Creating Visual Depth


Creating visual depth isn’t something that comes to mind right away when photographing. We’re usually concentrating on getting a proper exposure and getting our subject in focus. Even when we’re composing, we’re often thinking about ‘rules of thirds’ or some other compositional idea. Yet, visual depth is what is often lacking in a photograph—especially a scenic or landscape image. If you want your pictures to have more impact, start paying attention to how you can suggest depth in your photo.  Remember that you are taking a three-dimensional world, and distilling it into two dimensions in the final image, and you don’t want that image to appear flat. There are several things you can do to put the suggestion of depth into your images.

Editor's Note: This is a guest blogpost from Brenda Tharp

In Brenda's newest book, Extraordinary Everyday Photography (Amphoto, August 2012), she and her partner Jed Manwaring discuss not only where/how to find great pictures all around you, but how to make those pictures more dynamic using the concepts of composition, design and visual depth. Here are some of her thoughts about visual depth that we'd like to share with you:


First, let’s talk just briefly about perspective. Perspective is the relationship that objects have to the camera, and to each other. When certain objects are closer to the camera, they’ll appear larger than others further away—even if they are the same size. That distortion creates a contrast of size that tells us things are at different distances. And that suggests depth to the scene. So it makes sense that having some things closer and others further away can help us create a landscape or travel scene with a stronger sense of depth. This approach is called a near/far relationship and it really makes your landscapes stronger. Famous landscape photographers with large format cameras used this technique all the time to create powerful images of the land before them.

But it doesn’t take a large format camera to do this. I made this image with my Canon EOS 1DS MK III and a 24-105mm Canon lens. I got close to the granite rocks in the foreground to emphasize them, which pushed the tree a bit further back, and created the sense of space between them. It’s not a large area, but it appears larger with this technique. You can do this with any camera. All you have to do is find a point of view that includes something of interest up-close in the foreground, and you’ll be starting to make images with a stronger sense of depth. Having a strong foreground also acts like a visual stepping stone into the scene, which engages your viewer more.

Landscapes typically need a strong near/far relationship of objects, because you’re usually trying to get everything in focus, and that can have things looking a bit flat.

The relationship between the strong shadow lines in the foreground and the sunlit bushes in the background helped to create depth here.

Since not all pictures are landscapes, how can we get a feeling of depth in our other images, like those of people or travel?  Just apply this same near/far idea. Any time you can find a way to put something—or someone—up close to the camera, you’re going to suggest more depth to the scene, if you are including any background at all.

The bench was a perfect foreground object to help make this street scene more dynamic. I used my Canon EOS 1DS MK III and Canon 17-40mm at 17mm to get in close to this bench. It distorted the size of the bench, and created a dramatic foreground. Leading lines are very useful to help create visual depth in your pictures.

(Editor's Note, the third image in this story is also the cover photo of Brenda's new book.)

Selective focus is another great way to suggest depth. The natural eye sees this way. When we are focused on something in the foreground, our eyes are not really focused on the background—until we shift our eyes to that area. The peripheral areas around that which we are looking at are blurred, the mind perceives all of this, and as a result—at least in laymen’s terms—we perceive depth.

In the photo of the masked monks from Bhutan, I used an aperture of 7.1 on my Canon 100-400mm lens, at 400mm. The shallow depth of field gave more impact to the dancer in the foreground, but I liked how the background ‘echoed’ the foreground, being the same type of dancer. Selective focus is great for photographing people on location. You want the environment in there, but you don’t want it competing with the subject too much. 

I used a Canon 24-105mm at 100mm—a good portrait focal length—and an aperture of f/5 to throw the background out of focus, while still having him sharp in the frame. Isolating him from that background by focus gave a sense of depth to the image, while still having a sense of place as well.

If you combine selective focus with the near/far concept, as I did in the image of the roses and stone houses in Italy, you create the feeling that the viewer could touch the roses, it creates impact to the composition, it adds depth, and overall, it makes a more memorable photograph.

With most of my images, I first perform basic processing using Lightroom to adjust white balance, exposure, etc., and then I finish them off with Nik’s Software plug-ins.

Interested in more? Here's a link for a signed copy of Brenda's Book.