What are some tricks for adding a sense of depth to photographs?
January 22, 2019 7:25 PM   Subscribe

One of the things I both strive for and struggle with in my photography is portraying a sense of depth. Photography is an inherently monocular medium, and also photos are still, which rules out two of real life's biggest depth cues. Therefore, one must resort to tricks. Tell me some tricks for achieving a sense of depth in photography.

I know about selective focus and depth of field, no worries there. However, I think of myself as primarily a landscape photographer and often like to have more or less everything in focus. I know a few other simple techniques as well. I'd like to take it to the next level.

Other than selective focus, what are some techniques I can use to create a sense of three-dimensionality in my photos? No doubt there are many that generalize from other media, and some others that are photography-specific. I'm interested in both kinds. Examples would be most welcome.

(My Instagram account is in my profile, if people wish to offer criticism or suggestions.)
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm looking at your Instagram right now and you seem to already be using a lot of tricks to give a sense of depth. I see atmospheric haze; foreground, midground and background objects; and elements with lines that converge in the distance. Very nice stuff.

This isn't exactly "depth" but I notice that in your landscapes that have human figures, the person is usually fairly close to the camera. If you wanted to give a sense of scale, but not necessarily depth, you could have them further into the background. Or, any other object where we know the approximate size could work for that too.
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:40 PM on January 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

My trick is not to have everything in perfect focus. For instance… a bird on a tree limb with the mountains in the background… I focus on the bird and make the mt.s fuzzy. Or you can do the inverse… have a tree in the foreground that is out of focus with the backdrop sharp. Sometimes it's just the shapes and shadows that will give you depth.

I really just came here to say your photos are smashing.
posted by jabo at 8:51 PM on January 22, 2019

Looking at your Instagram, it looks like your primary camera has an aperture of F2.4–4. Ideal aperture for deep landscapes are F8 and higher; perhaps the softness of having a wide aperture is making some of your photos feel less full of depth.
posted by suedehead at 9:06 PM on January 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

I like this question, because it reminds me a lot of the Helsinki Bus Theory - it's obvious that adding depth is your artistic obsession right now. Roll with it! Your photographs show depth, there's no denying that.
posted by weewooweewoo at 9:07 PM on January 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

People tend to think about leading lines as bridges, or rivers, or roads or something - not so!

Or rather, not only. To kick it up a notch start thinking about leading lines in terms of light and colour. You don't have to have an object leading into your picture, you can do the same thing with light - the eye is naturally attracted to bright things and away from dark, to high contrast and away from low contrast, subtle composition and small tweaks to local contrast and lighting cam help guide the eye.

Think about each picture as a journey, or walk for the eye. Where does it start? Where does it go and where finally does it end? How does it draw the eye along this journey with light, structure, contrast, colour? In some pictures it may be a short sharp journey, in others (perhaps those with the quality you seek) it will be longer.

You can also do this with colour, the eye again is attracted to higher saturation and skips over lower saturation. I posted up a cracking article about doing this with colour theory last year.

Finally you can do this with texture, as well, we tend to dwell on texture and skip over smoother things.

None of this is like black and white, zero and a hundred, its about guiding the eye not bullying it. Too much and your image will fall apart.

All these factors can be enhanced on the computer, for sure, but notice that must of it happens outside the computer, outside the camera, it's about shooting selectively, mondfully, with an eye to composition and what will respond to a little encouragement on the computer. Also shoot the same thing several different ways, then see what works best.
posted by smoke at 9:38 PM on January 22, 2019 [9 favorites]

Re fstops, your lens is perfectly fine and goes well beyond f4.

Aperture and its effect on depth depends highly on focal length and also what you're shooting. Blur can provide depth by guiding the eye and making objects pop, it can obscure depth by smearing away leading lines etc, it really depends, there is no right arpeture for depth.
posted by smoke at 9:42 PM on January 22, 2019

The typical way to add depth or three-dimensionality to shoot at a wider focal length (i.e. more zoomed-out) and to include more things closer and farther from you and to have those things connected by leading lines or curves.

For instance, in this picture, you have the lines of the distant mountain ridges and the snow-covered trees. But because it was taken relatively zoomed-in and all the objects were far away, it's a relatively flat perspective. If you wanted to create a sense of three-dimensionality in that picture, perhaps you could have squatted down and included some rocks on the ground or something on the lower right-side and then the diagonal of the tree line would connect that foreground object to the distant horizon. (Or you could have gone the complete opposite way and zoomed/cropped way in and emphasized the flatness of the perspective.)

Or in this picture. You have the nearby rock in the bottom center and you have the curving trees that are further away in the top and it looks like there's a trail behind the rock. You've got the elements to create depth, but they're not connected. Perhaps if you had shifted to the side a little, you could have created a leading line from the rock through the trail to the trees.

I think you do a pretty good job of conveying depth in this picture. That divot is connected by those footprints to the ridge.
posted by alidarbac at 9:52 PM on January 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Framing, framing, framing, ideally to include closer objects. Light and shade, especially the effect of light and shade on areas that in high-sun flat light would look homogeneous. Building an image from different textures. Taking advantage of perspective effects.

Here's a shot of mine that I like for depth. It's a bit easier when you have a big thing made up of angles to compose around, but you still have to get up early in the morning for that light. And yeah, you're doing pretty well already.
posted by holgate at 10:05 PM on January 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think sometimes you overlook the immediate foreground detail a little. For instance, in this one, there is depth, but it might be enhanced by shooting from closer to the ground, or maybe through some leaves and branches. This one is better in that respect, although the out-of-focus immediate foreground means it doesn't function properly as a 'stop' on the eye's journey through the picture. You get that part right just here. It's just kind of a shame that there's such a strong horizontal line across the middle of the scene, and it's not quite level to my eye. This one gives a good sense of depth, although a bit more contrast in different areas would make it even better.

I think some of your landscapes lack a sense of depth just because there's nothing in them that the brain can use as a reference to the scale of things - e.g. a person, a building, a tree. Sometimes that's just the nature of the scene, especially in winter. Overall, though, I'd say try to get closer to the ground with your camera more often, try to bring in a close foreground element or two, incorporate elements that act as scale references, and keep looking for lines that tie together near and far.
posted by pipeski at 2:08 AM on January 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

Thanks, some excellent advice here. What I'm taking from this so far is that I could try harder to include foreground details in my images, put more thought into looking for leading lines, and also try to be aware of how things like texture and saturation pull the eye through the frame rather than just shapes. Mostly things that I'm already aware of on some level, but maybe I haven't been ascribing enough importance to.

Also, I should remember to slow down and compose, rather than just shooting. Easier said than done!

Thanks much, I'll definitely continue to keep an eye on this Ask and further advice will absolutely be welcome.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 3:14 AM on January 23, 2019

Many of your photos seem to be pretty HDR'd. On the one hand it's sometimes helpful to save important details on either end of your exposure, but on the other it can sort of smush colours and objects together.

Maybe try tweaking that a bit and see if you're happier with the results?
posted by rhooke at 3:59 AM on January 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Looking at your landscapes -- you need to add context/scale elements so viewers have some idea of the scope of what they're seeing. You also should work on composition skills more specific to landscapes, in particular rule of thirds, where you're using foreground/midground/background placements to help give the viewer a sense of immersion within the photograph. Also let shadows fall and highlights blow out; the bloom around superbright objects makes them seem even brighter than "white."

Have a look at my Elegraphy gallery for some Instagram/square compositions of landscapes.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:05 AM on January 23, 2019

Nice photos! And I think you already have a pretty good handle on it, as far as knowing about converging lines, selective focus, etc. Sometimes we all just need a little extra inspiration and input.

One thing that can be helpful is to shoot the subject close up with a wide angle lens. For example, this image of Suede the Ridiculous is just an iPhone shot, but the composition makes him seem to pop out of the frame, giving it a sense of depth. Sometimes the depth illusion is caused not as much by elements receding as in the main subject being brought forward. Here's another of Suede the Ridiculous overlooking his domain. The fence and trees falling out of focus give it a sense of depth.

You also don't necessarily need a lot of "true" depth to give an image dimension. For example this dried bouquet and this chess set are close-ups (shot with a Polaroid SX-70) but having a shallow depth of field and recognizable but out of focus elements in the background, the images have depth, even though that depth is less than one foot.

Another thing that can help is to not be afraid of "dead space" (I'm not sure I would call it negative space) between the foreground and distance. Here's one example where the middle space is essentially empty, but the perspective draws the eye from the shadowy foreground figure to the main subject in the distance.

It looks like you are very interested in landscapes, and yours are great. They are not my strong suit, but here are a couple I like. Having a strong foreground element is helpful in conveying depth. In this one, the foreground element is the main subject; the distant mountains support the composition and give a sense of distance and place. In this one, the foreground trees are included to give scale and depth.

Like you, I love when images have depth. If you browse through my Instagram images, you'll find a fair amount where I am shooting into tunnels or using other methods to try to achieve that goal, so we're on a similar quest. Thanks for sharing you images.
posted by The Deej at 7:04 AM on January 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I came here to say more foreground detail, and The Deej and pipeski beat me to it. Many of your landscapy-est photos have the least detail/texutre in the bottom 1/4 or 1/3 of the frame.

I remember hearing that the secret to wide deep landscape photos was to focus on detail in the foreground. This seemed wrong to me - surely the drama is in the sweeping clouds, the jagged mountains. But without something in the bottom 1/3 of the frame to set the sense of scale and distance the upper 2/3rds are less dramatic.

Some of your landscapes have less detail in the foreground- mildly ruffled water, smooth field, large featureless rock, sometimes slightly out of focus. Maybe try to find a striking object in the foreground, and make sure the focus is tack-sharp on the foreground as well as the rest of the frame.

I also find that the rays of light/star like lens flare of the sunrise/sunset photos sometimes flatten the image. The sun is the most distant object, but the lines of flare intrude further into the picture plane and look like an overlay on top of the distant and middle ground features of the landscape. That places the rays (the flare) closer to my eye than the landscape.

Don't get me wrong, the lens flare is wicked cool is most of the shots. But in some, it collapses the depth instead of expanding it.

Overall I think that the outdoor photos are spectacular, and living in New England, it's not always easy to get our landscape to look so interesting.
posted by sol at 10:48 AM on January 23, 2019

One thing I associate with depth is having a large dynamic range represented throughout the image - something very dark or black, something very light or white, and something in the middle. If you apply HDR to your images, it actually flattens your dynamic range by reducing local contrast.

This photo is an example of not enough dynamic range - my eye keeps looking for something very dark (is it the rocks in the foreground? no, too bright... is it the trees in shadow in the top left? no, still too bright...) and something very light (that washed-out orange spot in the middle maybe? doesn't look intentional though).

This photo is an example of excellent depth via dynamic range - the mountains are obviously black, the clouds in the top left are obviously the brightest spot in the frame. For extra points, those two contrasting elements also play off each other - the wavy shape of the dark mountains is echoed by the wavy shape of the bright clouds against the sky.

Ansel Adams is the photographer I most associate with this style of depth via dynamic range. Some classic examples are here and here.

I also highly recommend this book: The Photographer's Eye (Remastered Edition) by Michael Freeman.
posted by danceswithlight at 3:45 PM on January 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

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