Mastering the 1/3 In Front; 2/3 Behind Rule

 “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still”

~ Dorothea Lange 

Hopefully after the recent blog on depth of field, you have taken some time to practice with your aperture settings to achieve narrow depth of field in your animal images.

Quick review. With animal portraits, you want to choose a narrow depth of field to blur out the background. Of course this also works with people portraits too.

Here’s an image I love where the depth of field is narrow enough so that the portrait of this llama’s face is perfect. The total face is in sharp focus, but the background is a blur.

 Canon EOS, 60D, 250th of a second at f5.6

Good! We’ve got the basic concept down, and we are ready to move on to mastering the 1/3 in front, 2/3 behind rule of focusing.

The what?

This rule is about the sharpness of the zone of focus. The rule states that with any image, the zone in sharp focus is always 1/3 in front of the point of focus, and 2/3 behind the point of  focus.

So what the heck does this have to do with aperture?

Well we know that we must always focus on the eyes of our subjects.

But in the image below, we can see that the focus is on the nose and the depth of field was so narrow that the eyes are out of the zone of sharp focus. That means this one is headed for the trash can.

Ok. Let’s try again. We know that we should always focus on the eyes, so we correct our mistake above, and focus directly on the eyes. Then we chose a depth of field that will be wide enough (render our image sharp from front to back) to be sure the whole face will be in focus.

Much better!

To make sure everything is in focus, start by focusing on the eye area. If you have a depth of field preview button (which will stop down the lens to the current aperture), use that to check and see if the aperture you have chosen will render the entire face in focus. If you need more depth, close down the lens one stop (go to the next biggest number) and try again.

Remember that the more depth you have the more that will be in focus behind the animal. We don’t want depth behind the animal. We want the animal face to stand out from the background. So here’s the secret to using a narrow depth of field and still getting the entire face in sharp focus.

Move the point of focus slightly in front of the eyes. Just slightly.

Why? Because, with any lens the focus is always 1/3 in front of the subject, and 2/3behind. It’s just the rule, so go with it. Actually we like rules that don’t change. So much of photography is dependent on issues that are subjective, but this one is set in stone.

Obviously this is more of a problem with animal’s that have a lot of distance (relatively speaking), between their eye area and the tip of their nose. So with this parrot, to keep a very narrow depth of field, I focused on the red feathers just in front of the eyes.

Canon EOS 60D,  250th of a second at f5.6

In a perfect photography world, I would have chosen a bit more depth so the eyes were tack sharp. But there was too much clutter behind the head. Sometimes you just have to do the best you can do.

What else do you notice about all these portraits…even the one destined for the trash can?

We’ll discuss the answer to that question next time.

Meanwhile, practice focusing using the 1/3 in front, 2/3 behind rule and see how it goes. If you can’t seem to get it right, you can always limit your shooting to pug nosed dogs and cats. Or goldfish.

Yes…let’s hear it for the goldfish!

Good shooting,

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