A Sense of Depth

1997 Mike MacDonald

(First published as "5 Tips for Creating 3-D Effects" in Petersen's Photographic Magazine, Oct. 1999)

Blazing Sunset Living in the 2-dimensional flatlands of the Midwest, it can be challenging to create landscape images that pop off the page. But, there are several creative ways to give your images the feel of 3-dimensionality.

The big problem is that photographers are land mammals no taller than about seven feet. No matter what your height, you're still not going to be able to see beyond the first layer of trees in front of you. That you'll have to live with. And work with!

In mountainous and hilly terrain, this isn't much of an issue. You're either towering above something, something's towering above you, or, most likely, both. Imagine the typical example a scenic pullout along the road that overlooks a grand panorama. Miles into the distance and thousands of feet above you looms a majestic peak. Two thousand feet, in the lush green valley below, is a river fed by the melting snow of the mountain. It's going to be pretty hard to take a "flat" picture of this scene. When we see the final image, our brain will naturally recognize the relationship between the valley and the mountain, and, in particular the distance between these subjects. Depth perception is inherent.

On the other hand, Chicagoland is where I hang my hat and it's pretty darn two-dimensional around here. But, the challenge is the gift. Working to overcome the limitations that this two-dimensional environment presents has made me more resourceful and has sharpened my senses. And when I do travel to the plethora of three-dimensionality known as the mountains, I see millions of possibilities.

The remainder of this article describes several of the methods that I use to enhance depth perception. With this information and a lot of practice, you should be able you make images of the flatlands as 3?dimensional as any you'll see of the Tetons.

Passage into Autumn Interesting Foreground Elements

Fill the bottom of the frame with an interesting natural subject like a rock, a fallen tree, or maybe the soft waves of water along a shoreline. Because most of the things in the foreground will be low to the ground, you, too, may have to get down and dirty.

Get close enough to this subject to give it prominence in the frame, while far enough away to include the rest of your scene. Basically, you'll need to tilt the lens slightly downward while still maintaining the camera's low position on the tripod. In the image "Symbiosis" (left), rocks acts as the foreground subject.

To be able to fit all of this information into the frame, you will most likely need a wide angle lens. If I had to pick a focal length, 28mm is good, but 24mm even better. However, in an area where the expanses aren't too expansive or simply just too tight, it's good to have an even wider lens to create that feeling of openness. I like extreme wide angle zooms like 17-35mm. The zoom lightens my load and shortens my set-up time.

After fitting everything into the frame, you're going to have to get it all into focus. This is where the hyperfocal distance marks on my Olympus lenses come in handy. If your lens or your camera can't help you with this, there are hyperfocal distance charts available. They'll tell you exactly where to set the focus. I created my own charts, which I taped onto the lens hood and cap since the depth of field preview is basically worthless when you're stopped down to f22. It's too dark to see anything, let alone to see if anything is sharp.

There's one thing you can count on, you'll definitely need a pretty small aperture to get it all into focus.

Passage into Autumn "See Through" Subjects

Place some reeds in the foreground and you'll be able to see the rest of the scene through the spaces between the reeds. Trees work as see through subjects in the spring when the leaves are small or in the winter when there are no leaves at all. You can let the colorful sky of sunset filter between the branches.

The technique called "framing" is also designed to give depth to an image and is used frequently in scenic photography. The most commonly seen example is the shot of a mountain with the branch of a pine tree, as the framing element, drooping in from the upper left. For the mostpart, this works. But, due to its simplicity, it's used repeatedly. If you don't want your pictures looking like everyone else's, find creative ways to frame your subjects.

Instead of just framing the image along one edge, create more of a window. Shoot through a "hole" that opens up into a grand vista on the other side. However, make sure the "frame" is interesting in itself and somehow gives the vista greater meaning.

The image "Passage into Autumn" (right) includes many of the above techniques. The willow trees create a hole, as well as, a see through subject. Thanks to the reflection in the water, the hole becomes twice its normal size. The reeds constitute a simple foreground subject which adds greatly to the depth and interest of the picture.

The Morning New Diagonal Leading Lines

Just as depth is perceived by the narrowing of railroad tracks into the distance, you can use diagonal lines, curves, and angles to make your pictures more three dimensional.

When setting up a shot, study the angle and direction from which you are shooting and how it effects the final composition. Note how diagonal lines create motion, drama, and depth, whereas horizontal or vertical lines minimize these attributes.

Move around to position the elements in your viewfinder so that they work together, leading your eye in a dynamic and organized way throughout the scene. Use the natural curving lines of a shoreline, a treeline, or a fallen tree (see image left) in combination with the position of the camera to draw the viewer deep into your image.

One Foggy Winter Morning Layering

Think of an image with a distinct foreground, middleground, background as having three layers. But, how about four, or five, or six or more layers? The more, the merrier!

Fog or mist rising off a marsh provides an excellent opportunity to create an infinite number of layers as shown right in the image "One Foggy Winter Morning". Subjects near to the camera will have good detail and contrast, but will gradually fade away as you look at objects farther in the distance.

Details, Details, Details

Fine detail in a photograph does not necessarily add to our perception of dimensional depth, but it does make the image deeper and more profound, thereby holding the viewer's interest. Think of it as depth on a very small scale.

Under certain circumstances, a polarizing filter can be used to add this kind of depth to your photos. Wet green leaves lose most of their detail when they reflect the blue or gray glare of the sky. If we use a polarizer to eliminate this glare, we will get more saturated color and greater detail in the leaves. Now each and every leaf is a small world of its own to be explored more deeply by the eye.

On a larger scale, use a polarizer to reduce the surface glare of water and you'll bring out the detail of things lying beneath the surface. Rotate the filter to vary the degree of detail and contrast.

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