The 360 Exercise and the Stage Zones

In theatre, a stage is a frame in which actors and sets create a fictitious reality into which the audience is plunged. When deciding where things should be placed on the stage to engage the audience or support the action on the stage, they talk of three basic zones. From the rear of the stage to the audience, there are three zones: upstage, center stage, and downstage. These are each divided into three or five sections, depending on the size. If just three sections, there will be a center, left, and right in each. When in the center stage zone, right or left may be referred to simply as stage right and stage left, with only the very middle of the stage being referred to as centre stage.

I think this is a useful analogy when it comes to framing a scene with your camera. When you instinctively feel there is a photograph in front of you and you are considering how to compose it, you do not have the luxury a director has to place people or sets in the frame. You have to think about what is in upstage, middle stage and downstage, or in photographic terms foreground, middle ground and background. In order to get objects in these three areas to harmonize correctly it is useful, before you make any images, to move about the scene from left to right, and perhaps look from high to low angles, to see how these three areas interrelate. I suggest doing a 360 or 180-degree look using your feet, or as much as is physically possible within the scene.

Rotating in place talking one minute at least per rotation looking for specific things such as colour or shapes vertical and horizontal. Then do a 360 around, or how much of a 360 is possible, around the elements that drew you to the spot. Pay attention changing relationship of the elements in the frame. In other words, as you move the foreground, middle ground and background will change at a different rate, this can make very large changes in the composition that might not have been apparent while you were standing in one spot. For example, by moving right you could cause a secondary element in the foreground closer or further away from the main subject in the middle ground.

Elliott Erwitt, a Magnum photographer, has a famous image (above) called the Chihuahua New York. Looking at his Contact Sheet Print: gives you some idea of his process of creating this composition. Please note that often street photographers are forced to crop as they are working quickly and often have limited lenses on the street. 

The following are examples how much different an image can be depending on how high or low you place the camera:

The camera above the head
The Camera at Ground Level
The camera at Eye Level

The following is an illustration of moving around the subject, in this case, the rotted-out trunk, and trying to decide how to place it in the image.

The following is an example of a situation where I was able to move around the subject and study it from many angles.