The correct terminology

A website I was on asked readers to view examples of composition and showed photographs of blocks. Each photo was cropped tighter in succession, but the locations of the blocks stayed much the same in each picture. However, the depth of field surrounding the blocks changed in each photograph, bringing me to the conclusion that what was actually being shown was a study controlling depth of field.

In the series of photos, composition was a factor because the blocks in each image changed in size and definition, but overall, this was not a review of composition, as the terminology wasn’t correct and the photos were actually examples of depth of field.

On the subject of depth of field I’ll mention a conversation I had. A fellow stopped by my shop looking for a lens with an aperture of f1.8 or f2.8, saying he was trying (in his words) “to get depth of field, the out of focus stuff behind a person”.

His terminology, like on the website, wasn’t exactly correct. Whether the background is “in focus” or “out of focus” is a function of depth of field, but one wouldn’t really refer to it as depth of field.

After talking to him more I realized that all he knew was that if a lens was used at an aperture like f2.8, the background would be soft; and he had no idea that depth of field or the area in focus in front of and behind the subject was actually controlled by the aperture.

Both photographers knew what they wanted to accomplish, only the words were wrong. That’s not such a bad thing, but in any course of study, whether it is agriculture, mechanics, or photography, we must be able to converse using the correct terminology to understand each other.

I read a paragraph in photographer Tim Fitsharris’ book, Nature Photography, that says  “Composition is the way you arrange the elements of a picture, that jumble of lines, shapes, and textures that appears in the viewfinder. By giving order to these elements you are able to relate a clear message. Composition is the key that unlocks the emotions of the viewer. It is a universal language that reveals the photographer’s message to anyone who can see.”

A search on my computer brought up discussions relating to composition, most describing the “guide lines” of composition. There is the “rule of thirds” based on how most of us are visually drawn to a point about two thirds up the page and that certain locations in a picture’s composition attract the viewers attention. Those compositional guide lines also talk about “S” curves, or how our eyes seem to enjoy following curves, this usually applies to roads and water. Another is that a photograph is more interesting if strong lines disappear in the corner rather then one with lines dividing the image.

I try to think of those guidelines when I take a picture.  If I have become excited or forced because of quick changing circumstances to photograph a subject dead centre then I am relieved that I can crop the photo differently using PhotoShop.

I refer to composition guidelines because hard and fast rules can’t possibly be applied to every photograph one makes. As photographers our goal is to bring out the expressive qualities of a scene or subject when we photograph it and not to limit our expressiveness with rules.  Sometimes a composition will include elements of depth of field, however, depth of field does not include composition.

Famous photographer Edward Weston stated, “Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph, is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.”  However, before declaring that anything works, please take the time to view some of Weston’s photographs. He doesn’t just make it up as he goes; his control and creativity are far from haphazard.

The definition of depth of field is that area around the main subject, in front of, and behind, that is acceptably sharp. The aperture controls depth of field if using a DSLR. The smaller the aperture size, as in f16, the more the total in-focus area is and conversely the wider that aperture is, as for example f2.8, the less the field of focus is.

Readers will understand what I have just written about composition and depth of field because I used the correct terminology. There are many good photographers talking and writing about photography today, and although they may be capable of making good pictures that doesn’t mean they really are capable of explaining how or what they did. I don’t really have any profound advice, but I do suggest personal study of photography the same way one would with any sometimes-complicated subject.

These are my thoughts for this week.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me. Email your comments and suggestions to me at or phone 250-371-3069

John Enman owns and operates Enman’s Camera at 423 Tranquille Road in Kamloops, selling an interesting selection of used and new photographic equipment and offers professional wedding photography and photographic instruction.  Check out