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Photographing Interiors and Products Part 4: Focus, Composition, and Cropping

This is part 4 of my Photographing Interiors and Products series. This series is designed to help you get your DSLR camera off automatic mode and start taking beautiful photos! Part 4 covers composition and cropping when photographing interiors and products. This post contains affiliate links, which helps me provide great free content for you all! You can read more about that here. Thank you!

Photographing Interiors and Products Part 4:

Focus, Composition, and Cropping

Hey guys, welcome to part 4 of my photographing interiors and products series! I’ve shared bits about exposure basics and aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and the essential gear to get great shots. So you’ve got a decent handle on how to get the light, focus, and detail just how you want it, and you know what tools you might need to bring in to help. Let’s talk a bit about focus, composition, and cropping.

(Want to make sure you’re notified when the next part in this series comes out? Sign up for my mailing list at the end of the post and I’ll drop you a note in my weekly-ish newsletter!)

photographing products and interiors part 4 focus, composition, and cropping

Understanding Focus

You can’t compose a photo without a main focus, and you can’t focus your camera without a main focus. Depth-of-field is important here. As we discussed in Part 1: Exposure Basics and Aperture, a shallow depth-of-field (lower f-stop) will focus on one part or area of the image with other parts being blurry or out of focus:

faux succulent
small painted clay pot with wet gold paint on it
gray kitty
dried flowers in a spoon

Where as a higher f-stop will have more of the image in focus. Focus is especially important when images have a lower f-stop and more shallow depth of field because you need to select what’s in focus. But focus is always important because your camera literally cannot take a picture without focusing on one point. (Another reason why taking images in low light can be challenging when using automatic focus.)

When shooting in automatic mode, your camera chooses where to focus. But your camera isn’t in your head, so it may give you this from a shot:

out of focus photo

When you really wanted this much better image:

in focus photo

Oof, that’s a huge difference. When I look through my Nikon D7100 and press my shutter button down halfway, it illuminates red boxes where I am focusing. I can focus on one specific spot by using the four-way selector on the back of my camera to move the red box around. (See your camera’s manual for specifics on your particular brand, but they are all fairly similar.) Most DSLRs also give you the option to choose small groups of focus points and then let your camera choose the best option of the group. I don’t really use this option, but it could be really helpful in situations where your target moves quickly.

I keep my Nikon D7100 on autofocus (AF-S, called “one shot” on Canon), almost always. The only time I focus manually is when I am using my macro lens, which is rare. I never use continuous autofocus, which continues to autofocus as long as you keep the shutter button pressed down halfway. This is best for fast-moving shots, and I don’t do much of that.

A quick note on focusing and lighting…

Where you move your focus points also tells your camera where to take a light reading, which is critical for exposure. Say you’re shooting a room. If I set my focus point on the windows, the light reading would be much different than if I’d focused it on the bed because my camera thinks there is a ton of light. It would expose for the windows, and the rest of the living room would come out much darker and underexposed.

dark bedroom

And a second example of a plant in a window.

dark bedroom

Now check out what happens when I set my focus point on the inside of the room, not the window. Taking the reading here will “blow out” (overexpose) the light in the windows. Note that “blowing out” your windows is a stylistic approach I like. I prefer this method because I like light, bright, and clutter-free images, and that does it. If you don’t want to adopt this method, no biggie.

Bright bedroom with black and white decor

And the plant in the window.

snake plant in a window

Composition: Creativity and Experimentation

Focus and composition go hand-in-hand. You can’t really compose a photo without a focus, and when you focus on something in a photo, you’re inherently choosing how to compose the image.

A lot of photography tutorials tout “the rule of thirds” as the end-all-be-all of photography composition. If you aren’t familiar with the rule of thirds, look at a photo and imagine a tic-tac-toe board over it. According to the rule of thirds, the focus of the photo should ideally be where one of the crosses are. The rule of thirds very often leads to beautiful composition, but isn’t fool-proof.

photo illustrating the rule of thirds
photo illustrating the rule of thirds with a grid overlay

Looks great, but I also loved this potpourri bowl shot in other ways…

bowl of potpourri in front of a Christmas tree
bowl of potpourri

Here’s another example of something shot two different ways: once from above and once at an angle.

overhead view of succulents in a pot
succulents in a pot

Composition is something that’s learned through experience. I’d encourage you to get creative by shooting on object from several different angles and from different distances. You’ll start to see what looks the best, the most balanced, and the most interesting. Most importantly, you’ll see what fits your photography style. What do you want your images to convey? I like my images to be clean and clutter-free. That often means shoots things straight on to create interesting right-angle lines, but not always.

As a blogger, I also shoot a lot of rooms, projects, and products with a few things in mind: Will I have a beautiful horizontal image to use for my blog’s header image? Will I have beautiful vertical images to use for Pinterest? Will I be able to crop any of these images down to a beautiful square image that still looks balanced and not too tight? Instagram and many craft/DIY feature sites I submit to use square images, so that’s important to me.

How Can Cropping Help?

I often decide on composition by cropping. I might not get it just right in the shot, but cropping can make a huge difference. Here’s an example of how cropping helped to improve a shot I took of Ramona at the library that originally had some clutter in the frame (my mother-in-law’s shoe and hand) and was a bit crooked.

baby crawling in a library

First I straightened the image. Then I tried a few different cropping options, ultimately settling on the last one as my final image.

baby crawling in a library
baby crawling in a library
baby crawling in a library

And here’s a second example from that day where some very minor perspective changes and cropping made a big difference.

baby playing in a library
baby playing in a library

And here’s a shot of the nightstand in our bedroom to illustrate how cropping down to a square really improved an image, I think:

bedroom with black and white decor
bedroom with black and white decor

But Cropping Can Suck…

But cropping isn’t a fool-proof solution. Here’s an example shot of R’s bookshelves cropped down to a square. I think it detracted from the image:

nursery shelving with books and stuffies
nursery shelving with books and stuffies

And a second example of where cropping down to a square just wasn’t as great as the original image, the DIY party hats I made for R’s first birthday:

DIY party hats with yarn toppers
DIY party hats with yarn toppers

What do you think?

Shooting and cropping can have a big impact when shooting small spaces like powder rooms. What do you think of the following two images shot/cropped three different ways: vertical, horizontal, and square?

open shelving in a bathroom
open shelving in a bathroom
open shelving in a bathroom
modern bathroom with a circular mirror
modern bathroom with a circular mirror
modern bathroom with a circular mirror

So try out a few different approaches to shooting different things. I might shoot a room a few different ways with a few different focuses and see what looks best when I get the photos on my computer. Then I’ll crop as necessary to get a different feel.

Next up…

Photographing Interiors and Products Part 5:

DSLR Shooting Modes

Ready to dive in to your camera? Great. Let’s talk about all of those confusing shooting modes on your camera’s dial—including which ones you definitely want to avoid and which ones you want to play with and master.

Check out the previous posts in this series:

1: Exposure Basics and Aperture

2: Shutter Speed and ISO

3: Essential Photography Tools


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