Creating a sense of depth is one of the biggest challenges in photography. But the reward is often worth the difficulty.
An image with depth draws viewers into a photograph. It provides perspective and helps the audience connect with an image on a heightened level. Adding depth creates a visual interest that makes images have a lasting impression.
There are several techniques often used in photography to encourage more depth in an image.
Understanding how to apply these methods requires a bit of studying. But, when used, they can elevate your photographs and captivate your viewers.
In this article, we will go through my top ten compositional techniques to help enhance depth in my images.
Contrast is the difference between light and dark in an image. Distant objects will have less contrast, while closer objects will have more.
Unless you’re shooting in monochrome, the quality of the colors in your image will determine contrast.
All colors have a different gradation of brightness. This is often referred to as color value and is dictated by a color’s hue and saturation.
For example, pure yellow is brighter than pure blue. But a desaturated yellow can have the same brightness as a desaturated blue.
Colors that have drastically different values from each other have high contrast, while colors that are similar in value have low contrast.
The more contrast an object has, the closer it will appear.
For instance, in the image above, you can see that the colors in the furthest mountain are light. Contrary to the closest mountain, the most distant mountain has a lot less contrast.
You can control the contrast in your images in two ways. The first and most obvious way is to choose a subject that possesses a lot of contrast. The second is through post-processing.
A common method used to adjust contrast in post-processing is by using the contrast, sharpness, and clarity sliders. If you want to know how these sliders are different, I wrote an in-depth article here.
Besides the sliders mentioned, you can also adjust contrast using other tools, such as levels, curves, and dodge and burn.
To make the contrast more effective in creating depth, I often adjust the sliders for both my foreground and background. In particular, I typically enhance the contrast in my foreground and diminish it in my background.
All objects have texture. For example, a piece of silk is smooth and contains little to no noticeable textural detail. Tree bark, on the other hand, provide a lot more texture.
Differences in texture create an illusion of depth. Objects with a lot more texture will appear closer than objects that have less.
You can see this illustrated in the picture above.
The mountain in the foreground has a lot of texture and defined edges. The buildings behind it, on the other hand, contain a lot less.
As you look progressively towards the background, you’ll notice the details decrease. The buildings get smaller, and their texture disappears. The water ripples also become less defined and somewhat blurry.
This gradual transition, from texture to no texture, helps elevate the presence of depth in this image.
To manipulate the texture in your image, you can do three things.
First, you can select the objects that you include in your frame based on their textural detail. For example, choose a subject with a lot of texture and place it against a background with less texture.
Second, you can control texture in the way you apply focus within your frame. That is, objects that are in focus will have more texture and appear closer than those that are out of focus.
Finally, you can enhance or reduce texture in post-processing. Increasing the texture in your foreground while decreasing it in your background is an effective way to enhance depth.
You can adjust the texture with the same tools used to adjust contrast. That is by using the contrast, sharpness, and clarity sliders.
Many pictures created today lack a sense of depth because cameras have become good at producing sharp images. Photoshop can help you overcome this issue by allowing you to adjust the level of texture in an image.
Colors can be separated into two groups: cool and warm. Warm colors include red, orange, and yellow, while purple, blue, and green are considered as cool.
In general warm colors appear closer to the viewer, and cool colors look farther away.
Warm colors tend to pop and appear as though advancing upon the viewer. Cool colors, on the other hand, tend to look as if receding from the viewer and into the background.
You can create depth using color in several ways.
The first is to choose the color palette in your frame. That is, choose your composition so that the elements in your photo hold both cool and warm colors.
The other way is with the use of light. As the sun moves across the sky, the color palette of our surroundings can vary, from cool blues to warm reds.
You can photograph at different times of the day and use this to your advantage.
For example, I took the image above during sunrise. During this time the sunlight is much warmer, often consisting of yellow, orange, and red tints.
Lastly, you can enhance depth by manipulating colors in post-processing.
Besides using warm light, I also enhanced depth in the image above by increasing the cool tones in my background.
In particular, I adjusted the temperature sliders in Photoshop and painted cooler tones over my background.
When using color to create depth, keep in mind we naturally see warm tones before cool tones.
Thus, it will help to place warm colors on or around desired focal points in your composition. Doing this will help your viewers see them first.
Also, it is essential to remember that perceived color temperature is often contingent on the other colors present within a scene.
No color is warm or cool by themselves. For example, when you use red and green together, it is easy to identify which color is warm and which is cool. But, when only green and blue are present, some may consider green as warm and blue as cool.
4. Aerial Diffusion
We said that minimizing the appearance of texture, contrast, and color will make objects seem further away. One way to do this is by using aerial diffusion.
Aerial diffusion occurs when particles such as dust, fog, smoke, smog, are present in your scene.
These particles scatter light and hinder visibility.
To understand why we first need to examine how light interacts with our atmosphere.
When these wavelengths hit the suspended particles, they are scattered in equal amounts, reflecting white light.
Some of the light waves reflected by your subject will mix with white light as they travel to your eyes. The other wavelengths are intercepted by the particles and never reach your eyes.
This makes it difficult to see the texture, contrast, and colors of objects. More information is lost when more particles that are present.
There are two ways you can include aerial diffusion this in your images.
The obvious one is to choose a subject that has has a lot of particles present, such as a foggy lake.
A picture taken on a foggy day has an entirely different visual quality. The fog obscures detail and makes objects in the background appear to be farther away.
Remember, this is only effective if there are objects in the image that are not obstructed by fog. The viewer needs to be able to compare the two to perceive depth.
The other way is to create this effect using Photoshop. One of the most popular ways of doing this is using the Orton effect. You can apply the Orton effect using the Gaussian Blur filter in Photoshop.
For the image below I applied the Orton effect to the farthest mountain. You can see that the details are softer in the background and the overall tonal contrast is minimized.
The Orton effect adds a blurry glow to your image which gives it a dream-like quality. The effect is unique because it produces an image that is both sharp and blurry.
The Orton effect adds depth by reducing texture, detail, and tonal contrast. This is done by adding blur to your image which makes objects appear farther away.
Besides Aerial diffusion, you can also use focus to influence texture, contrast, and color.
Focus in a photograph is how sharp the objects appear. They can be sharp and in focus, or out of focus and blurred.
You can enhance depth by choosing where you place your focus within the frame. The objects that are in focus will have a lot of detail while those that are out of focus will have little to no detail.
For instance, to create depth in the image above, I used focus stacking. That is, I combined two images with two different focal points — one for my foreground and another for my background.
In doing so, I was able to increase the detail in my foreground without compromising too much detail in my background.
The cactus in the foreground has a lot of texture and defined edges. The cactuses behind it, on the other hand, contain a lot less.
As you look towards the background, you’ll notice that the cactuses gradually become blurry. They’re reduced to tiny dots, and their textural detail is gone.
This transition, from detail to no detail, helps create a sense of depth in this image.
Second, using focus, you can control the level of contrast in your photo.
Let’s look at the photo above again. The first layer of mountains in my background has a high level of contrast. The second layer of mountains, on the other hand, have much less tonal contrast nearly being portrayed as white.
This was possible because I focused on the closer mountains for my second image.
By selecting the focal point in your image, you can dictate which areas in your photo will have contrast and which will not. Those with a high level of contrast will appear closer than those with less contrast.
Finally, using focus, you can control the color in a photo. The parts in the image above that are in focus are more saturated than the ones that are out of focus.
Colors that are more saturated appear to closer than less saturated objects. Therefore, the objects that are in focus will appear closer than those that are out of focus. This difference in saturation will add depth to your images.
There are many aspects that contribute to the sense of depth in this image, such as size and vantage point. But the texture is an important element that helps accentuate its depth.
Lines create vanishing points which give a sense of depth in a picture. A vanishing point is an area where two parallel lines converge.
When the viewer sees these lines coming together, they perceive it as distance. The more these lines converge, the farther away the viewer perceives them to be.
As such, lines help viewers understand the spatial relations in a photograph. It helps them to determine the closeness of an object.
Vanishing points often occur in the horizon, but they can appear anywhere within an image.
To get an idea of a vanishing point, let’s look at the image above. The parallel lines along the path appear to meet at a distance and vanish on the horizon. The point where these lines meet is called a vanishing point.
The converging lines in the horizon give the image a sense of depth. But in actuality, there is no depth, and the image only has two dimensions.
In the picture, the lines meet at a single vanishing point. But, there can be several vanishing points in an image. Although, often, viewers will only notice up to three vanishing points.¹
Including more vanishing points in your composition will enhance the illusion of space in your image.
The more vanishing points an image has, the more 3d it will feel.
You can add more vanishing points by adjusting your perspective. For instance, Instead of shooting the front of your subject, try photographing the corner.
For example, the image below has two vanishing points. The walls on each side slowly diminish at the horizon. These diminishing walls give the building a greater sense of depth.
Using lines to create vanishing points provides clues to the presence of depth in your images.
That said, it is important to remember that there isn’t any actual depth in images. An image is a two-dimensional space, and all perception of depth is an illusion.
Having objects of different sizes in a photograph is an effective way to convey depth.
Objects appear closer when they are larger and further away when they are smaller.
For example, the diminishing size of the buildings in the image above gives it a sense of depth. The gradual transition in size from foreground to background create a vanishing point.
The change in size creates the illusion of depth. In reality, though, the buildings are the same distance away because they’re on a flat surface.
To highlight depth using scale, use a wide-angle lens. Wide-angle lenses serve to exaggerate the distance between close and far objects. It does so by making objects in the foreground look bigger, and objects in the background look smaller.
Telephoto lenses will do the opposite and tend to flatten or compress the scene.
8. Light and Shadow
Light and shadow give objects the appearance of three-dimensionality by accentuating its form.
Form is how we refer to three-dimensional objects. It has both shape and volume.
Form is realized when light hits an object and cast a shadow. Thus, the direction of light plays a crucial role in establishing form.
Side lighting is one of the best angles of light to enhance the appearance of form.
This type of lighting will produce a balanced shift between highlights and shadows. The smooth gradation of tones created by side light enables objects on flat surfaces to appear three-dimensional.
Form is often best communicated when the sun is low on the horizon. When the sun is high above the horizon form is emphasize the least and has the smallest impact on depth.
9. Vantage Point
Changing your vantage point is another way you can create depth in an image.
Vantage points, just like light and shadow, can be used to emphasize form.
The point of view you choose when capturing your subject will influence its form and the overall depth in your image.
Objects can change shape and take on a different form depending on the vantage point used.
For example, if you take a photo of a building from the front at eye level, you are likely to have limited form and very little depth in your image.
To enhance the appearance of depth, you can use a high vantage point to emphasize the form of the building.
Likewise, you can use a low vantage point by getting close to the ground. Low vantage points increase the expanse of the sky, making objects appear immense and dramatic.
For instance, I shot the image above from a low angle. This made the bamboo appear to extend higher. It also made the bamboo gradually decrease in size as you look upward.
The combination of these two effects helps to highlight the depth in this image.
Depth is enhanced when an object overlaps another. This creates a sense of depth because, for objects to overlap, one object must be closer.
In the picture, the front ridge appears closer, while the peak behind it seems farther away. There’s more depth because of this overlap.
Note that, most of the time, overlapping plays a minor role in creating depth. The overlapping objects must be combined with the other depth signals described above for it to be useful in displaying depth.
Knowing how to create a sense of depth is the first step into creating amazing photographs.
Before taking an image, take a moment to analyze what potential elements you can use to create depth. Many times, a small change in framing can transform the spatial relationship of objects in a photograph.
By implementing the right techniques, you can create images that transcend the two-dimensionality of images.
1. Block, Bruce A. The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, Tv, and Digital Media. Focal Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2013.