How to create a sense of depth in your images


No more pancakes here!

One of the questions that we're often asked by students in the Photocritic Photography School is how they can stop their two-dimensional images feeling flat and lacking in dynamism. Or to put it another way, how they create a sense of depth in their photos?

It's a fairly obvious hazard for a two-dimensional medium. Despite the physical limitations, there are plenty of techniques that you can employ to introduce a sense of depth into your photos, and leave your audience feeling as they could reach or step into your photos.

Foreground and background contrast

The first trick you can use to create depth in your photos is to use a separate foreground and background. By placing something behind or in front of your main subject, you introduce a contrast between the things that are close to the photographer (and therefore the audience) and things that are in the background. The simple fact that you can identify things at two (or more) different distances gives the image extra impact.

 The sailboat in the foreground adds a contrast to the background, and therefore a sense of depth to the scene

The sailboat in the foreground adds a contrast to the background, and therefore a sense of depth to the scene

The top tip here is that you don’t even need to have your foreground subject as the main focal point of the photo. As long as there is something there, the background will come alive. This can be nearly anything; a tree branch overhanging a valley, a bird flying, or a person included in the photo can all tell part of the story and add context to your images.

Depth of field

You can take the foreground/background tip a step further by introducing depth of field to the mix. The larger the aperture that you use, the shallower the depth of field will appear in your photos. If you focus on a subject close to you, the effect is even more pronounced.

 With focus on the foreground and a shallow depth of field, the feeling of the towering mountains running off into the background is heightened

With focus on the foreground and a shallow depth of field, the feeling of the towering mountains running off into the background is heightened

With only the foreground, or even just the subject if you're using a very large aperture, in focus, the audience's eyes will glide across the image and settle on what's crisp and sharp. The background is still there, adding colour and context, but because it isn’t in focus it won’t distract viewers from what you’re really trying to show them.

 A shallow depth of field ensures that not only is the subject obvious, but that his immersion in the pack is highlighted

A shallow depth of field ensures that not only is the subject obvious, but that his immersion in the pack is highlighted

By doing the same thing in reverse, you can achieve a similar effect.

Lighting for depth

If you’ve done any work in a photo studio, this one will come as no surprise to you. Lighting setups can often be described as 'flat' if there’s not much depth in the image. This is why you’d often use a three-light setup to help create an elaborate illusion of depth in studio photos.

But, we don't always shoot in a studio, and thinking about your light is something that you should be doing anyway. Light falling directly on your subject from the front, for example from an on-camera flash, can look drab and dreary. 

 The gorgeous lighting adds a wonderful sense of depth to the view across Lake Tekapo

The gorgeous lighting adds a wonderful sense of depth to the view across Lake Tekapo

Instead, aim to have the light falling on your subject from the side or from above. This has an impact on how light and shadow falls across your subject, which creates the feeling of depth.  Light falling on a landscape from the side has a terrific moulding effect, bringing a wonderful sense of depth to the scenery.