Creating Depth in Photographs

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.

    Lake Mead Rec Area, near Las Vegas, NV

    Lake Mead Recreation Area, near Las Vegas, NV

  • 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.

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    Redwood trees,                                                       Mountain Home State Forest, CA

  • 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.

    Barrel cactus with brittlebrush, Joshua Tree National Park, California

    Barrel cactus with brittlebrush, Joshua Tree National Park, California

  • 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.
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Giant coreopsis, Point Dume, CA

  • 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.

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    Sunrise, Wofford Heights, CA

  • 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.

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    Snow scene, Southern Maine

  • 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.

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    Mountains, Southern Sierra Nevada, CA

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Two Approaches to Nature Photography

connection-4Recently I saw a web ad for some sort of photo course about getting great shots of night skies, and it had a photographer pointing his camera "at the night sky" (through the help of Photoshop!). It struck me as an interesting visual for how we approach photography.

The photographer was definitely "taking" a picture of the subject. This is one approach to photography. We direct our attention and our camera outward toward the subject. It is very much a photographer-centric approach where what is important is how the resulting photograph represents the photographer.

What I mean by that is that the photograph is about "capturing a great shot", about working to create "better photos", both in terms of the photographer. The photographer can then be happy (or not) about his/her work, his/her "eye", his/her photographic abilities. It is more about the photography than the subject. That does not mean the subject is unimportant, just that it is less important than the visual aspects of the photo.

This is an important approach to photography, one that all photographers do at one time or another, and an approach that will dominate the work of most photographers. It is how photography gains visual creativity and impact. It is the basis of fine-art photography.

Something to consider – if nature photography is reduced to purely visual creativity, that can be interesting, but it does not connect viewers, the audience, the world, with the nature. It is about creating pretty or impressive photos, but it is not about reaching out to people and saying, "Hey, isn't nature cool!"

So another approach is to look at photography as a way of connecting the viewer with nature and the world and not just the photo. LIFE magazine used this idea as a basis for the magazine. One of its guiding statements was: "To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things — machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work — his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms, things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and take pleasure in seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed..."

Notice there is nothing in there about creating "great photos", though a lot of LIFE photos were indeed great. Check out Great Photographic Essays from Life by Maitland Edey to see how this classic publication did it (the text is as valuable as the photos). You can find that book very inexpensively as a used book from AbeBooks.com or Amazon.com.

connection-3That approach has become increasingly important to me, in part because connecting the wonder of nature subjects with others and me (yes, the photographer can be more or less connected) is truly part of who I am. This is more important to me than the photograph as a stand-alone work of fine art.

Important! This does not mean that the visual aspects of the photograph are not important! Creating an interesting, effective photograph that clearly communicates about the subject in a way to connect the viewer to the subject is part of our job as photographers.

connection-1That often requires problem solving beyond 10 tips for better photographs. It means we have to really look at the subject AND the photograph we are capturing. Is this photograph really communicating what we want it to do? If not, what do we need to do to make it better do that? What photographic craft and skills do we need to use in order to craft a better image for both nature and the viewer? This is one area that digital photography is so helpful because we can see the photos as we take them!

There are a couple of potential limitations to this approach. First, if the photographer pays too much attention to the subject and not enough attention to the craft of the photography, the resulting photos will often be simply boring snapshots. They might create a record of that nature, but they will not attract the attention of other people. Creating an attractive, effective photo is important in order to gain that attention.

Second, this often means photos that are less flashy, less attention getting resulting in fewer likes on FB and challenges in getting attention from camera club and other photo competitions. If you look at a lot of the work in Great Photographic Essays from Life, you will find that most of it wouldn't gain much attention on FB and would often be too edgy (even though the photos are "old" now) for camera clubs. Realize that FB is not designed to favor these sorts of images. It is designed to be looked at quickly. People don't spend a lot of time on any individual photos, so if a photo is to impress them, it has to be dramatic in some way.

I am not suggesting we give up on photos that are really more about the photo than the subject. They are important for many reasons, including helping us better use the medium. I am suggesting that as a fellow lover of both nature and photography, that you might consider how you can use your photography to clearly communicate something unique about the nature that you really care about.

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Photos with Environment

environment-1More and more I am leaning toward photos with environment, photos that show more than the subject and include some of the setting. Photos with environment –

  • Connect me with nature beyond the subject as I photograph. Looking at the environment of the subject as I shoot means I am going to see more of the natural world.
  • Connect my subjects with the real world. The inhabitants of the natural world do not exist in a vacuum. Showing their environment gives context (and even story).
  • Connect my subjects to a very specific place.
  • Connect my viewers with more than the subject. People get an impression that nature is an integrated whole.

With a lot of nature photography, we concentrate on the subject and the photo. We look at how the subject works in a composition, how the subject is shown off by the photograph. This is an important part of photography ... and the main way many photographers approach nature.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, since this approach doesn't show off how natural subjects fit into the world, I feel we need more balance. Hence my leaning more and more to photos with environment.

This approach has an interesting affect on the photographer. Now, instead of concentrating on subject and photograph, you have to broaden your way of seeing to include the setting, the environment. This does present some unique things to consider:

  • Depth of field can be challenging. You don't have to have the surroundings, the environment, in perfect focus, but there needs to be enough depth of field that this aspect of the photo is recognizable.
  • Wide-angle perspective can be important. A telephoto tends to narrow the amount of surroundings you see with a close shot. A wide-angle up close will allow the subject to be emphasized yet still show the surroundings, now smaller in size but larger in scope.
  • environment-4A telephoto perspective can help with larger subjects by compressing distance and bringing in and enlarging important background elements that connect the subject to its environment.
  • environment-3Composition can be challenging. When you include more "stuff" in a photo, and adding environment is doing exactly that, you have to become very aware of what that stuff is doing. It needs to connect to the subject visually without taking away from it. This is one area that a wide-angle up close can help. By getting close to your subject with a wide-angle, you also shrink the size relationship of the background. That often results in allowing more sky to show up, a simple background to your subject, while still keeping environment.

environment-5I hope you will consider adding environment to your natural subjects. I am not suggesting this as a replacement to other photography – that is still important. This is an addition to your toolkit of photographic approaches.

I won't tell you that this will help you get a better response at the camera club compositions. In fact, you might get a worse response – realize that most photographers really aren't used to this sort of nature photography and will often discount it rather than try to understand it.

Do it anyway! Nature deserves this approach, too!

 

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Mind Your Own Business in Photography

mindbiz3-2I can remember growing up hearing, "Mind your own business", from my sister. I think it is a common part of baby boomers' times of growing up. Siblings used to love to say this, and sometimes parents would use this as a way of trying to quiet squabbling brothers and sisters. It is directed outward, as in, "Mind your own business, person who is bothering me."

Yet I am thinking this phrase has a more important application to anyone interested in photography. I am not thinking an outward direction, but an inward direction. I have to tell you, that certainly resonates with me.

mindbiz2-2In today's crazy world of photographs from everyone everywhere, we see a lot of what other people are doing in their photography. Of course, on Facebook, it is all good. Photos are the best, trips are amazing, business is wonderful, and on and on like some presidential candidate.

And it's not just Facebook. Other places where the "world of photography" is put on display include Instagram, Pinterest, Flickr (still around), Google + and more. And all of it looks like everything is just great.

Sometimes it is. But that is rarely the full picture of anything, especially photography. We don't always make the best photos, trips are not always amazing, business can be challenging. None of that is necessarily bad – some photos are important regardless if the are "the best", trips can be fun and worthwhile without being "amazing", and the fact that the photo business is challenging today ... well, that's reality.

The problem is that we have a tendency to want to compare our photos, our trips, our business to those bright and shiny posts on the Internet. Most people do this. Pink even did a song related to how we think about ourselves, "F**cking Perfect", where she says, in part,

So cool in lying and we try, try, try but we try too hard
And it's a waste of my time.

Exchange ourselves and we do it all the time
Why do we do that, why do I do that (why do I do that)?

Why aren't I more like such and such a photographer? He is a much better marketer than I am. I should be doing more. Why can't I get work like this other photographer? She just seems to have the connections. I need to work on that.

Or maybe it is simpler for you. Why can't I photograph better? Everyone else in my camera club gets awards, but I don't. Why can't I get more awards? I'm a better photographer than Bill or Sue.

Comparisons are killers of creativity and our souls, who we are. We need to pay attention to what energizes and excites us about photography, nature, and the world, not how someone else is dealing with that.

So I think maybe we need to tell ourselves, "Mind your own business." Your work is your work. You am not this or that photographer and you never can or should be. If you "should" be anything, it is yourself through your photography.

So whenever you are feeling conflicted because of what you see and learn about what other photographers are "doing" that you are not, remember to tell yourself, "Mind your own business!"

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Physician, Heal Thyself

You know that I have often talked about how important it is to be true to oneself in creative endeavors. That is, I believe, how you do your best and most satisfying work.

That said, I ran into a situation where I did not do this and it caused me all sorts of problems. I was working on a special on-line class this spring and had said I was going to complete it in June. It is just now nearly done!

Developing a class can be a creative effort as much as any photography, but I was really dragging through the work in June and not happy about it. I thought I had put together some pretty good stuff in eBook and video form, but it was not making me feel good.

That is a sign that one is not connecting with your work at some level. I think we need to pay attention to this. If photography and our connection to nature are really core to our interests and values, then we need to honor that. So, "Pay attention!"

I did, but I was ready to throw it all out. I was discouraged and frustrated, and a bit annoyed with myself. But I was patient and did not throw it all out. I decided to think on it, at least overnight! (That's generally a good plan for me.)

As I looked over what I had done, I realized I did have some good work. The concepts, the photography illustrating them was all good, but still it wasn't working for me or making me happy with my work. Often, it is true, that we can find things about our work that are always true and good. Simply throwing everything out, whether a course or a photo shoot, is not allowing that to be discovered. It is worth discovering.

choices-blog-coverI realized I had been treating the class a little stiffly and was not as open and engaging as I wanted (among some other things). But after being patient, I realized that I had possibilities here with the existing material. I sat down and started to work, looking to make the class more "me" and somethingI was happy with.choices-blog-sharpnesschoices-blog-distractionI had to go through all of the work I had done, and I still have some more work to do, but overall, I am now happy with the direction of the class.

Lesson learned. Pay attention to your own advice! "Physician, heal thyself."

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Night Nature Photography II

night-ii-1-2As you go beyond simply shooting night skies (though they can be fun and addicting), you will discover some new challenges. Here are some ideas on how I have dealt with them.

Night critters: Lots of animals come out at night, but most of them are difficult to photograph. You can't easily see them, you can't focus easily even if you do (more on that later), and you can only compose based on tests, not on the actual shot of a moving animal. If you add a bright light, the animals will often go away. Night wildlife is often shy.

You nearly always will need to add light. Flash is the simplest for night, and if you set your ISO high, you can get away with a smaller flash that does not have a lot of power.

The hard part can be finding the animals! If you can find a place where they feed, you can often set up before dark and wait for dark and the animals to come. Ask rangers and naturalists at parks to see if there are any places where they regularly see night wildlife. If you can get your flash away from the camera, you will have better results.

The bat photos I did recently were in front of a cave where the gray bats came to mate. They would swarm around and above the cave opening, so I had a solid idea of where they would be. The hard part was that they were constantly moving in three dimensions, movement I could not see or predict, so composition and focus were hard. At least with composition, you could do a test shot and see the overall composition even if you could not know exactly where the animals might be.

Noise: High ISOs, long exposures and underexposure all increase the appearance of noise. At night, though, you will typically be using high ISOs, long exposures, and dark areas will typically be underexposed, so if you brighten them, the noise will be revealed. So you will need to do something to reduce noise. Shooting with a newer camera or a camera with a larger sensor may help, but that might not be an option. The noise reduction sliders in Lightroom and Camera Raw are pretty good with moderate noise, but if it goes beyond that, they don't work as well.

There are many noise reduction software programs on the market and they all work. I find that Dfine from the old Nik Software plug ins still does a great job for me (and all of the old Nik Software plug-ins are free now from Google).

night-ii-3bYou may also find it helpful to apply noise reduction selectively in a photo because often the worst noise will be localized. The noise slider in Lightroom's adjustment brush can help. You can also process your image twice (or more) with noise reduction at different levels, then use layers and layer masks in Photoshop or Affinity or another program with layers to control where each amount of noise reduction is applied.

Focusing: This is something we take for granted when shooting during the day. Autofocus doesn't work too well at night! I have used my headlamp to help with autofocus on occasion and also used a flashlight for manual focus when I can.

But you can't always do that. Many times you can't use a light to help with focus (especially with wildlife), so a lot of times you have to set your focus point by guessing or estimating the distance and using that with your lens. Even little critters like spiders can be sensitive to bright light and will hide.

Then there becomes the problem of setting focus with your lens. Some lenses don't have focusing distances marked on them, and those that do can be hard to see at night unless you add a lot of light. If you shine a light on your camera, that will temporarily blind you and will alert any wildlife (or people) to your location. A red light can help, but often doesn't really do the job.

Live view can help on many cameras because there will be a focusing scale when you shoot on manual (it won't help with much else because it will likely be too dark to register anything). Live View also works for close ups – point your white light at something the same distance as your subject but away from the subject so it does not get blasted by the light. You can focus with that light, then reframe quickly (and make a quick focus adjustment if necessary).

You can't do that with moving subjects like the bats. With them, I knew the distance to background objects, then changed my focus using the focus scale to a closer distance. I would take a picture to confirm that this distance worked and readjust as necessary (this can be a bit of trial and error).

And there's a problem with that Live View scale, too. I don't know of any of these scales that give actual distances! I have ended up creating my own little scale on the back of the camera that marks key focus points from infinity to 5 feet. White or light tape with a thin magic marker works; I am having a small strip of metal engraved with these points for the back of my camera.

night-ii-5The key points will vary hugely depending on the focal length, which is also a problem. I am using markings for the key focal lengths I am using. I have found you really do need to do this work of creating a scale for focusing because distances on the "empty" scale that displays on Live View can be very misleading.

Moving in the dark: You have to be able to get around in the dark and also find things. You have to be able to do this at times without a lot of light. Even if you are using a light of some sort, that can be problematic because it can make your vision outside of that light (and even when it is turned off) impossible. If there is enough light (such as a full-ish moon), I will often try to work without any flashlights or head lamps.

I haven't always like head lamps and often preferred a flashlight. The reason for that is that it is easier to turn the flashlight on and off so as to use it only when needed. But with the bat work I have been doing, a headlamp is de rigueur, so I looked into other options. I found a Black Diamond Ion headlamp that I really like. It is small and lightweight, has both white and red light, but most of all, it is easy to turn on and off and adjust its brightness. It has a pressure sensitive front surface. If you swipe one way, the white light comes on, swipe again, it goes off. Swipe the other way and the red light comes on. With either light on, you can change its power by simply holding a finger against the surface. This allows you to dim down the light to make it less harsh when needed.

A red light allows you to see without affecting your night vision as much, plus it doesn't bother wildlife. Unfortunately, a red light that works best for night vision and wildlife is not very bright, so you can't always see everything you would like to see. But it helps.

So that brings me to marking gear for night work. Most photo gear is dark or black, just what you can't see at all at night! I have gotten reflective night safety adhesive strips from Home Depot and attached pieces to my tripods, camera bag, light stands and so forth. That helps a lot. It is easy to trip over a tripod or light stand leg you can't see! I have also put small pieces of this reflective night aid at strategic places on my camera.

Cameras just are not designed to be used in the dark, even with some reflective tape. So I have added some plastic raised dots on key buttons so that I can easily feel and know them in the dark. I got them from The Braille Superstore. That way I know exactly where things like my playback and display buttons are.

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