Whether we are photographing a landscape or a native bee, we have to translate the three dimensions of real life into the two dimensions of a photograph. Creating the impression of depth can be very important to showing off nature (though there are times that a two-dimensional image works, such as a flat pattern).
This has long been a challenge for any artist who is dealing with a flat surface for their art, from sketches to paintings and so on. This has been an important part of my studies of composition, and the techniques I have learned have definitely enhanced my craft as a photographer. There are more ideas than I can fit into a single blog post, so I will do this in several parts on creating depth in a photograph.
It is easy to assume that because we are photographing three-dimensions in the real world and that photography seems to show that world well, that we automatically get a three-dimensional look in our images. We don’t. There are things we can do in order to enhance the perception of depth in photographs as we create the image, and even when doing some processing of the image as well.
Here are some specific techniques you can use:
- Frames – framing a scene is a classic way of creating depth. A frame can be anything that uses an edge (or edges of the photo) for some object to literally frame the scene behind it. A tree or a tree branch along the edge of the frame works well (although I am not fond of adding a branch to a scene that has few if any trees in it just for “depth” – that is a very inauthentic way of capturing nature). You can also look for objects with natural openings that can be used to surround your subject in the distance.
- Lines – the use of “leading lines”, compositional lines that lead the eye from the foreground to the background, is another classic depth technique. But it can also become a cliché. Any leading lines need to be an integral part of the scene, i.e., they need to feel like they belong there and are not used arbitrarily in such a way that they make sense to a composition but not the scene.
- Overlap – overlapping objects automatically gives a feeling of depth because only objects that change in distance, in depth, can overlap (if they were right next to each other, they could not). This has long been an important technique for painters, but it is not well known among photographers. All it often takes is some movement left or right so that something in the foreground overlaps something behind it (or even all the way to the background). I saw a commercial during a football game on Thanksgiving that did this extremely well.
- Color – the use of color can have a very strong impact on the impression of depth within a photo. Think of colors as more than what an object looks like. Warm colors come closer in an image, cool colors recede, creating depth. Saturated colors come closer in an image, less saturated colors recede. So look for warm colors, saturated colors or both to include in your foreground, then compose to avoid them in the background, and you will increase the feeling of depth. And if you do the opposite, you decrease the feeling of depth.
- Light – light has a little bit of an unusual effect on depth. An area of bright light in the foreground with darkness behind creates a feeling of depth. An area of dark in the foreground with brightness behind creates a feeling of depth. It is the contrast that does it.
- Backlit shadows – with backlit shadows, you get an impression of depth from the lines and changing patterns in the shadows. This is especially true if they can be seen going back to a specific object.
- Aerial perspective – if you look into the distance, you will often see that things far away are hazy compared to close objects, that the distance often looks less sharp than anything up close, that the distance loses contrast, that the distance also looks bluer than anything up close, and that colors lose their saturation. This is called aerial perspective and a natural part of the world. You can use all of those ideas in a photograph to get more depth. However, there are challenges – sometimes the distant bluish haze just looks bad in a photograph.