One of the challenges with photography is that is a two-dimensional medium, with which we try to capture a three-dimensional world. Creating depth and a sense of dimension it will help captivate viewers and draw them into your images more. In this article, I'll give you four tips for creating depth in your photos.
Use the right camera angle
The first thing you can do to add depth in your images is plant your feet in the right place, and point your camera in the right direction.
What I mean by that is when you shoot straight on to something flat, your image will also look flat. Have a look at this example. The image below was shot from one side of a river bank, looking over to the other side at sunrise. Notice how the river draws a straight line right through the image, and there isn't really anything to grab the viewer's attention and draw them into the scene.
In this next image, all I did was rotate a bit to the left so I wasn't shooting straight across the river.
Now let's take a look at what happens to the same scene when I just moved my feet a little. I physically walked to a new spot a few feet away and turned to face up the river a bit instead of looking straight across it.
Okay, that's better, but I wanted to take it one more step, so I added in the hillside on which I was standing. See the image below.
But I felt that the river was working against me in the composition above, so I flipped the final image (mirror image horizontally). Now the river enters the image on the left and meanders into the scene. Our eyes naturally read left to right, top to bottom, so try and make your compositions flow in that direction as well. It will feel more comfortable to the viewer, and keep them in the image.
That leads me to the second point which is the next thing you can take for creating depth in your images.
Layer your images
I've already sort of hinted at the next thing you can do in regards to creating depth in your images, that is by adding layers. That means having things in the scene that are different distances away from the camera. Essentially you want a foreground element (something close), a middle ground, and a background (something far away).
Our eyes perceive depth so we don't run into things and can see both near and far objects at the same time. It's your job to photograph a scene to add the right elements to layer your image in this way as well. The simplest way to do that is to find a subject you want to photograph then back up and add something in the foreground. Let's see some examples.
In the image above I've added in the edge of the riverbank in front of me, as well as seeing the whole valley. But it's not really working all that well, can you see why? There are three separate elements in the image – the sky, the grass in the foreground, and the valley. But they don't seem connected at all and the edge of the hill and the horizon are both straight lines – very static.
Now I've focused in on a bush in the foreground and the valley behind has become more of a background supporting it. This is much more successful as showing depth.
What to put in the foreground
But what if you can't find an interesting foreground element? Why not add a human element?!
Where to focus?
In the examples above the main subject is in focus and either the foreground or background is blurry. But you can even switch it up and still create depth.
Which of the two images below do you prefer? Focused forward on the tall grasses, or further away on the river? Neither is right or wrong it's about exploring the scene and your intention. Remember, your first shot is usually not going to be your best. Read: Photography is a Journey – Don't Expect Perfection on the First Shot.
Use light to add depth
The next thing to consider when you want to add depth to your image is the lighting. Look at the light on the subject. Does it add a feeling of three-dimensionality or is it flat and lifeless? In photography, light is everything so making sure your light complements the scene and adds to the mood and feeling you want is key to successful images.
Backlighting to highlight the subject
Backlighting is one way to highlight your subject and make it (or them) stand out from the background, and add depth to the image. Have a look at these examples:
Side light to show dimension and shape
Light that is coming from the side will allow you to capture the shape, texture, and dimension of your subject.
In the image of the building below, if both sides were lit evenly you would not be able to perceive the corner and thus its shape.
In this portrait of a lovely Turkish man, the light from the side adds to the character in his face and shows dimension in the image.
Other ways to use light
There are many ways to use light to your advantage in your images, these are just a few ideas. Fog can produce interesting effects and if you bring all the other elements together it too can add depth to your image. Nighttime car trail lights add leading lines and direct the viewer around your image.
Use framing in your compositions
How you compose or setup your image can also help create a sense of depth in your image. One element of composition that is particularly useful in this area is framing.
By backing up and adding something in the foreground you're already adding layers (see #2 above). But what if you can take it up yet another notch? By finding something to use a frame around your subject it adds interest and the viewer can't help but be drawn inside for a closer look.
Here's a series of images that demonstrate what I mean.
Here are some other examples where I backed up and framed the subject using what was there – a doorway, tree, pathway.
These are just four ways you can add depth and dimension to images, you may be able to think of others. By adding a sense of depth and three-dimensionality, your images will have more life and interest. But remember there also needs to be a balance and putting too much stuff into the frame can make it cluttered. So compose with intention and consider all the elements and how they fit together.
Practice these tips and think about how you can draw viewers into your photos more. Feel free to share your photos and any other ideas you have in the comments below.