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4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images

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.

4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
A pretty sunrise or sunset isn't enough to make a powerful and strong photograph. This one lacks depth due to the camera angle used.

In this next image, all I did was rotate a bit to the left so I wasn't shooting straight across the river.

This is marginally better than the first shot.

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.

4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Way better! See how the river draws your eye into the scene more in this image?

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.

4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Better, but see how the river leads your eyes out of the picture here instead of into it?

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.

The river leads you into the scene, the detail on the hillside keeps you interested.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
See the dramatic difference between the first image to the last one in terms of depth?

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.

4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
This is much more successful.

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?!

4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
I put my own feet in my photos quite often. It adds a human element and foreground. This was shot with a super wide lens, 8mm Rokinon on my Fuji X-T1.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Participants at one of my workshops become subjects. The use of a longer lens here (135mm on full frame) brings them in close and blurs the background nicely which adds separation and depth.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Here is the example which is opposite of the one above. This was shot with a 24mm lens at f/14 to get greater depth of field and keep her and the background in sharp focus.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Here's the hillside again with another section of it even closer that's out of focus in the bottom of the image. How many layers can you see here? What is the difference in distance between the closest thing to the camera and the farthest? A lot! That's what creates a sense of depth here.

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.

4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Focused on the little bush in the foreground, the valley becomes the background.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
With the focal point in the middle ground, the valley becomes the subject and the bush falls away as a foreground element blur (but it is still there to add 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.

4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Focused on the valley.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Focused close.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Another variation of the same sunrise from point #1 above.

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:

4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Here strong light from a window outlines my model in an old mine and makes his stand out. This is the same technique used in the studio by portrait photographers.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Same technique here as she is backlit by the sun which outlines her nicely and separates her from the background, adding layers.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
These happy parade girls are backlit and outlined against the background.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
The shadow of the bike ads another element of depth.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
I purposely waited until this little guy was against the dark door as a backdrop so he'd stand out in the light.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
The sun coming through the little yellow leaf makes it stand out.

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.

4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Layers in the fog at Machu Picchu, Peru.

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.

4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
In this first image, there is side lighting which adds some depth but there's no layers or foreground.
So I backed up, put on a wider lens, and incorporated the fence in the foreground.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
Finally, I got down even lower to the ground and shot through the wires of the fence to frame the grain elevator. I think this image is the most powerful of the series.

Here are some other examples where I backed up and framed the subject using what was there – a doorway, tree, pathway.

4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
The light and backlit subject draw your attention and the doorway leads you right to him.
4 Tips for Creating Depth and Dimension in Your Images
I walked away from this temple in Hawaii, past the big tree, and turned around. I knew if I added it as a framing element it would help direct you to the temple. The path adds in a leading line as well.
This is Eastman Kodak House – the home of George Eastman, founder of Kodak. It is now a museum you can visit in Rochester NY (I highly recommend you do so if you're in the area and learn a bit of photography history). I used the branch of this big tree to frame the house and draw attention there.

Summary

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.

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png

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  • Tim Krenzke

    I enjoy your series. You don’t just tell, but show with lots of examples. Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks – in my experience in the classroom people need to see good and bad. They need to see what NOT to do and what to do to understand the difference. So I try and show both as much as possible even if it means I have to shoot bad photos LOL.

      • Tim Krenzke

        As a teacher and college professor for over 40 years. You have continually provided instruction that people of all ability levels can plug into and not be over or under whelmed. Thanks for the reply. You are one of the few that take time to do that. I am a solid fan and I have been in photography as an avid amateur since I learn photography in high school on an old 4×5 press camera. Timothy Krenzke
        tkrenzke@cox.net

  • Alden

    Very helpful article

  • Cindy

    Great post, Darlene – love the very clear descriptions and creative, varied examples. Thank you!

  • Mukund Umra

    Dear Darlene Madam,
    Excellent explanation/teaching.
    YOU ARE THE BEST TEACHER FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS I HAVE COME ACROSS.
    *THANKS* *A* *LOT*.
    Best part in this article is that you have kept same image and applied different things for comparison hence it became very easy to understand. It’s like scientific experiment where except one parameter all others are fixed.
    THANKS AGAIN.
    Keep teaching, my GURU “Namaskar” to you.
    DR. MUKUND UMRA.

    • Guru, well I’m honored thank you so much. I go to that location a lot on my workshops so I have the opportunity to take many samples and show you comparisons. I’m glad that is helpful.

  • Lan Polhill

    I find your article very useful, very interesting and inspiring. Thank you so much. Great job!

  • Greg

    Great article Darlene! All too often I don’t take a step back and put more thought into a shot. I need to embed some of these ideas into my shooting.

  • walwit

    The way you show what you say I can understand and follow, as other commentators say, please keep the good work.

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