composition can help us create photographs that are compelling and engaging, that excite the viewer, that fill the viewer with awe and wonder. But they are not rules – they are guidelines.

“No composition rule is universal. No rule will work for every case. There are trends in composition that can be summarized as ‘rules of thumb’.”
John Harvey

So what is it about composition and “rules of thumb” that make them such a talked about topic, not only in photography, but in painting as well?

Modern technology allows us to study the physiology and neurology of perception and it reveals something at once startling yet very familiar to all of us.

If the eye remains fixed on one point for too long, whatever we are looking at will fade away, eventually completely. The same thing happens when we are presented with a flat, monochromatic surface. Our eyes have a natural tendency to move around, preventing this temporary blindness. And it is this movement of the eye that somehow translates to perceiving an image as pleasing or engaging or even exciting and compelling!

There are many types of composition and they all play on helping the eye move around an image, focusing on one area of interest or another. Here are the more significant types ...

  • Strong Vertical
    The eye moves up and down from top to bottom and back again; strong verticals create a sense of power, of permanence,
  • Strong Horizontal
    Here the eye tends to stay centred in the image; this style creates a sense of calm, a sense of place,
  • Diagonal
    The eye moves from the corners of the image towards a central point; diagonals create a sense of movement, of energy,
  • Perspective
    Here the eye shifts from the front of the scene to the back; creates a sense of place and of movement or progression into the image,
  • Rule of Thirds
    Objects on interest are placed along vertical or horizontal lines at thirds, or at the intersection of vertical and horizontal thirds.
    Put another way – don't put the main subject of interest in the centre of the frame,
  • Field
    The eye roves around, wandering somewhat aimlessly around the image; repeating patterns or textures create a feeling of place or even intrigue as we look for variations in the presented pattern or texture,
  • Golden Spiral
    Also known as the golden triangle or golden ratio, they frequently occur in nature; the eye moves along the spiral from the outer edge inwards along the decreasing spiral lines; creates a sense of movement and beauty,
  • S-curves
    Similar to the golden spiral, s-curves or zig-zag lines draw our eye along and into the image; creates a sense of flow and of entering into the image,
  • Point of View
    Here we take a look at our subject from an unexpected point of view by coming in close, by coming in low-down or from above; creates visual interest as we often recognize the subject but are intrigued by an unusual perspective,
  • Frames
    Using natural objects to frame our subject creates a strong sense of place and presence in the subject, conveying a sense of belonging to something larger; unusual juxtaposition creates high energy and interest, naturally drawing us into the image,
  • Cropping
    When we crop an image we change the content or point of view in some way to help convey a message or intent that is either different from or not inherent in the original image; cropping can be used to draw us in with intrigue, or to deceive us into believing something very different from the original image.

Rather than reproduce a large number of example images inline in this blog post, I've created a PDF that depicts each style along with sample images and notes.

Over the next few weeks try to make yourself aware of these styles. Not only are they used in paintings and photographs, you'll see them in magazines, TV shows and commercials and movies. As you become more aware of composition, try to understand what is happening to your perception as you view different styles.

Good composition isn't following a set of rules or even guidelines; good composition is a powerful tool that if understood well, can be used to great effect.


Explore depth of field through aperture. Try to use the composition styles above as various styles will lend themselves easily to shallow and deep depth of field photographs.

  1. Take three to four different compositions with a deep depth of field, and
  2. Take three to four different compositions with a shallow depth of field.

Rename each image file to describe the depth of field attempted (i.e. “shallow - vertical” or “deep - point of view”, ...).

For point-and-shoot digital cameras, you must rely on the cameras automatic modes ...

  • Landscape modes try to ensure both foreground and background are all in focus – a deep depth of field; the camera should use the smallest aperture possible (given the amount of light present in the scene); we are looking for something in the range of ƒ/11 to ƒ/22 or smaller,
  • Portrait modes should try to keep only the foreground subject in focus – a shallow depth of field – by using the largest aperture possible (also taking into consideration the amount of light present); we are looking for ƒ-stops between ƒ/5.6 to ƒ/2 or higher.

For digital SLRs, use aperture priority, or Av mode (also sometimes simply A, but make sure that A doesn't stand for Automatic)

If your camera offers both automatic and priority modes, use priority Av mode; this gives you more control over the aperture ƒ-stop setting.

Remember ...

  • keep composition in mind,
  • slow down and take your time,
  • try to get the feel of your image.

Most professional and serious amateur photographers know that if you stay open to possibilities, they will come.   It's often simply a matter of time.

That's it for session three.  In two weeks session four will focus on exposure time and exposure adjustments.

5 responses to “workshop assignment 3 – depth of field

  1. pingback //: Depth of Field, technique and lenses | LearnPhotographyOnline

    […] = ''; } Three Ways to Control Depth of Field Aperture & Depth of Field Explained workshop assignment 3 – depth of field […]

  2. Thanks for the information I’ve read from this blog…

    Anyway, just to confirm, taking photos like flowers… which mode is the best to use… I usually use Av mode for flowers.

    • For the most part, yes, Aperture Priority or Av would be the best mode as this gives you full control over depth of field, the more artistic component (aside from composition) in this type of shot.

      There are two primary ways to cause the viewer’s eye to move through your image the way you want when creating an image.

      • Composition, which is set by you, the photographer as you compose or visually arrange the subject(s).
      • And focal point and is usually controlled through the lens aperture with the eye tending to remain where the focus is sharpest.

      Check out this gallery

  3. pingback //: workshop assignment 5 – copyright and licensing | blog | john bishop images | photography | vancouver, bc

    […] discussion for session three’s assignment i introduced composition styles and techniques – check that sessions assignment for a refresher, or check out this PDF that goes into more […]

  4. pingback //: workshop session 3 – aperture and composition | blog | john bishop images | photography | vancouver, bc

    […] composition […]

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